Ocean of knowledge

I think it is fair to say that when I was a little girl, times were tough.  My parents had to scrimp and save for everything.  Times were genuinely hard.  My mother was the finance minister of the house, and every penny was accounted for.  If a purchase had to be made, it was thought about many times before a deal was finalised.  Necessities – we had them all.  Luxuries – few and far between.  As well as being the finance minister, she was also the education secretary and what she instilled in us was a hunger, a drive, an ambition.  Work hard.  Be educated.  No one can steal your knowledge from you.  If you don’t like the way that we live now – that’s fine.  The only person that can change that, is you.  And she was right.  I am grateful for the childhood that I had, I am grateful for the hard knocks, I am grateful that I had a mother who was no nonsense – because all those aspects combined, made me who I am today.  I know what it was like to struggle financially – I never want to experience that again.  I am full of gratitude for the education that I received – I am a living example of someone who had nothing – studied – and am living the life that I dreamed of when I was a little girl.

As well as being in charge of finance and education, Mum was also responsible for our spiritual and moral development.  We weren’t brought up with a sense of entitlement – in fact it was a sense of gratitude.  Be grateful that you have a free education – millions of children around the world would love to be in your position, going to school everyday, instead they have to work.  Be grateful for the food on your table – millions of people don’t have anything to eat – don’t waste your food.  And she would both terrify and inspire us with stories about people in India, more specifically Bengal – people who changed their own lives, and the lives of others for the better.

I distinctly remember the day that my father realised that although my sister and I were brilliant and fluent English speakers, we no longer spoke in Bengali at home and even though we could understand it, we would always converse and reply to our parents in English.  I’m really not sure what the final straw was, but one day my father declared that we were only allowed to speak in Bengali at home and if we wanted something, we had to speak in Bengali – or not at all.  There was a pin drop silence in the house.  Nobody spoke.  I remember my sister and I – probably aged 6 and 9 at the time, exchanging horrified glances!  I found myself panicking and wildly looking at random objects wondering – ‘What’s the Bengali for cup, or wall, or stairs?’  I couldn’t even remember.  My father wasn’t someone to be trifled with, so we took the matter quite seriously.  Initially, we communicated in very hesitant and broken Bengali.  However, in a matter of days we surprised ourselves with how easy and natural it seemed.  There was a method behind what appeared to be complete madness to us.

My mother then decided that I would learn how to read and write in Bengali…

And this was when I was introduced to a character who inspired me, and changed my life for ever.  She had ordered some Bengali books from India and they were all created by the same person – his name was Ishwar Chandra Vidysagar.  (Vidyasagar, in Sanskrit means ‘Ocean of knowledge’).   From a small age, Vidyasagar had a desire to learn and be educated, his father encouraged it too.  He was a poor Brahmin boy and would have to work during the day to earn money for his family.  Where they lived, there was no electricity in the house, so Vidyasagar’s father would make him study beneath the light of the lampposts on the street.  Sometimes, his father would find the little boy cross legged, slumped over, fast asleep with his book in his lap – so his father would tie Vidysagar’s small pony tail to the lamppost, in case his eyes did close and he drifted off to sleep, the pull on his hair would jerk his head back again, and the little boy would continue with his studies.  Vidyasagar grew up, went to university, became a successful scholar, championed the upliftment of the status of women in India, and fought for the rights of widows to be remarried.  He helped to reform the education system on India and set up a high school for children.

Throughout his lifetime, he wrote many books, but in 1850 he wrote some books for children learning Bengali, called Borno Porichoy.  More than a 100 years later, through this book, I was introduced to him.

My parents were old school in their approach to bringing up children.  I shower affection upon my own daughters, constantly tell them how proud I am of them, tell them that I love them all the time – it wasn’t how I was brought up.  It was a silent acceptance from both sides – we knew our parents loved us, we loved our parents – it was never verbalised – it was never discussed.  We were never publicly praised.  If we got an ‘A’ grade – there were no congratulations, or bright smiles, or pats on back.  The response was a simple ‘Good, do better next time!’ At the time the best grade was an ‘A’ – so there was that!  To be honest, I knew what that meant.  You can’t be complacent.  Good – you have achieved an ‘A’.  So have thousands of others.  Keep going.  Keep working hard.  This ‘A’ is not the ultimate goal – you have many more ‘A’s to achieve.  We knew that.  And we never stopped.  We never gave up.  We continued to keep going and secretly hoping that one day our mother would say ‘Well done!’.  I write that with a broad smile on my face as I type – because she always reads my blogs – and I know that the stubborn woman that she is – that’s never going to happen!  I accept it though.

But I have digressed – Borno Porichoy was full of short stories with a moral.  I had always found reading English extremely easy.  I remember when I was in Reception, my mum practised some key words with me, the next thing I knew, I could read every book on this blessed Earth.  Bengali – was a challenge.  I had to sound out every letter and blend them to read the word – which was a frustrating but helpful experience for me.  It helped me to empathise with those who didn’t find reading that easy.  I became more fluent, the more I practised – but even now, if I’m given a Bengali newspaper to read, I take a huge deep breath and know that it will take some time to decipher each word.

What I’m about to share with you is a story from this book, that made me view my parents in a different way.  I remember hesitantly sounding it out and reading it to my parents.  The story was about a boy called Gopal.  Gopal was a good boy.  He listened to his parents and always did as he was told.  Sadly, his parents died, and he was put in the care of his aunt.  He liked his aunt – and she liked him but Gopal soon discovered that he could behave in her care, in a way that would have been completely unacceptable for his parents.  One day, he stole from a shop – the shopkeeper complained to his aunt, and although his aunt knew of his guilt, instead of chastising him, shouted at the shopkeeper and said that Gopal would never do such a thing.  That became the undoing of Gopal.  It didn’t matter what Gopal did, his aunt defended him and never told him off.  Time went on, Gopal grew older and instead of being a successful man as his parents had dreamed – he became a criminal.  Stealing and lying had become second nature to him.  Eventually, in the middle of a theft, he ended up killing a person.  The sentence for which was death.  As a last request, Gopal asked to see his aunt before he died.  His aunt was touched by her nephew’s love for her and hurried to the jail to bid him a fond farewell.  Gopal saw his aunt from behind the bars and asked her to approach him so that he could whisper something in her ear.  Curiously, she sidled up to the bars and put her ear towards him.  Gently, he leant towards her ear and all of a sudden, with a huge strength of force, bit her ear off!

As a 9 year old girl, I had not seen this event coming and I was horrified with what I had just read, but I continued reading.

Gopal’s aunt screamed with terror and pain and shouted at her nephew – ‘I did nothing but love and protect you all your life, why did you do such a thing to me?’  But Gopal’s answer was painfully honest – and as a 9 year old, I remember thinking how his answer made so much sense to me.  He replied, ‘Oh Auntie, you didn’t love me.  If only you had told me off and corrected my behaviour when I was little, then I wouldn’t be in this jail now, about to be hanged.’

I have never forgotten this story.  I remember looking at my parents differently from that point onwards.  When they would tell me off, or expect more from me, or not let me do things that other children seemed to get away with – I suddenly realised why.

It is easy to be a friend to your child.  It is easy to be the good cop – always making excuses for their behaviour, allowing them to get away with things because they were tired, or not well, or had had a bad day.  It is much more difficult to be the ‘bad cop’ – enforce good behaviour, make sure there are consequences for poor behaviour.  It means being consistent – which is tiring.  It means facing the wrath and displeasure of your child – which is heart breaking.

Although my approach to parenting is different to that of my own parents, I will always be grateful for the richness, the diversity, the literature, the life stories that I was exposed to as a little girl.  I will always be grateful for the hunger to succeed that was instilled in me.  I will always be grateful that my behaviour was corrected when it needed to be.  I will always be grateful that my parents never needed to tell me how much they loved, because they always showed it in their own ways.

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Time to live

It is the first day of my summer holidays, and I’m delighted.  I had a lie-in. Woke up feeling relaxed.  It was finally here.  The day that I’d been waiting for, for weeks on end.  The hallowed first day of the summer holidays.

My husband has known me for over 10 years now, and he knows things about me, that I forget about myself.  How I need to drink water after a shower because I get dehydrated; when I’m feeling tense or drained, I need to get to the gym because the weights and the cardio make me feel a thousand times better……and he also knows how difficult I find the last day of the school year – even though my body may have been crying out for it for weeks…

I have just finished working with the most amazing group of children, (every year I feel like this about my class), and this year it’s such a wrench saying goodbye to them all over again.  The amount of love I’ve received from these children has been phenomenal, and I’ve absolutely adored them.  Everyday this week, I’ve come home, my arms laden with gifts and cards – some handmade, some bought – all equally precious, thanking me for what I have done for them. And I’ve been immensely grateful, some of the unexpected messages have touched my heart, and I’ve found it difficult to switch off.

Thinking about a group of children everyday, thinking about what they need – teaching isn’t just teaching – you’re counselling; you’re nursing; you’re caring about their aches, pains, cuts, dry skin, fall-outs with friends; home-life issues; sharing stories; knowing when to be sympathetic; knowing when to be humorous; knowing when they’re hungry or tired or grumpy or just too plain-old-hot.

So, I’ve been dragging myself out of bed everyday.  Giving myself pep-talks – come on, you can do this!  Three more get-ups; two more get-ups; one more get-up; final day.  And then I come home.  Drained.  Physically and emotionally.  And I realise that I won’t have to care for that set of children everyday anymore.  And it hits me – like a lead balloon – every year, without fail – and like a fool, I never see it coming.  I’ve been so preoccupied with my own tiredness and needing to get to the finishing line – I forget how sad I get when I come home, knowing that ‘that’s that’, for another year.

But it’s not just incredible, loving children that I’ve met this year.  I’ve encountered some phenomenal adults too.  Once in a while, you meet people who are absolute beacons of strength and positivity.  People who have suffered loss or illness in their lives, have had to make life changes, and haven’t let life beat them, get the better of them – instead they walk around, head held high, as an inspiration to others.

One person I met recently, was really successful in her job, running half marathons, working hard, playing hard, never resting – then her world came crashing down as she developed ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’.  From being a hyper, energetic, high performing individual – she described the pain she felt when she couldn’t even put one foot in front of another to walk.  In order to recuperate, she had to make substantial life choices – give up the job that she was doing, concentrate on healing her body and getting back to a position where she could function again.  She’s in a much better place now, but as it’s a condition that will never go away, she has to be careful not to overdo things, to know her limits, slow down before things spiral downwards for her.  Whenever she sees me though, she’s always greeting me with a massive hug and a kiss, making sure that I’m ok, telling me not to work too hard – and I feel humbled.

And then I met another incredible, phenomenal woman.  I only spoke with her for 7 minutes.  But I don’t think that i will ever forget her.

My friend introduced me to her, and explained that she wasn’t well.  I felt confused.  In front of me sat a petite woman, I guessed in her 40’s, with glowing mocha coloured skin, shiny black hair cut into a bob, sitting quietly and still – just an immense sense of stillness about her.  She opened her mouth and in a very matter of fact way explained that she was living with cancer.  Bewildered, I didn’t know what to say, but the fact that she was so open, made me feel that she wouldn’t mind if I asked her questions.  I was right, she didn’t mind.  She explained that she had breast cancer, but the doctors were not able to operate because the cancer had spread to her spine and ribs.  The doctors were incredible with their treatments, and she had carried out a lot of research to support their treatments with a massive lifestyle change and using alternative remedies too.  She explained how cancer thrived and was most comfortable in bodies with a lot of acid.  The acid was in processed foods and food that contained a lot of pesticides and growth hormones.  She was having a mainly vegan diet and only bought organic food to reduce the amount of acid in her body and make the conditions in her body, more alkaline based.

I asked if stress caused more acid in the body, she replied most definitely.  It’s so important to eat well and avoid stress as that helps your body so much.

If it was up to me, I would have carried on talking to her for as long as I could. But I had to leave.  But she and her words stayed with me.

Both women made me think that we – everyone – we have to slow down.  We must slow down.  We are a world of people pursuing money; having the nicest houses; having the nicest cars; having the best holidays; leading the high life – but does any of that matter if you don’t have your health?  Mental health?  Physical health?

I, for one, am going to slow down.  Love life.  Love people.  Not stress.  Not worry.  Eat well.  Be happy.

Life is too short, and on the flip of a coin, circumstances can change within a heartbeat.  So I will avoid those who enjoy drama, those who enjoy competition, those who revel in the misery of others, those who are there to make life harder for others.  And I pray that I meet more people, who inspire me, who remind me of what life is really about – people who make the world a much better place.