Monday, April 29, 2013

The class rep

I am the class rep for my daughter's reception class at school. Technically speaking I am half the class rep, as I share the role with another mother, who happens to be a friend of mine. We agreed to do it together because no one else wanted the job, and like me she has two small kids and little enough time to have an uninterrupted toilet visit let alone time to dedicate to an admin job of this kind.

The rep the previous year provided very big shoes to fill.  She'd get the weekly newsletter we all got on a Friday afternoon, extract the relevant bits and email us later that evening. She'd send us online calendars which allowed us to specify a preference for a mothers dinner date and it would then collate the popular choice. Emails were sent the day before reminding us if our children were meant to take things into school, or class trips, and we were effectively shaped into a highly efficient summer fair, book fair, winter fair, bake sale, and fund raising machine. You see a lot of women like this in the school -  high functioning professionals that give up their careers for a few years to raise their children and who are effectively intellectually frustrated.  They approach things like being a class rep as though they are orchestrating a hostile takeover, all the while elegantly attired.

I genuinely appreciated her for it, because in the nursery the year before, I was one of those mothers that had no idea what the hell was going on most of the time. I had a new baby and a toddler, so I might have been forgiven for that, but it didn't look very good. I'd always turn up having missed the boat about something while everyone looked at me a little pityingly. While the other children were given beautifully made sandwiches for their walking home snack, my daughter often got a Penguin. She didn't actually like sandwiches  but they didn't know that. I felt like that kid that is constantly asking other kids to copy their homework, or for spare PE kit because they've forgotten theirs at home and don't want detention.

MUFTI day - the phrase has a painful association for me. It's a day at the school - once a year, where the children get to wear non uniform and donate two quid to charity. Back in nursery our class rep wasn't quite as, well, efficient at reminding people about things as the aforementioned high functioning rep was. For starters I had no idea what MUFTI day was, and hadn't read the newsletter, so I didn't know when it was either. And to be fair to the rep, she had older children, assumed everyone read the newsletter, and didn't feel the need to spoon feed us. So on the fateful day, I'd had a terrible night with the baby, and I asked my cleaner to walk my daughter in to school. That afternoon, upon waiting in line to collect her, I began to get an increasingly sinking feeling, as miniature princesses, cowboys, and knights began emerging from the nursery (beaming) into their mother's waiting embrace. And then my little girl came out wearing school uniform; a small, solitary, distraught figure, who subsequently fell apart in my arms. A genuinely even tempered and happy little girl most of the time, she was totally distraught. At the time dressing up as a princess was the most special wonderful thing in her world, and here was this one day where she not only had license to dress up as one but to spend an entire morning in the company of other princesses! And her mother had messed up. 

The following year I kept a frantic eye out for information or mention of when MUFTI day was, double checked it with the teacher, triple checked it with the class rep and the other mothers, and then marked it in bold letters in my diary and on the calendar in the kitchen. There is no way in hell I was going to forget it. This time my daughter chose to wear something low key like a pair of jeans, a jumper, and trainers. But at least she wasn't in school uniform. As part of my class rep duty this year, I reminded the mothers at several different intervals - a kind of MUFTI day count down. I felt like, even if I did nothing else, I had fulfilled my duty as a good rep.

Another job of the class rep is to liaise on behalf of the parents with the head of the department and the headmistress. These meetings occur once a term and are fairly relaxed. We are invited to propose items for the agenda, and I ask mothers to email me any of their questions or concerns. It's things like: The toilets are dirty and smell (always). Why is the (albeit handsome) French teacher not a native French speaker? My French speaking child finds his pronunciation humorous. Why don't our children have napkins at lunch time, my son is using his sleeves? That sort of thing.

Regarding the toilets the answer is always the same: Small kids, especially small boys, tend to miss the target and unless you have a cleaner in the toilet 24/7, it is going to smell of urine. In fact I have a vivid unpleasant olfactory memory of my own school toilets even all these years later.

At the last meeting one mother vociferously stated her opposition to pudding on the lunch menu and biscuits as snacks, and suggested these be removed in favour of more healthy options. My response didn't go down too well: "What are you kidding me?! It's the one time in your life you can eat pudding and not worry about it. Why would you want to take it off the menu?!" The headmistress sensibly interjected that the children were not permitted pudding unless they had eaten their lunch first, and that they also had the option of fruit if they so chose. She thought it was good to promote the concept of choice from a young age, and that children should be given the ability to exercise this and to self regulate. Yeah, I thought, as I nodded my head - that's what I was going to say. But I could tell the Sweet Nazi, as I unkindly mentally labelled her, had my number, and likewise my sugar loving face burnt into her alfalfa eating mind for all of eternity.

As luck would have it, this women, whom I had never seen or noticed until this meeting, suddenly began appearing everywhere. A couple of days after the meeting, I almost collied with her outside of the school as I was in the process of magnanimously handing out chocolate eggs to some of the children who were coming back to my house for a play date. The expression on her face undoubtedly read: 'Yup, just as I thought - the Pied Piper of rotting teeth and emerging fat cells.' I walked home feeling sheepish.

I am presently planning my son's 3rd birthday party. Fortunately he is consistent in his tastes. Last year it was pirates, specifically 'Jake and the Neverland Pirates', this year it's robots, space rangers (specifically 'Buzz Lightyear'), and rockets. At three my daughter thought she liked 'Ben 10' even though she had never seen a single episode of it. It's a complicated story but she had a little friend called Ben, whom she adored. And one day in the store she saw a book with 'Ben 10' on the cover and excitedly exclaimed, "Look it's Ben!" And in all fairness to her, it was a rather uncanny likeness. From that moment on 'Ben 10' was her friend Ben. I could see some of the other nursery mothers thought I actually let her watch the programme because she talked about it all the time. They were probably thinking: 'OK, so always late, has no idea what the hell is going on, traumatised her child my missing MUFTI day, AND allows her to watch totally age inappropriate TV.'

Anyway, so she wanted a 'Ben 10' theme for her 3rd birthday, but then she also wanted dinosaurs. It really threw me - what to do, what to do? It genuinely messed with my desire to have an integrated matchy matchy sort of theme. I blame it on years of working on Proctor and Gamble advertising. In the end I landed up going for both  - and alternated table settings with either 'Ben 10' tableware or dinosaur ones - likewise with the balloons. Party bags had a similar assortment of things, and the entertainer was a conservationist chap who showed off his collection of lizards, snakes and spiders.

For her birthday presents she asked for something called 'The Tower of Doom' and a 'Blue Dragon' - both featured in a kids shop catalogue she enjoyed browsing while she used her potty. So I, despite instinctively thinking these things may well be frightening for a tiny just on three-year-old girl, once again indulged my daughter's eccentric tastes and ordered them. The blue dragon (an automated remote controlled creature who's eyes glowed red as it menacingly lumbered forwards, while producing a blood curdling screech) had to be banished into the deepest recesses of the garage because she was terrified of it.  I think it was then that it occurred to me that the Temple of Doom (with its two headed creatures and knights) might be similarly received, and it never got presented. It remains unopened in the garage and I think my son may well be getting it for his birthday this year.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Building works

We bought a house a year ago, and have gutted it inside, knocked a couple of walls down, and are in the process of putting it back together again. So these days all my free time (and there isn't much of it to begin with), is used looking at taps, shower enclosures, toilets, doors, door handles, paint swatches, spindles (the wooden bits that staircases are made up of), stair lights, paint swatches, wall paper, tiles, and and and - the list is endless. At the beginning of the process the architect told us we could be as involved or uninvolved in the project as we liked. I have not found this to be the case, because ultimately, unless you say to someone, and mean it: 'You choose everything' - there are going to be choices to make and this involves you pouring through brochures and browsing the internet. Now I love shopping, I won't deny it, but this wore me down. And being a pro choice sort of person, I never thought I'd say this, but after this experience, I think there can be such a thing as too much choice. It can be overwhelming and contribute to that already residual sense that one could always do better than the choice one has already spent 50 odd hours making. Google is sometimes not your friend - it is the equivalent of the Jones's.

Ask anyone who has renovated or refurbished a house what the experience was like and they will almost certainly share a widely different set of stories and opinions on the matter, but I bet you a dollar that almost all of them will say the following:
1. Whatever you had budgeted to spend, double it
2. Whatever time you had planned on the process taking, double it

One of the most important things in the process is that you have a team of people that you trust. This means and includes the architect and the building contractor. Because what invariably happens is that you start out with a plan, stuff goes wrong or crops up, and you incur a lot of extra time and money to fix it. Even with the most honest man on the job unexpected things occur. In our case we were going to strip the walls only as far as the wall linings, and once they started doing that they discovered the plaster behind was crumbling, so we made the decision to take the whole house back to the brick and re-plaster from scratch. And in some places wooden support beams were sagging with age and damp and had to be removed and replaced with steel. And it turns out the existing water supply is insufficient so we have to pay Thames Water to dig out something in the road and replace it, which means putting up parking and traffic restrictions in place, and getting their team to replace water pipes, for a price, naturally. Then there's the roof, or parts of it, that need replacing, the guttering etc etc etc.

And while you're at it, you may as well fix the higgledy piggledy 1920's ceilings, insulate the whole house, and if you do that, then probably a good idea to double glaze the windows otherwise you are going to lose heat and triple your heating bill. Oh and that ugly 1970's fireplace probably should be changed because it don't work with the style of the house, but you have to get a chimney sweep (yes they actually exist outside of Dickens novels)in to see if it is clear, and see if the gas connection is sufficient, etcetera. You see where I'm going with this right? 

Ahh and what about changing your mind? The more you do this, the more money and time you spend. But to be fair to the moderate mind changers of the word, of which I count myself one, it is impossible to work from a set of drawings only. For example: We had decided on a separate TV room to our kitchen, but once the builders took down the existing wall and were about to put up a new one in a different place, we found that actually we liked the space to be left completely open plan. Then there was a space where a door was going to go, and when you were walking around it didn't feel right in that position, so we moved it. 

I once worked with someone who told me never to settle with something unless I was 100% happy with it. This was in a work context, but it's stood me in good stead with many other things since. This cropped up with the opening to the conservatory from the kitchen, which was off centre, and needed opening to the left by approx half a meter. I kept walking into the room and wanting to shove the wall over to the left - probably the designer in me that likes things to be aligned and equidistant. Our first builder said he wasn't sure it was possible and ummed and ahhed and made it sound like I was requesting a complex feat of engineering. The architect talked about added cost, and the two of them genuinely tried to talk me out of it. Our second (and final builder - which is another story) came along and said he didn't think it was a problem provided the structural engineer took a look. Long story short, it was possible, it wasn't a huge cost, and everyone agrees it looks infinitely better. Sometimes you have to stick to your guns. I have this theory that if something bothers you,  go home and sleep on it. If you are still bothered by it in the morning, chances are you need to make a change.

We have also put electric plug sockets in every conceivable location.  So much so that I wouldn't be surprised if our house doesn't visibly glow in the night from all the energy. But until we have lived in the house and know how we are going to use it, use the rooms, we needed to have the flexibility. Also because my doctor, who has himself renovated his house recently, mournfully advised: "You can never have enough outlets, and getting them done after the fact is a huge pain and expense."

Then there were our friends who told us that the sunken spot lights in our kitchen should line up exactly with where our kitchen cabinet doors open, so we should hold off on putting in the ceiling until the kitchen was fitted. And to have two fridges instead of one of those large expensive American ones which are all about door space and not much fridge space. That saved us a few quid.

Or the friend who warned us regarding the position of plug sockets or light switches so that they don't conflict with where one wants to put art.

Lots and lots of opinions and bits of advice from everyone. There are people out there who make up their minds about something and don't really care for or want anyone else's opinion - but I am the opposite. It's not that I am insecure, indecisive or easily swayed, quite the opposite actually. But I genuinely believe, especially when you are doing something for the first time, that information is priceless. Learning from other people's experiences and mistakes has been very beneficial to us. Now I'm certain there will be things that once we are in we will say, "If we were to do this over, we would do x, y or z differently..." There are already a few electric socket positions in the kids rooms I am not too happy with and probably should have checked, but once the furniture is in I doubt that the fact that they are not precisely centred with where a (potential) double bed in the future would go to house bedside lamps, is going to bother me hugely.

I do however think that if you have a generous budget, getting an interior decorator in is helpful. Our budget was not that generous. These people spend their time pouring through catalogues and brochures on your behalf, and probably have a lot of stuff at the tip of their tongues, once they know your taste, and can save you the hours of having to choose things yourself and the second guessing. And it really is hours and hours and hours. And knowing which taps to choose, and which shower hose, and that you don't just need the shower hose, you need a cradle, and an end piece, and which basins to get with waste or without etcetera
  A lot of it started out as being Greek to me, but we are fortunate to have a very intelligent and helpful contractor who has assisted me through the laborious and confusing process and has suffered a thousand and one probably rather idiotic (at least to him) sounding questions via email.

Timings are another tricky bit. We are currently renting, and it goes without saying having a mortgage and a rental is a financial stress. But we also know that it is cheaper than a divorce, which is what a lot of couples risk when they live in a house while building work is going on. I also think it's very tough when you have small children, school runs, the usual havoc of life with a young family, and tons of dust. I don't think I have it in me. And I'm praying that I won't have to test that theory because our landlord has droves of estate agents showing our rental every week. One couple who appeared to like the house asked me when we were moving out. I could see the estate agent behind them trying to signal me, the veins bulging in her neck and her eyes widening as I said: "Well, hopefully at the beginning of July, if our builders are finished." I am praying it won't be a situation where they find someone, give us a month's notice (our current agreement), and we have to find a place for a few weeks before the works are completed.  *Area just below left eye twitching as I ponder this possibility.*

Everyone says to me: "How exciting you will get your house exactly as you want it." At first I genuinely didn't think this, I felt overwhelmed at how much I would have to choose and how many ways I could get it wrong. But I've found that you figure it out as you go along, guided by budget, advice from the architect, builder, and friends, and it slowly starts to fit together. Also, I am blessed with a husband who has a very relaxed attitude about things and he constantly reminds me: "Honey, if we hate it, we can always change it." Which I suppose is true, after sleeping on it of course.