Review 2005

Gary Hollingsbee

I'm sitting facing my son's teacher. She's bored and obviously wants to get on with the parent interview. Like me, she probably wants to be at home already. I'm sitting in my motorbike leathers, having ridden straight from work. I get the feeling that the teacher considers me some kind of neanderthal, beer-swilling council-estate father. I stretch up my neck to show her I have no tattooed bluebirds soaring up my throat. Regardless, she speaks in a slow, care-ful-ly ar-tic-u-lat-ed heav-i-ly man-ner, sp-ac-in-g ou-t the wo-rds. Instinctively, I rub my cheek and realise I didn't shave this morning and that my stubble probably makes me look ragged and rough.

Guilt is what I feel every time I meet with my son's teachers. Guilt that I just don't spend enough time doing homework with him. Of course, I play with him, go to the library to choose books, read to him before he goes to bed, try get him to write in a haphazard way. But there's this nagging voice inside me that tells me I'm not doing enough. Usually, I counter it by telling myself - and other parents - that children should be encouraged to learn, not be forced. That children in Scandinavian countries aren't taught to read and write until their two front teeth are knocked out. Ok, I don't know if it's true - but it makes me feel better. I also tell them to look at what happens to Japanese children who are forced to learn from an early age. I always give a knowing nod of the head and cock my eyebrow in a knowledgeable way. But the sense of guilt still lurks around at the bottom of my pit of shame and gurgles away quietly.

"Excuse me," she says and pushes an extremely large piece of cake into her mouth. She follows it by a swig of coffee. "I have to get a drink in-between parents."

I laugh politely and notice she's got cake crumbs hanging off her chin. My son, who's been hanging around outside the classroom, suddenly enters and says: "What can I do?" His hair is sticking up on end and he looks as bored as his teacher. She's plainly irritated that I haven't left him at home.

"Come and sit next to me," I tell him. He ignores me and his eyes scan the empty classroom for something to do. The Class 1 room is filled with about thirty identical desks arranged in groups of tables. I begin to feel like one of those parents on tv who have no control over their kids. "You can sit on my lap." Again he blanks me.

"You can go over there and choose a book to read," says his teacher. "I just don't want any mess."

"I don't want to read a book," he says to her. "Can I play with this?" He picks up some lego-like blocks from one of the tables and begins to disassemble them.

"As long as you don't make any mess," repeats the teacher. "I don't want any mess!"

"He's doing well," she says to me. As she says this I notice she looks at her markbook. I get the impression that she is checking that she's talking about the right child. "He's now taking part and not doing his own thing so much." I have a flash-back to the parent interview last year where my son's distraught Reception class teacher told me in high-pitched falsetto that he would be unemployable if he continued to draw ladders instead of go-carts like the other children. My son was four at the time.

"He does call out occasionally, instead of putting up his hand to answer questions, but I'm pleased that he's improving." She looks at her markbook. "Anything you'd like to ask?" I've been sitting here nearly a minute.

"So..." I ask in a stupid, parental way, "he's doing ok?"


"His reading and writing is ok?" I wince internally as if I have no control over what I'm saying. I feel myself become transformed into a cartoonish caricature of a parent. "I looked at his books while I was waiting and..." Here I go, sounding like another interfering father, I tell myself. "His work doesn't seem as good as the rest of the class."

"Oh, boys always do less well than girls."

"I looked at the boys' books. They all seemed better. He seems to score zero in all his spelling tests. All the boys seem to do better."

"Yes?" I'm not sure if it's a question or an answer.

"Where would you position him in the class?" Again I scratch myself. Too late. These were questions I promised myself I'd never ask.


"Is he average for his age?" I'm twisting my toes, agitated that I have no control over the parent I'm becoming.

"It depends how you measure average," the teacher says with a knowing, expert manner. "He can..." she stops to check her markbook again. "He can read about half of the Reception class 44 words."

"Is that average?" I ask. I choke as I say the word.

"Some can read all the 44 words, some less." She smiles enigmatically.

"So would you say he's working where he should be for a boy of his age?"

"I'm sure they all can work a little harder," she replies and slams shut her markbook. I sense this signals the end of our interview. "Get him to practise a few of the spellings each night. Don't try to put him off. Try to make it fun. Here's a sheet with what we're doing in class until Christmas. There are some ideas for things that parents can do to help at home."

I notice she says parents and not you. Gurgle from the pit. I exit quickly, followed by my son, still clutching the lego-blocks. I have to take them back and say sorry.

Whenever I leave a parental interview like this, I feel that there's been a sleight of hand played on me. I come out bewildered and being less sure about how my son is doing than when I went in. I feel it in other situations, too, like the doctor's, dentist's - even the hairdressers. I always come out with a completely different hair-cut than I intended having. But meeting with my son's teachers is the worst.

Outside the school gate I stop and say to my son: "We need to do more work at home." He's not listening and is already trying to scale the school fence as Spider-man. "Shall we go and get a dvd from Blockbuster?" I ask him. There's a louder gurgle from the pit.

Two days later I get a letter telling me that my son has been put on the school special needs register. I phone up.

"Can you tell me why?" I ask gruffly.

"He's been moved up to School Action Plus," the Special Needs Coordinator tells me. I am unsure if I'm speaking to a man or woman or even my son's teacher with a disguised voice.

"But I wasn't aware that he was even School Action." I tell her. "His teacher said he was fine. She didn't mention any special needs."

"It's for his speech. We're teaching him how to pronounce his words properly. He also has someone to sit next to him during lessons so he does the work. You know he sits on the special needs table?" One of those questions. "Please could you sign and return the acknowledgement slip on the bottom of the letter."

The gurgle from the pit gets louder. I stop myself from signing the letter because I just don't think my son's special needs.

Over the half-term I sit for three hours each morning trying to teach my son to read and write the 44 Reception words. I treat it like a project. I make flashcards, write stories about dogs and cats, design handwriting sheets. My aim is for my son to know every one of the 44 words by the end of the week. I have this vision of him suddenly transformed, amazing his teacher with his command of English. I imagine him walking home with a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone under his arm.

"Can I play my Xbox?" he asks every morning as I drop him into a chair at the table.

"No, we're doing some fun reading and writing. After that you can play your Xbox."

I begin with the flash cards. "Can you read me these words?" I hold up each one of the cards in turn." He reads about half of them correctly. Then he stops.

"It's the word that," I tell him. About a minute later, I show him the same card again.

"Play," he says confidently.

"It's the word that," I tell him again. "We only just did it. That. That. Thhhh-aaaa-tttt. That."

"That," he repeats. "I forgot. Silly me."

Then I get him to do some handwriting exercises: copying out sentences that have the word that in them. Each time he reads the sentence he reads the word that correctly.

"Well done," I say. "You can go and play your Xbox."

For the rest of the day I feel pleased. He's really making progress. The gurgle in my pit of shame is quietened. I'm like a proper, caring dad, I tell myself. It's easy.

The next morning we sit down again at the table. I show him the flashcards. He reads about half correctly then falters on the flashcard which says that.

"It's the word we practised yesterday," I tell him, hoping that the hint will jog his memory.

"Is it... play?" he guesses.

"No. No it's not... it's the word that. We did it yesterday." I'm almost shrieking with frustration. "We'll try again. That. Thh-aaa-tt. That..."

And so the week goes on. Each morning my son getting stuck on the word that, every morning me getting increasingly wound-up. Something's just not right, says the gurgling voice at the end of each session. He should be able to read that word by now. You're not teaching him properly. It's your fault. You've left it too late. Stubbornly, I begin to agree. I imagine a ring of dancing, bobble-hatted, front-toothless Scandinavians circling me and laughing.

At the end of the week, I test my son on the 44 words. He gets about half right; more or less the same ones at the start of the week. What's worse, he still can't read the word that. I feel an utter failure. The gurgle is now a roar of guilt.

On the Sunday at the park, I bump into a couple of friends who are primary school teachers. One of them is saying how her child had been identified as having socialisation issues. She was told by his teacher that he is withdrawn. There he was: chasing about, playing with my son while we talked. She laughs about it. I tell her about the special needs letter and my attempts to teach my son to read. Again she laughs.

"Look," she says. "I'm a Class 1 teacher. If your son was in my class and could read half the Reception words, I'd be pleased. Don't worry. It's the school trying to get more money. All primary schools do it. It makes their figures look better."

I'm not sure what I think. When I get home I sign the special needs letter and put it in an envelope. I point to it on the table and tell my son: "Make sure you take that and give it to your teacher tomorrow."

"Ok, Dad. Thh-aaa-tt. Thh-aaa-tt. That."

"What did you say?"

"Nothing. Can I play my Xbox?"

Gary Hollingsbee writes

For an introduction and list of contributors to Review 2005, follow this link.

1 comment:

  1. That was excellent - really engrossing and involving. I hope your son is doing OK now.