Get your thinking caps on!

Now, for this next activity, we need some equipment. If you look under your tables, you’ll find that I’ve left each of you an invisible bag. Have a look now… An invisible bag, there should be one under every desk? That’s it, Michael! Hold it up so everyone can see. You should all have an invisible bag, just like Michael’s. Don’t look in them just yet… Right. Inside your bag are six invisible thinking hats. We’re going to do an activity that requires you to wear each hat in turn, each hat will make you think in a different way, and when you have finished with each hat, you’re going to put it back in the bag. Understood? Ok. Everyone open up your bag, and find the white hat…. put it on. Well, Sarah, that’s a very fetching shade on you! Jamie, excellent, well done. Ok… The white hat helps you to think about the facts of the problem. Look at your problem sheet and write down ONLY THE FACTS about the problem.
Now, then. We’ve finished with our white hats, put them back in the bag. Jamie! I saw that, pick it up! Throwing your invisible white hat on the floor – shocking behaviour – pick it up…. that’s it… now put it in the bag. Michael – Sarah – it’s lovely that you’ve got your red hats on already, but let’s just wait for the rest of the class… Phillip! Stop fighting over that invisible bag! Don’t make me have to explain to your Mum why you’re in an invisible detention!
So, red hats…
(some time passes by… every time there is a hat change, a significant amount of the students simply throw their invisible hats on the floor, some throw them out of windows, some seem to simply imagine that once they have finished with a hat it vanishes, and they don’t have to clear it up… they think I haven’t noticed, but I have)
Right, you lot. It’s time to pack away, it’s nearly breaktime. But none of you will be going anywhere until this mess is cleared up. Seriously! Look at all these invisible hats strewn around the place! Who do you imagine is going to clear this all up?
A small voice, comes from the back of the class: “Miss? Miss? I have a giant invisible hoover. I can do it!”
And, indeed, he did just that.

(true story)

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The happiest days…

My kids at school are in the process of applying to universities. In a few weeks, I will be desperately writing references that might help them get to where they really want to be in an environment that is a hundred times more competitive and complicated than it was when I applied.
When I applied, higher education was still free. I got many offers, some from excellent universities. I turned them all down to go to Lampeter, and never looked back. When I applied, a garbled personal statement about my A levels and my church work sufficed. The grades were meaningless, as long as I got the equivalent of two Es. My parents were horrified. I wouldn’t listen.
It’s difficult to tell these children (some of whom I have known since their first day when they were tiny, scared, eleven – and I was older but just as scared) how lucky they are to be at the very start of such a big adventure. It’s difficult, without crying, to tell them how much I owe to those years at university and all the people I met there. There are many things I would do differently now; but if I did them differently, I wouldn’t be me. And all the hurts I caused, or felt, seem to have been washed away – in the main – though there’s a boy who still won’t speak to me despite us both growing up and marrying someone-elses.
My closest friends are people I met in Lampeter, who stood by me through the awkward years of kissing inappropriate boys, learning to drink – and when not to drink, crying, shouting, playing sad songs and locking myself in my room, staying out late, not going to lectures, inviting strange people to stay when they had nowhere else to go, ‘borrowing’ things, never doing my laundry, refusing to eat, bouncing cheques, crying, shouting, laughing, dancing, crying. I was never more miserable, and never more alive.
At Lampeter, I never locked my door, and the worst thing that ever happened was an ex-boyfriend creeping in to leave me a tormented love-note on the back of an old photo. I could pop in to see my dearest friends without ringing in advance (hell, none of us had phones!) and always knew if I popped down to the Union bar, there’d be someone there I could talk to. Even when we had no money at all, and when it rained all day (as it often does in Wales) we still found reason to be happy. I don’t have many memories of things I learned in lectures, but it was here that I learnt most of the important lessons of life.
I miss those days. I miss the people. I miss the freedom that comes from not knowing that every minute is precious and you shouldn’t waste a single one.

I don’t like girls

I’ve never had lots of girly friends. The phrase ‘girl’s night’ instills such fear in me, that I often make my excuses and stay at home, hiding under my duvet. Hen nights are only bearable if there are like-minded misogynists to whinge with. I hate Sex and the City with a passion. I didn’t wear dresses until I was well into my twenties and I don’t believe in swapping stories about underwear, handbags or haircuts.
But recently, I’ve come to realise that surrounding myself with boys, hanging out only with male friends, has left a hole somewhere. They’re fun, but their shoulders are not comfy to cry on, and they actively run away if I mention that I’m broody, or other such things.
And so today, meeting three lovely ladies who I went to university with, I felt better than I have done in a long time. Yes, we talked about wedding dresses and hair removal and cleavages, but I was alright with that, because we could also talk about our fears – we won’t wear bikinis anymore (why didn’t we do that in our beautiful twenties?), we hate our hair / skin / bums, we worry about relationships, or that our jobs are going nowhere. Do you remember that purple velvet trouser suit? The dinners we made at Uni? That time, with that boy, who’s now a vicar somewhere?
These are girls who I have loved for years and who still feature in my life. I am truly blessed to know these people.
And so, for the Best Friend who complains she never gets Thank You cards from anyone anymore, count this as a Thank You for being you. Wonderful, perfect you. And to my other perfect girls, too – I love you.

Secret Songs

My iPhone plays songs on random most of the time, except when I need a particular playlist to match my mood. Today, walking home from school through the park, an old favourite popped up and despite myself I smiled and sang along (loudly in a street in South London – interesting choice).
It’s a song that came out during my first year at Lampeter, maybe a little before, and for over a year it was the only song that got me out of bed in the morning. Or, more accurately, to the bar in the evening. Now I know it’s not a good song. I know that it drove my neighbours crazy. I know that really, it was not the kind of song you’d expect a virginal Theology student and vicar’s daughter to listen to. But I loved it. The only song that could guarantee I’d lose my place at the bar, just to dance to. I won’t tell you here which song it was, suffice it to say none of you would be seen DEAD listening to it, unless you had to – and that it was the inspiration for ‘Union Barbie’ if any readers can remember her.
Above is one of the only pictures of me I can find on the internet from our days at Uni. A time before mobile phones, digital cameras or facebook. A simpler time, when you could pop in to see a friend without planning it months in advance, and lie around without a TV putting the world to rights. I miss that.

Why did the tooth fairy… cont.

As the fairy and her grasshopper, George, neared the three towers for the second time, they slowed to a trot. “We need to stay quiet and not been seen” said the fairy, and George winked in understanding. Keeping close to the great wall that surrounded the towers and their accompanying buildings, they looked for an entrance at the back. Finding one, the fairy told George to stay where he was, and crept through the huge, iron gate. The courtyard was oppressively warm, and smoky from the towers, which were, even now, chugging out thick grey clouds. Seeing no one, the fairy hurried across the yard, and toward the main building from which two of the towers protruded. The noise was deafening, that same mechanical kerchunk-kerchunk she had heard from her cottage just yesterday evening. An oak door stood to her left, she pushed it open, peered in and, seeing no one, walked into the noise.
A huge machine filled the room. At one end, a chute from an upper room fed into a large grey box, within which the fairy heard that dreadful noise. At the other end of the box, poured a thick, white paste, the consistency of cement but with a far more odious smell. Suddenly, a clattering from above, which made the fairy jump and grab her chest, and the chute filled with hundreds of fist-sized white objects, which the fairy recognised immediately. Teeth.
The paste at the far end of the machine, poured thicker, faster, with this new input of teeth. ‘A paste made of teeth?’ thought the fairy, and wondered what on earth it could be for. Her thoughts were interrupted by a movement to her left. The fairy ducked beneath a thick wooden barrel and held her breath, but not before catching a whiff of that now-familiar leaf smoke. “Steepals!” said Deep Voice, for it was he, “Steepals! Where are you?”. A scuffling from the other room, came as an answer. “Steepals, get out here!”. Steepals, the owner of that other voice the fairy had heard just yesterday evening, came through into the great room, his voice barely audible above the chugging of the machine. “Yessir? Here, sir. Sorry, sir”. Deep Voice looked up at him, for his companion was far taller and skinnier than Deep Voice himself, and sighed. “Steepals, the trolls in the Pasting House are complaining of hunger. Perhaps you could give them something to get them through til second-lunch? We need an efficient workforce and they can’t work if they’re moaning”. Steepals nodded in agreement and scuttled off to find something for the trolls. The fairy looked at Deep Voice, who was rubbing his podgy hands together as he looked at all the paste, collecting in barrels at the end of the machine. Smiling, he reached into his pocket and took out his pipe, filled it and lit it with a firefly match. The first exhalation of smoke drifted close enough to the fairy that she couldn’t help but inhale. Her lungs burned, she felt a – “Cough!” she choked and immediately raised a hand to her mouth. But it was too late. Deep Voice turned sharply, and saw the top of the fairy’s hat poking over the barrel. “Tooth fairy?!” he roared, and the fairy was too frightened to do anything, but stand up from her hiding place and nod. Deep Voice grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her to his side, “Tooth fairy?” he repeated “and just what are you doing here?”
The tooth fairy trembled, unsure whether to be honest, as she always tried to be, or to tell a lie that might save her from his anger. “I… er” she stammered “I… well, I came here to find out what you were doing. I couldn’t leave it. I needed to know”.
Deep Voice smirked. “You couldn’t leave it, eh, tooth fairy? Had to stick your pretty, little nose into my business? Well, you’ll find out now what we do with those precious teeth of yours. And don’t be crying on me when you can’t deal with the truth!”. With that, he dragged the poor fairy through the room and back out into the corridor, across the yard and over to the other building, which carried a sign above it’s door: The Pasting House. The smell, as they pushed open the door, was overpowering and, if you’ve ever spent any time under a bridge, by the river, you would recognise it as the unmistakeable smell of troll-feet. All around, countless trolls sweated over barrels of paste, heaving it from one end of the room to the other, where more trolls mixed it with green leaves and squeezed the paste into fairy-sized tubes labelled ‘Coldate’ and ‘Sensovine’. Fastening on screw-top lids, the trolls threw the tubes into boxes, which were then carried into large carts on the far courtyard.
“This,” said Deep Voice “is the truth about what happens to all those baby teeth. All those teeth you lovingly collect, and carry back on your mute grasshopper”. The fairy looked on. “I still don’t quite understand”, she said.
Deep Voice laughed. “What, my dear tooth fairy, would you call a paste made entirely of teeth?” he asked.
“Why… um… toothpaste…” she replied, and gasped as she started to understand. “Are you telling me”, she asked, looking him in the eye, “Are you telling me that the main ingredient of the toothpaste all Huemans use to clean their teeth is… teeth?”. She blinked, startled.
“Yes”, replied her employer “teeth. And what do you suppose happens to a human when they swallow a toothpaste made of their own baby teeth by accident?”
“I… I don’t know” whispered the tooth fairy “what happens?”
“They grow up”, said Deep Voice. “They lose their innocence, their imagination. Their souls, once bright and full of potential, become cold and dark. Their ability to play, to laugh, simply dies. They become… adults”
The tooth fairy gasped. “You are telling me that because of the teeth I collect, the teeth that you turn into paste, the whole Hueman race grows old and dies? Why?”
Deep Voice paused. “Imagine”, he replied “a land of Huemen where no one ever aged. No one ever grew old, and put away childish toys. What do you suppose would happen?”
“I don’t know. They’d be happy? They could laugh, and play. They could smile in the sun and dance under the moon. All the things we fairies like to do”
“Yes”, said Deep Voice “and nothing would ever get done! No, it is better that they age, that they grow wise. Without my toothpaste, the whole hueman race would be no good for anything.”
The fairy thought for a moment, and shook her head. “No”, she said. “No. That isn’t so. It is the children of the land of Huemen who have it right. What use is war? or taxes? what reason is there to worry about money and status and all those other things? It is the children who have it right, who see the world in all the wonder in which it should be seen”.
“Then you do not agree with what we are doing here? You do not agree with the part you play?”
“No”, said the fairy, who was always quick to make up her mind, “No. It isn’t right”.
“I’m sorry to hear you say that, my dear” said Deep Voice, and then “Steepals! Steepals, get over here! Steepals, the tooth fairy is no longer in our employment. Please pay her whatever is owed and escort her from the premises. Tooth fairy, I am sorry our relationship must end like this, but end it must. We will write you excellent references, of course, but the work we do here is far too important to have people around who do not agree with it. I wish you all the best with your future”. And with that, Deep Voice turned and began a lengthy discussion with a particularly smelly troll about the manner in which he was stacking barrels.
As the tooth fairy left the building, followed closely by Steepals, who was eyeing her carefully, she wondered about her decision. Was it necessary for all huemen to become adults. To leave behind their wonder and their smiles? She didn’t believe so. Walking across the courtyard to where she had left George, her grasshopper, the fairy smiled. Tonight there would be no list, tonight she would not have to make the long journey to the land of Huemen. Tonight she could dance under the moon with her fairy friends and laugh until bedtime, where she would sleep deeply and dream well.
The End.

[because it’s time for dinner and I got a little bored. I haven’t written a story for more years than I remember, and I never was very good at finishing them. I wonder if writing a children’s story about the dangers of toothpaste is a particularly good idea?]

Why did the tooth fairy fail to deliver coins one evening?

For years, she had followed the same routine. The list of toothless children arrived through her letter box in the early evening, complete with a silver coin for every child. Over the course of the night, the fairy went from house to house, collecting the teeth that had fallen from tiny mouths – pulled, wobbled free, stuck to toffees or other sticky treats – and swapping them for silver coins. A whole under-the-pillow transaction performed with such agility that the children barely woke and never caught her. And for years, she had loved her job, assuming herself to be part of a bigger picture, keeping the world as it should be. She had relished the mentions in storybooks and had a collection of thank you letters lining the walls of her home. But that was before the discovery. Before she realised the truth of her job, and who was really behind it.

One evening, as the fairy woke from her afternoon nap, and brushed the crumbs of her pre-nap blueberry muffin from her chest, she heard, in the distance, a mechanical groaning. A clattering and kerchunking that she had never heard before. Pulling herself up from her oakwood bed, she moved towards the window of her tiny cottage. On the horizon, great plumes of smoke rose into the blue sky from three, dark towers she had previously never noticed. Curious, she went to the door, opening it to find the courier delivering her daily list. “Egbottom! “ she exclaimed “why thank you, gosh – what a long list!”. Egbottom smiled his crooked smile, and handed her the small black sack of coins. “There’s’m your coins, miss”, he said, “and them that’s extra are for you”. The fairy thanked him and handed him the previous night’s teeth. As he turned to go, the fairy said, “Egbottom? Those towers? Have they – are they… I don’t believe I’ve seen them before”.
Egbottom turned back and looked at the fairy, his green eyes sparkling, unnervingly. “Them towers, miss?” he said, “them towers is nothing you should be worrying about, miss”. And with that, Egbottom limped down the garden path and climbed back on his horsefly, who shuddered and took off.
The fairy, a creature of much curiosity and not one to leave a mystery unsolved, paused. She knew that there were children waiting, tucked in bed, for the tooth fairy to come. She knew that her job was one of the utmost importance. She knew she couldn’t let all those people down. But, she thought, there was certainly time to look into the issue of the towers before she set off for the night’s work.
Packing up her work bag, and pulling on her cloak, the fairy left the house and wandered to the stable, where her grasshopper, George, was ready to take her off on her travels. He looked up as she approached, and seemed to understand as she told him they would be going a different way, this evening. Not towards the land of Huemen, on the other side of the woods, but nearer to home – the horizon. She saddled him up and they set off towards the towers.
It took them longer than expected to reach the towers, which always seemed to be right on the end of the earth, where the land touches the sky. For a long time, the smoke from the towers seemed all around them, and George had to stop once or twice to catch his breath. As the sun began to set, however, George and the fairy found themselves entering a small courtyard, in front of the three giant towers, that now seemed even more dark and mysterious than they had from the distance of the fairy cottage. The fairy found herself suddenly afraid, and when she heard voices moving towards them from inside one of the darkened buildings, she hid, quickly and quietly behind a large stone wall, pushing George behind her.
“We need more” said a deep, angry voice. “There simply isn’t enough for what we need. We need more!”
“Yessir!” said a quieter voice, uncertainly, “But… well… how?”
There was a pause, the only sound a thick inhale of breath, followed by coughing – a whisp of stale-smelling smoke creeping over the wall to where the fairy sat, holding her breath. “Sweets.” said the first voice “They must eat more sweets. We will fill the schools with sweet treats; chocolates and toffees. We shall have a fair! Candy-floss and sticky apples! We’ll pour sugar in the water supply! We’ll pull up paving stones, so they trip and knock them out – I don’t care how we do it, but we need more teeth!”
The fairy gasped. Teeth? Who were these people?
“Did the fairy get her list?” continued the voice “It was a nice long list this evening. When can we expect her to bring us back the loot?”
“Tomorrow ev’ning, sir” came the reply “Egbottom will pick them up then”
“No. No, that won’t do. I shall visit her myself and collect them first thing tomorrow”. And with that, the owners of both voices, vanished back into the building.
The fairy pulled herself up from the difficult position she had been crouching in, and turned to comfort George. As she stroked his wise, green head, she thought about her job. How much did she really know about what she did? She had never thought to ask herself about her employers, about where the teeth went when Egbottom collected them from her each evening. She had only ever handed them over, happy that she had a new list of children to visit, a new bag of coins to distribute. She shook her head slowly. What was she to do? Looking up at the sky, now definitely night, the fairy realised that for now, at least, she had just one thing she could do. She needed to deliver those coins and collect her teeth. After that was done, she would think about what to do next. She jumped onto George’s back, and off they went galloping across the land, through the woods, and into the land of Huemen, where the children were fast asleep and never caught her.

Dawn was well underway when the fairy arrived back at her cottage and fell into her bed. She was exhausted, having spent all night worrying, wondering, pondering what she had heard earlier at the towers. Looking down at the bag of teeth by the fireplace, she sighed.
There was a knock on the door. “Hello? Tooth fairy? You in?”. It was deep voice. He had come.
The fairy got up, smoothed down her red hair, and opened the door. She coughed, as her lungs filled with leaf smoke from her visitor’s pipe. With tears in her eyes, she looked at him. A small, squat toad-like creature with black, black eyes and hair covering his face. “Tooth fairy.” he said “How nice to meet you, it has been too long, may I come in?”. Deep voice stepped forward, turning sideways to get through the tiny door, pushing past the fairy as she moved back in surprise. “Er, yes, um, do – come in.” she stuttered and then rushed to find him a chair to sit by the fire.
“Tooth fairy. I have come for the teeth”.
“Erm, yes, well, I… yes” said the fairy, eying the bag of teeth that was now at her visitors feet. “I… Um. Well, I’ve collected them as usual. This is most unusual, where is Egbottom? He normally collects them in the evening, when he drops by with my list”
“There has been a change in plans”, said Deep Voice “I have come to get the teeth myself. I wished to see you, to thank you for your hard work”. As he spoke, he looked down at the bag, visibly fighting the urge not to grab the teeth and leave immediately. “You are a most valuable employee, Miss Fairy, and we wish to acknowledge that. I have bought you a gift”. From his coat, Deep Voice drew out a long, thin riding crop made of the finest silver birch and a matching saddle. “For you”, he said ‘They tell me you still travel by ‘hopper?”
“Why, yes sir, thank you” said the fairy and took the gifts from him, a feeling of uneasiness in her stomach.
“Good” said her guest “Well, I must be off. The teeth?”
“Well, yes… here”she said, holding the bag up to him, and hesitating, “Sir? the teeth? Where do they go?”.
Deep voice rose and looked at the fairy. He paused. “Tooth fairy, why do you do your job?”
“Why, I love it, Sir. I like to think it is important, that it needs to be done. I like to think of the happy children when they wake in the morning and find the coin under their pillow”
“Then it is of no concern to you where the teeth go, my dear. Stay happy knowing all you need to know”. And with that, he turned and let himself out.

The fairy turned back to the fire. Despite the night’s work, she found she was not in the least bit tired, and instead felt more energised than she had in months. She didn’t trust Deep Voice. She didn’t like him. Whatever he was doing with all those beautiful baby teeth, she didn’t think it was anything good, and she needed to find out what was going on, what the teeth were being used for. She needed to know if all her work, the work she had been so proud of for so long, had all been a lie. She pulled on her cloak and went out for George.

[The rules clearly state it should be unedited. It is. It’s also not finished, but I have to go to bed. To be continued… maybe…]

Papal politics

The Pope has been in town this week. In fact, he’s been staying just around the corner in the Vatican ambassador’s house in Wimbledon. Many of my facebook friends have snapped him in his Pope Mobile as he did the rounds in the City, and even the kids at school have been talking about it. This morning, knowing that P was out at a course in Billingsgate for the day, I considered getting myself off to Hyde Park, or wherever, to see him. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
It isn’t this particular Pope I have a problem with. It isn’t necessarily that he has a dubious history, and has allowed Holocaust deniers back in the Vatican. It isn’t that he seems more concerned with kindness towards the perpetrators of horrific crimes against young people than he does with caring for those children themselves. It isn’t even his bigoted and out-dated attitudes towards sexuality and gender issues. It’s beyond the fact that his church’s insistence that God is anti-contraception contributes to the spread of HIV and AIDS. Or that women are second-class citizens in the Roman Catholic Church. (Though all of those issues I feel passionate and, indeed, bitterly angry about).

 
No, it’s something else. A far worse crime than any of those, and one that he, alone, isn’t responsible for. It’s a problem with the entire idea of a pope at all. The idea that one man on earth can be looked to as an authority on God, that one person can be closer to God than any other. The belief that each of us needs someone to mediate between us and our creator – a belief that is the fundamental opposite of everything that Jesus taught. It’s a problem with the whole Roman Catholic Church. I saw a three-minute film between programmes the other night, that really brought it home. A woman who attributed the healthy child she gave birth to, despite doctors telling her it would suffer some unnamed disability, to a visit to the Pope and a Papal Blessing. Not God. Not God sending her a miracle. Not God intervening in her life with His love… The Pope.
And so, I couldn’t go along to see him because I couldn’t trust myself not to do something that might, in the end, have offended some people of real faith.