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taking the pretty way round.

Today, I thought I'd take the pretty way round to getting to the point. With nothing to do other than sweeping up pine needles, I can be profligate with these treacle-slow days before the twelfth toll on New Year's Eve catapults us screaming into 2022 when Time re-asserts a forward motion once more.

Traditionally, this post would be the one that's full of positive affirmation. Y'know, the one encouraging your resolve to be better, faster, stronger and probably two stone lighter. And the one that inevitably ends up with me telling you how all New Year's resolutions are doomed to failure because their starting point is a framework that implies we're all a bit shit.

We are, and while that's okay, it's not the most motivating clarion call for change, if change is indeed what you're after.

So I've been puzzling over how to offer meaningful encouragement as we wait, arse-up, in the starting blocks. If unrealistically motivational, we'll set off too fast, knacker ourselves out by the first bend and then refuel on self-disgust on the walk back to 2021. But if not peppy enough, we'll just swagger over to a stand of trees, drag on a JPS, then wander back to the track and half-heartedly jog across the line holding on to our boobs like last year and the year before that.

And talking of school days ...

Miss Reid. What a cow.

You've met English teacher Ms Tilly in a previous post. Back then, her insistence on the new-style honorific was only slightly less interesting than the luxurious bulbosity of her nose. In addition, she wore a fine range of sateen blouses long before Gillian Anderson cornered the market, so we can see how this was a woman magnificently out of time. You've also met Miss Webster, one of my primary school teachers who must deserve some credit for not judging me by the low bar of behavioural standards set by my three brothers who went before, the last one of which happened to be startlingly loud by nature and going through a phase of learning how to throw his voice.

Now, Miss Reid was one of those stretched-tight women who could have been Peter Capaldi in a former life had he favoured bouclé shift dresses in horizontal stripes. It was unimaginable to anyone that she had ever been young, humour and cheerfulness both having escaped her entirely. Which was a shame for me, one for whom humour and cheerfulness made up the cornerstone of my personality, before life in general suggested I aim lower.

At this point, I think it's only fair to say that neither I nor Miss Reid would have chosen to be in each other's company had not Fate intervened. You see, Miss Reid was a maths teacher. And not just any old maths teacher. She taught Divison One, that elite squad of fledgling Alana Turings* who skipped pizza slice reenactments when multiplying fractions and went straight on to doing inpenetrable things with Pascal's triangle.

I, on the other hand, was in Division Four, there being no Division Five.

In fact, the whole issue of finding myself in Division Four still rankles forty years on. Truly, it was a shock to me learning that I was quite *that* bad at maths and I felt foolish for falling for the air of affability afforded by Miss Pollard's overbite, a dental arrangement that completely cloaked her devious intention of dumping me with the Tippex sniffers in the car park portacabin the following term.

Anyway. Not one to be kept down for long, I vowed that I would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of my pride and through hard work and steady application I would take my place amongst Division Two, thereby putting sufficient space between me and a job at British Home Stores and raising the real possibility of a rewarding career in marrying well.**

But first I needed a strategy and who better to ask than a friend on the inside, a high-ranking member of Division One already having climbed so high on the parabola of her mathematical career trajectory that an incipient moustache delicately shaded the outer corners of her top lip.

"Ask questions," she advised.


"Yes. If something's not clear, tell her. After all, it's her job to make sure you understand."

Sound advice, if only for two problems:

  1. The "her" concerned ended up being, by capricious Fate or admin stuff-up, Miss Reid, a woman so temperamentally unsuited to teaching those who needed actual teaching as to make her wonder if she was talking to lower life forms and us to wonder if the life of inevitable crime she predicted would blight our future should we fail to grasp the pointy end of the hypotenuse would really be as bad as she made out.

  2. What Miss Pollard had realised early doors ~ and I clearly hadn't ~ was the quite astonishing depths of my mathematical thicko-ness. This meant that the learning issue was never one of me not knowing which questions to ask, but rather knowing which questions to leave out. As we will see, this was to prove something of a flash point.

Another wee diversion: I like a why. The answer doesn't need to be definitive but it needs to offer a little grip of context otherwise it'll bounce of the cushiony pillow of my brain and be lost forever.

It became apparent in the tense, rapidly becoming febrile, atmosphere of that portacabin in the autumn of '81 that Miss Reid's brand of mathematics had very little use for why. In fact, it seemed to make her very cross. She managed the odd how, the occasional what, which and even when. But whether it was the sheer volume of whys coming from my direction or the wide-eyed cheerfulness with which I delivered them that stretched her nerves to screaming point, the result was the same.

One Monday morning, at the end of a particularly gruelling triple Maths, I broke Miss Reid.

The piece of chalk ricocheted off my forehead ~ don't worry, casual violence was a respected teaching aid back in the day ~ the surprise causing me to lose my place in the list of whys prompted by that weekend's homework.

"IF YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND IT," she roared, the bouclé across her bust threatening to blow, "COPY IT OFF THE BLOODY BOARD!"

Silence fell like heavy velvet across the class desire to snigger and Samantha Swinnerton's desire to hawk into the waste bin, as was fashionable at the time.

Slowly, I got up and walked to the front of the class. Without breaking eye contact with Miss Reid I replaced the piece of chalk on the ledge of the blackboard.

"You dropped this," I said, not unkindly.

"Thank you," Miss Reid nodded.

And she dismissed us early for interval and we never spoke of it again.

Of course, I never asked her anything from that point on because, you see, I realised she simply didn't have a why. Or even a happy why not. At the centre of her being, Miss Reid was without question or curiosity, someone who ran on trieds, testeds and just-because. She lived a life devoid of the playful joy inherent to what-ifs and maybes; she negotiated a world in which the bigger picture would always happen out of sight, to other people.

Hers was not a world I could relate to and it will surprise no one that I failed my maths O-Level quite cheerfully and without a single regret.

So my advice for you in 2022 ~ if you're interested, if it can be at all helpful ~ is to allow yourself to be both student and your own teacher, for to hold both positions is a most marvellous, strange and, yes, even educational thing.

Embrace your ignorance in such a way that it becomes your finest learning tool. Use it to try things on for size, to explore what works for you, what doesn't. As beginners, we don't need to fear getting it wrong. This state of what I call "Knowing Wrongness" is akin to liberation, freeing us to scribble, cross out, start over, switch hands, colours and form. This isn't the time to work in a mixed media of apologetic shame. Go large! They're not mistakes, they're drafts!

Then once you start accumulating knowledge, once it begins to stick and you've settled a why or two to your own satisfaction, don't seek to preserve it. Keep it fluid and moving. Enjoy scribbling outside the lines, leave tangles of white for colouring in later. Give your newfound knowledge breathing space to grow and change, as it must.

It startles me how yoga teachers are so quick to present themselves as dispensers of great wisdom. We often fail to appreciate the divine state of child-like grace granted by Knowing Wrongness, our adult egos preferring instead the aspic of Unknowing Expert. And yoga students are no different ~ we feel shame and dismay at not being able to remember the order of Sun Salutations when we've been learning them for all of a fortnight.

So remember, appreciate your ignorance, it's one of your greatest assets. That way you'll never run out of things to find out, you'll always be poised on the threshold of discovering new worlds and new ways of thinking and being even if they don't fit the labels that others have decided suit you better.

By all means, make that New Year's resolution. But before you do, check in with yourself and ask why. And if the answer comes back telling you to "just copy it off the bloody board" then you know it's not for you. Walk away. Taking the pretty way round, of course.


* I went to an all-girls grammar.

** Careers advice went from brain surgeon to shop-worker-with-a-drinking-problem with very little in between. (The latter employment opportunity was suggested to deter those thinking of leaving at sixteen.)

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You should be a writer in the Guardian. Love the content and style Trood.

Barbara Gray😊

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When is the first class of 2022


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