Human Factors

Humans get in their own way a lot. I’ve been surprised recently by how easy it is to fall into complacency and expectation. How readily we forget how privileged we are and how much we have to be thankful for. In the lead-up to this year away; the months of planning and packing, hysterical late night chatter and nervous morning butterflies, we assumed that our excitement and gratitude for the adventure we were embarking on would always be there to fuel our enthusiasm; that the whole year would be a day-to-day study in technicoloured wonder (think Dorothy arriving in Oz – a full romp down the yellow-brick road complete with songs and the odd spontaneous dance number). So we were all a little surprised when we kind of stalled; when our appetite for exploration and adventure fizzled out for a while and was replaced by a weird, lazy complacency that had us all feeling grumpy and tired. Our slow mornings became slower. Often we weren’t getting out of the house until gone lunchtime, by which point everyone was teetering on the edge of a bad mood and not at all sure they wanted to go out anyway.

Here we were, 10 minutes away from Split, bathed in sunshine, literally tripping over history everywhere we went, and yet our mood was lacklustre at best. We still managed some wonderful experiences, but our momentum seemed to have disappeared. It’s got me thinking about human factors and how we will always find a way to turn the extraordinary into the norm. I remember asking Frank once if he wanted to go sky-diving for his birthday. When he said no, it was because he’d done a lot of it during adventure training in the military and well, as he put it, “anything becomes less exciting if you do it all the time.” Realistically, I know our rutt was triggered by some bad chicken that took a little while to recover from and some communication from the RAF that sent Frank into a bit of a twirl for a couple of days. Just normal life stuff that interrupted the dream and settled in like a heavy old blanket – putting us to sleep under its dusty, familiar weight. I’m pleased to report that we snapped out of it, and we’re back to marching up mountains and marvelling at everything we can find within a drivable distance from our little apartment.

I have to say though, it bothers me a lot. That we can so easily forget how extraordinary this experience is. That we have all of this time with our kids, all of this freedom and opportunity and we can still have days where we feel fed-up or hard-done-by. But then, even before all this it was there. I’m positive everyone else feels it too. That need to have more than you have. Desperately trying to keep up with your peers by getting the right house, the right stuff to fill it with, the right car, the right clothes. And what happens when you get them? Do the heavens burst open with song and rainbows while angels descend to bestow eternal happiness on your hard working shoulders? No. Of course not. The happiness lasts mere moments or days before it becomes your new normal, all the while the next ‘right thing’ is already lining itself up in your periphery. Everyone gets caught by it – I know we did. We bought our first house and lived with pretty grim second-(maybe fiftieth)-hand furniture for years; walking on carpet tiles that looked like they’d have been new when Alexander the Great was still in action. We were pretty happy with our shabby-but-comfortable existence for a really long time until we got caught in it. I’m sure there was a probably a payrise involved and talk of updating certain things – but before we knew it, we had over-stretched ourselves with a new car, a new bed, several arty pieces to decorate the walls with and the world’s most uncomfortable sofa from DFS (which, incidentally we’re still paying for despite no longer owning).

I guess then, that this is our new normal. And while I’d love to think we’re impervious to falling back into old habits and attitudes, we’re most definitely not.

So we’re practicing some proactive gratitude at the moment, to try to counterbalance the constant threat of complacency. It’s very difficult to look around here and think not enough. It’s near impossible to count the ways in which we’re lucky and not immediately feel like a giant arse for ever having a second where we feel anything less than full and complete gratitude.

Homeschooling with Frankenstein

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy one, I will indulge the other.” ~ Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Anyone who knows us will be shocked to hear that I am not a natural home-schooler. Frank is the teacher here; I am the one who hides in the bathroom when it’s all kicking off because Izzy doesn’t understand why she needs to know the area of a triangle. While Frank patiently outstares Sam when he doesn’t care who the Ottomans were or why they’re important, I am the one happily delivering drinks and snacks, saying something encouraging before scuttling back to my hole to utter up silent thanks to the homeschooling gods that a very small portion of this particular burden lies on my shoulders. I’m perhaps painting an unfair picture. Frank loves teaching. He gets joy out of all the ‘a-ha!’ moments and spends hours finding ways to teach that keep the kids engaged and enthusiastic. I am extremely invested in the whole process. Just… from down the hall.

Having said all that, I occupy one small corner of our home-schooling world, and yesterday I experienced some of what Frank must feel everytime the kids really get something that he’s teaching them.

I am a very keen reader and always have been. I love books more than TV or cinema or even shopping. I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go simultaneously, as well as whatever I’ve bought from Audible to listen to when I don’t have time to sit down. Happily, this is a passion I (we – Frank loves reading too) have managed to pass on to both Izzy and Sam.

I heard once, a long time ago, that while the books children read themselves should be appropriate for their reading age, the books we read to them should be much more challenging. Reading more complex texts aloud to kids increases their vocabulary and allows them to find the story – even when it’s embedded in unfamiliar or complicated language. They comprehend so much more than we think they do.

Now eleven and nine, Izzy and Sam still end each day with one of us reading to them. Frank and I each have separate chapter books for the occasion and we read on alternate nights. Up until the last year or so, we’ve had favourites from Roald Dahl, Michael Mopurgo or Enid Blyton. We even have an impressive collection of Templar children’s classics (exquisitely illustrated and beautifully produced if you ever want a collection of your very own). We have loved reading every one of them; The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden – etc. Even when the text is challenging (I’m looking at you, Secret Garden), the kids get wrapped up in the story, excited about plot development and invested in the characters. And still, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might be ready for more.

For my own book consumption, I try to throw in a couple of classics for every three or four modern books I read. I have a list that I’m working my way through – something cheerful like ‘100 classics to read before you die‘ that I found on the internet somewhere. So back in August when I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sam sidled up to me to ask what I was reading, I was surprised by how excited he got about it. I tried to explain that though it was a creepy, gothic story (they’re both very keen on cheap scares at the moment), it was also quite difficult to digest having been written in the early 1800s, with unfamiliar syntax and long swathes of figurative prose. Undeterred by this, Sam leapt off the sofa to tell Izzy that our next bedtime chapter book would be ‘Frankenstein.’

I’ll be honest, I could never have predicted their reaction to this story. Right from the beginning, where Walton rescues an exhausted and dying Victor from an icy sea, they were fully in. I read, expecting to have them stop me every few sentences to explain something, but what I got instead were exclamations – dismay at Victor’s selfishness, shock at the injustices delivered to the characters around him – we even had tears from Izzy at the end of the monster’s story, so fully invested was she in the misery and sadness of his life. At the end of each chapter we’d stop and I’d ask a few questions to get an idea of their comprehension – each time they told me exactly what had happened. Each time, they had opinions and incredulity – Frankenstein became the best thing I’d ever read them.

We finished the book a couple of days ago and after giving them a little time to digest the whole story, I jotted down some discussion questions – having my first real go (save for some seaside art lessons) at playing teacher. During a walk on the beach, I began to throw my questions out: What do you think Mary Shelley was trying to say with the story? What part does the monster play in Victor’s life? Is Walton a trustworthy narrator? What themes run all the way through the book?

Joy. Complete joy. They talked for ages. They discussed compassion and empathy; how humans treat things that don’t look like them or are in some way unfamiliar. They were insensed by Victor’s irresponsibility; his play-acting god, his refusal to accept that his actions had consequences – his performative outbursts of love for his family while his actions consistently told a very different story. No other book I have ever read them has provoked a reaction like it. So it looks like the kids will be completing my classics list with me.

If you’re homeschooling your kids – or even if you aren’t – I really recommend having a go at some of the more difficult texts with them. Our obsession with infantilising children gets in the way of their developing brains. They pick up complex and subtle themes so quickly and have to work much less hard at it than I do at 36. Comprehending stories is instinctive to the young brain and I’m ecstatic that not only do they a real love for them, they are getting real preparation for secondary school or even college-level English.

Don’t underestimate your kids, folks – they’re a lot sharper than you think they are!