Friday, 19 August 2011

A level results pressure - and how to avoid it

So the A level results are out. And, like thousands of others around the country, our house was in a vice of anticipation yesterday morning waiting for  them to finally go online. 

In our case there was slightly less pressure because daughter L wants to study art, so gaining her university place was all about the quality of her portfolio rather than her grades, but nevertheless she still wanted to do well. But then of course, everyone has a different perception of what  doing ‘well’ actually means.

If you read the Daily Mail, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, come results day,  every attractive girl in the country can be found leaping into the air, holding hands with her best, and equally attractive, mate and clutching a piece of paper littered with A-star grades. Every year, the media is full of stories about how the level of grades is getting higher and higher so, although the reality is still that only 8.2% of students get an A grade, the level of expectation from the outside world also gets greater and greater, and arguably more and more unrealistic.

Poor kids. For two years or so, they potter along, doing their coursework and maybe the odd flurry of revision, in relative peace. Parents, for the most part are happy if they feel their kids are turning up at college regularly, spending marginally more time reading books than on Facebook and only being washed along in a wave of WKD or cheap lager once a week or so.  Then, come August 18th, the whole extended family, and friends of the extended family, and other parents that you see once a year at most, all want to know exactly what grades have been achieved. Suddenly a smattering of healthy B and Cs doesn’t seem quite enough (even if that’s exactly what the parents themselves got back in their day), and parents and grandparents begin to feel somewhat cheated if their little darling hasn’t got at least one A-star to boast of to their colleagues.

Daughter L, thankfully, got just what she hoped for and deserved (and did very well indeed) so we had the prosecco out to celebrate quietly together first thing in the morning. But although I was absolutely delighted for her, I still felt it was a bit crass to broadcast L’s actual grades to anyone and everyone. Maybe I'm the odd one, but I was acutely aware that there were other students out there who had worked incredibly hard to get a clutch of Cs and felt they really didn’t need to know about anyone else’s A grades. One of L’s friends had to cope with the death of her mother as she started her studies, while another has missed much of the past year due to a chronic illness, so for them, achieving any A levels at all, let alone securing a university place, was a truly remarkable achievement – and sod the lack of A stars!

The problem was, I soon discovered that the rest of the world didn’t feel quite the same. It wasn’t just the kids either. Everyone deserves to feel very proud of their successes of course, and I would never deny anyone a moment of glory, but Facebook was awash with students posting A grades onto their status, with only a few poor souls brave enough to come online to admit to their failings. And the parents were far worse. My phone was buzzing all day with queries from other parents, curious as to how L had done. Many of course were genuinely interested in L’s wellbeing and plans for the future, which was great, but with others I soon discovered that simply saying she had done ‘well’ or even ‘very well’  wasn’t enough to keep them happy.. They wanted every detail to pick over, to analyse, in order to make a judgement on L’s abilities, those of the sixth form college she’d attended, or to help them put their own child’s results into context.

And yet, for many of the kids, whether they got an A or a B in a subject will be almost immaterial from this day on. As long as they’ve got enough qualifications to go to university if they want to, and get a step closer to achieving their dreams (whether that is to become an astrophysicist or a hairdresser), that’s all that matters.

“Shall we just lie,” I eventually suggested wickedly to L. “Lets say you’ve got five A stars.. and are a bit disappointed not to have got six. It would be much more fun.”

L, of course, is a far better person than I am, and made sure I stuck - I felt rather boringly - to the truth, but I have to admit there’s part of me that still regrets not trying it out on a few people.

So, for any of you out there with a teen doing A levels next year, I strongly recommend finding a remote holiday destination for results day and then, once you’ve ensured your child has got their results and are OK, turn off your internet and your mobile for the rest of the week. Or maybe just lie to anyone you’ve never really cared for anyway – it will be a great excuse to never see those people again. Oh, but don’t forget to post a picture of your daughter leaping off a wall, with a big smile and a results letter in hand – then it will be truly convincing.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Carole King, James Taylor, my new sister-in-law and me..

So Ad Man’s younger bro and his wife Bee came to stay this weekend.. 

Little Bro is a couple of years younger than Ad Man, at 32, and married his equally young and pretty wife Bee just last year. We only get to see them twice a year though, and then usually it’s with all the family around, so I still don’t feel I’ve had a chance to get to know Bee that well. Also Ad Man is rubbish providing me with any of the sort of details that I like to know when I meet someone.

“How old is she?”  Him:  “Um, dunno.”

Where’s she from? Him:   “Um Bedford, no, Cornwall – um dunno, really.”

“What’s she into?”  Him:  “Well, she works part-time in a surf shop”

“A surf shop..but they live in landlocked Coventry??!! Are you sure?” Him:  “Um, dunno, I think so.”

He also conveniently forgets that on Friday night he’s at some client event  – supposedly “working”, but as the 'do' is at London Zoo, it’s clearly more of a jolly than a tough business meeting. Mmmmm. But there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m home alone when Little Bro and Bee arrive.

Actually, it’s lovely. They turn up with flowers and beer (good start) and we end up settling into a comfortable evening on the sofa with a bottle of wine, and having a good chin wag. Well, Little Bro and I do, but Bee is a bit more reserved. 

Bee’s looking great in pale grey skinny jeans, a t-shirt and a little diamond nose piercing. She is also looking very fresh for a Friday night at 10pm, but then, when you’re 40-something like I am, and had a tough, busy week, EVERYONE looks fresher and younger. Still, when the topic of significant birthdays comes up, I can’t help but take the plunge and ask if it’s her thirtieth this year.

“Ha!” says little Bro, and collapses into giggles, while Bee just smiles: “I’m 26”.

“Christ!” I splutter into my wine. “Really?”

Little Bro nods smugly. The words 'cat' and 'cream' come to mind.

Twenty six? The grim facts slowly began to sink in. That makes her 10 years younger than Ad Man and 20 years younger than me! So, when she was born, I was already in my second year at university.. in fact that makes her only eight years older than my daughter. No wonder she looks fresh – she’s practically just hatched!

“Yes, you’re old enough to be her mother,” Ad Man helpfully points out in bed later, when I fill him in on the evening's events.. I just sigh mournfully. He is completely unfazed by the revelation (bless him) but for me, it puts an entirely new spin on the weekend. 

The next morning we head into Winchester, and because they’ve never been there before, we take them on a little tourist trail of its landmarks - such as Arthur’s Round Table, and the water meadows. They seem happy enough, but I’m constantly worried that Bee is bored.

 Ad Man has a press discount card for a yummy mummy type of store in the city centre but, even then, my excitement at getting 40% off beautiful floral flocks is somewhat dampened by the way Bee, in her leggings and tunic, looks such a fish out of water surrounded by the tweeds, padded gilets and cotton prints. While I’m prancing around the shop with unbridled enthusiasm, she fingers a few pieces with little interest.

“Don’t worry,” Ad Man reassures me. “She’s fine, really.”

And of course he was right. That night we light up the BBQ. It’s a beautiful evening, the bunting is fluttering above us, and the candles twinkling on the table. We have a couple of beers, and out come the guitars. .

 Little Bro is a brilliantly talented guitarist and can immediately pick out any tune, while Ad Man is happy to take the bass line. Before I know it, we are all singing along as Little Bro and Ad Man strum. I’m in my element, and seeing Bee smiling and laughing alongside me, she seems to be too. It's then that I realise that the tunes we are all singing aren’t from this decade, or even the last.. It’s old timers James Taylor and Carole King who are getting us all humming together. 

The fact that Taylor and King must be at least sixty-something these days, and substantially older than ANY of us sitting around the table, is completely irrelevant – the harmonies are still beautiful. And of course that’s all that’s important. I somehow feel that Bee and I will be fine after all.