After a week of coughing and fever, I emerge exhausted with raw lungs. My young son still looks pale and has this hollow bark from deep in his chest. But the sun is shining, and I can’t just leave him lying on the sofa watching Doctor Who forever. Even if it does feel like we are living inside a particularly scary episode where aliens have closed all the shops and confined humans to the prison of our homes.
I press pause on the TV and explain that on Monday we will be starting our own school. My son looks at me and asks, ‘But who’s going to be the teacher?’
‘I am,’ I say, trying to sound considerably more enthusiastic than I feel.
I have a friend of mine who has always home schooled her two children. She and her husband live on a houseboat and her kids live a life of enviable freedom. She’s explained to me that she doesn’t want them to be constrained by the narrow mindedness of a traditional education when she thinks learning should be fun, exciting and imaginative. Of course, I agree with her and I admire her, but I’ve never wanted to attempt an alternative approach with my own. I’ve always thought my son is better off in the care of professionals who know what they’re doing. I can manage a bit of reading and the odd making a castle out of a box though to be honest even that is stressful. The idea of taking responsibility for the whole curriculum is terrifying.
Part of my reluctance comes from my own brief experience of being home schooled. Or rather hotel schooled. When I was six years old and my brother was three, the Department of Foreign Affairs decided to post my father as a diplomat from Dublin to Ottawa in January. When we got there, my parents discovered that nobody in Canada is mad enough to move house when there is six feet of snow outside and the temperature is minus twenty. We would have to wait till spring when it all melted away before we could have any hope of renting a home of our own. This meant three months in a small hotel room.
My father was able to go off to work but my mother was stuck with us. It took at least a quarter of an hour to get me and my brother into our snowsuits to go outside. Whereupon my brother would start screaming after ten minutes to go back in because our fingers and toes felt like they were about to fall off. Thus, the vast majority of the time we were stuck in doors with the walls growing closer by the day.
My mother didn’t want me to fall behind so decided to teach me using books she’d brought from St Francis Xavier’s National School in Blanchardstown. She was wonderful in so many ways, but as she said herself, patience was never one of her virtues. I was in senior infants at the time and I remember her shouting at me, ‘Did they teach you nothing at all?’ in sheer frustration at my inability to remember the days of the week. She slammed my sums book shut declaring, ‘Dear God I could never be a teacher, I don’t know how they do it.’
My son has given the school the following rules. Number one is that no phones are allowed. Number two is that nobody is allowed to be mean to each other.
I couldn’t wait to get back to school and my mother couldn’t wait to send me. Home schooling is not for everyone and I don’t want my son’s experience to be as traumatic as mine. He loves his classroom, he loves his teachers, he loves playing with his friends. How can I begin to fill the gap?
I decide maybe the best start is to ask him. ‘What do you think we need to make a brilliant school?’ I say in my best ‘isn’t this going to be exciting’ voice that fools no one.
‘Well it can’t be just me,’ my son answers warily as if to suggest there is protection in numbers.
So we quickly enrol eight play mobile happy campers, two dinosaurs, a rabbit and a hippo. This motley crew decide we need a name and a logo. After an animated discussion with me attempting to express the opinions of the different toys in different voices, getting sharply corrected if I mix them up, we agree on ‘The Taddy Teddy School’. We make a rainbow welcome poster and stick it in the window. We divide the toys into different colour houses and decide we’ll use Lego cards, of which we have dozens, as house points for achievements. The first house point is given to Diney, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, for making such an effort to do all of PE Joe’s exercises despite the challenge of having such very small arms. I’m not sure if any of the toys actually learn anything but my son really enjoys telling me what I should be doing to be a proper teacher. It’s a bit of a baptism of fire training course but surprisingly fun.
At the end of Day One, my son tells me that the new school is better than Disney World. It clearly isn’t but bless his little heart that he’s putting such a positive spin on this.
In the middle of Day Two, he suddenly asks, ‘Mammy, how long are we going to have to do this for?’ The novelty has already worn off. The hippo and the rabbit refuse to do maths. The triceratops hates spelling tests. The happy campers are rapidly turning into juvenile delinquents. Luckily, we’ve decided to make the Lego 30-day challenge a core subject, so we decamp to the garden. Soon everyone is happily building a Hollywood film set for a scene from Star Wars. I am genuinely proud of my attempt at an X-Wing Starfighter.
Maybe we’re not managing much in the way of reading, writing and arithmetic but we are eating a lot of ice cream together. My son has given the school the following rules. Number one is that no phones are allowed. Number two is that nobody is allowed to be mean to each other. I’m finding that I’m learning quite a lot.
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