Today’s revelation, brought to you by Heineken.

What I’m about to say is so hugely obvious, I’m embarrassed I need to say it at all. But today brought a revelation:

My life is stunted by the lack of novel human contact.
By which I mean that I no longer meet the same huge diversity of people anymore. I don’t get to learn something new from somebody everyday. I have a great number of friends. People I adore, people I love to listen to. But – and here is the rub – I know what they’re going to say. It’s fairly rare when I can’t guess what someone’s reaction to something will be. And the new facts that they offer me are very often things I can’t use. Things that don’t quite register on my radar-of-usefulness, things that merely depress, or bewilder me. I don’t mean to negate what they’re saying. I have chosen these friends particularly because they are this way. I love that their interests are different from mine, that they live in worlds quite different to my own…but I also love that I can trust them to react the ‘right’ way to the things that are bugging me. The downside to having such a great group of friends, is that our lives are so intertwined that they rarely have much to say to me (about the things that matter to me – the little things) that I don’t already know… or haven’t already thought of. I know that the Husband, and many of our friends, are particularly interested in food – where to eat, and music – who to listen to – and these are things that don’t seem that important to me. I’m not meaning to say I look down on stuff like that, simply that I don’t really feel like I have the right conversational skills to discuss the merits of a biodynamic burger, or the new, obscure band. I’m not sure what I really mean at all.
Except that, today, I was stuck in a position of not going home. There were builders in the house until 5, so I went for a drink in a pub garden and waited for them to be gone. And it was in that pub garden (as so many times before) that I had my revelation.
I feed off other people’s lives.
Like some sort of soul-sucking demon, I need other people to make me feel new. Maybe it’s a wanna-be-writer thing. Maybe it’s growing up in a large family. Maybe it’s that I’ve never been quite sure I have anything very unique to offer. Either way, I get off on other people.
There was a family in the pub. A grown up daughter from America, her English housemate, and her visiting parents. And what a storyteller her Daddy was! Now, it isn’t right, or proper, to eavesdrop, but it’s certainly more fun than reading a book you bought in a charity shop for the occasion. And every word was like a new world opening up. He talked of New York, of the Jews (they’re annoying, and then they move out of NY to get old, and even more annoying, somewhere else… and he knows he shouldn’t say it, but it’s just true). His wife -so much more confident, and yet still submissive, in a way I’ve only ever seen American wives manage – told of their first date. It was a beautiful story, better told by her, but involved him turning up to a hiking party in a tuxedo shirt. “Why a tuxedo shirt?” they laughed. “When you’ve been single a while,” he replied,”your laundry kinda creeps up on you. I had nothing else to wear!”.
I have worked in the same school, with children of the same backgrounds for nearly a decade. I have friends with similar backgrounds to my own, or with similar lives now. The people I work with are all in the same profession (albeit for different reasons). It is rare to meet people who are wildly different from this (except, as you do in London, on the street – but that’s not a relationship, it’s a battle!).
The times I remember in my life as being my happiest, are when I started University, and when I moved to London. It became clear this afternoon, just why that might have been. It is the diversity of the human soul that most makes me smile. It is remembering how very vast the world is – but how very similar we all are. It is listening to storytellers, liars, crazy people, charismatics, IT developers, philosophers, poets, non-hipster-middle-classers, that I need. I need to find some more of those people, and to suck up everything they have to offer.
I need to sit in a pub garden more.
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I’m Sunshriek, and I’m a mental.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I could do a certain something at work. The short answer, I replied, was no.

I rarely say No. Few teachers ever say ‘No’ (when really they should) because there is a culture, and understanding, that it is all ‘for the kids’. We work all the hours that God sends doing pointless paperwork because it’s ‘for the kids’. ‘No’ is a word reserved for speaking to said kids, not one to use where management are concerned.

You don’t say No in teaching.

But I did it, I said No.

I have taught at my current school for nine years. I have run two departments, trained up countless PGCE students, achieved some of the best GCSE results we ever had. One of my students went on to get top marks at one of the best universities in the country (mostly his work, to be fair, but in my subject… so… you know…). I’ve managed the Social Committee, supported newer teachers, entertained the caretakers, held training sessions for other members of staff. And, the kids say they love my lessons and choose to talk to me outside the classroom. I think I’ve been pretty successful at my job.

But then I said, No.

The first meeting I arranged to talk about this – after the frosty-cold-shouldered-run-in in the staffroom – seemed to suggest that my manager had long been concerned about my general performance. I was always saying I didn’t have enough time to do things.

Now, a person would have to be in years of therapy to understand their own reactions to someone saying you don’t do your job properly. Luckily, I happen to have years of therapy under my belt. Unluckily, I am still totally unable to access everything I’ve learned.

In that moment, it was true. I was crap at my job. Here was someone telling me that I am always complaining, never meeting deadlines, and generally performing poorly. I was devastated.

You leave early everyday, she said.

You refuse to take any work home with you, she said.

Do you even care about the kids?, she said.

And finally, Are you just doing this to pay the rent?

I could have cried. I have cried, many times, in meetings at work. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve never been able to channel anger into anything other than hot, frustrated tears. This time, though, I didn’t cry. This time, I just felt resigned. Because, you see, this was the first time I had said no. And I have NEVER missed a deadline.

“If”, I said to her, “that is what you think, then I suggest you take the matter further”. And then I left.

I’m not sure I really need to go into what it was that I had been asked to do, but I think it’s worth saying that the only reason I said no was because I had been asked the question “And can you do it by 4pm, please?”. Was I refusing to do the work? Not really. All I was saying was, “No, I can’t do it by 4pm”. I can’t do it by 4pm, because I am teaching all day, and it is a physical impossibility. Really, though, the problem wasn’t that they had asked the impossible, and it wasn’t that I had refused. There was a new thing, now… this thing about how I’m not putting everything into my job. I am not living and breathing Teaching. I do not care about the kids. 

One, or other of us, took it further. I spoke to the manager above her. This man, a member of senior leadership in an outstanding school, repeated the same comments – comments I could now be sure had come from him in the first place. What I remember most from that meeting is how little emotion I felt. Whilst I had been upset in the meeting with my immediate manager – a person I respect, and like – I don’t have a great deal of time for this guy. So, when he asked me whether I should really just leave teaching, because I clearly didn’t care enough, I just felt mild indignation.

“I know about your illness” he said “and I know that people with psychological problems often try to do as little work as possible, so that they don’t get sick again…”

I zoned out after that. A whole part of my brain shut down so that I wouldn’t have to process the exact thing that he had just said. I wasn’t doing my job properly… and it was because I was a ‘mental’. I should leave teaching, because I was a mental. I was mental.

Let’s put aside the legal ramifications of his comment. Let’s forget, for a moment, that Depression is recognised as a disability under the Equal Opportunities something-or-other. And that managers need to be very careful talking in the way that he has. Let’s just focus on that one comment: People with PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS.

Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something derogatory about the phrase ‘psychological problems’. The man on the tube with his trousers tied up with string, who hasn’t bathed for a year and who is muttering to himself. He has psychological problems. The lady who leaves her entire inheritance to her cats, rather than the children who have supported her in her old age. She has psychological problems.

And now me; the married, home-owning, professional, educated-past-degree-level woman; with hobbies, talents, and a vast array of wonderful friends? I have psychological problems. Pity me.

Stephen Fry has spoken openly, honestly, and far more eloquently, about his struggles with mental illness. He said recently how supported he felt, and how positively the general public have responded, suggesting that attitudes towards mental illness are changing. I’m sure that they are, or I wouldn’t have been quite so shocked and horrified by what was said to me. But here’s my two cents anyway:

What if my manager’s comment had been this: “I know you’re recovering from cancer, and that’s probably exhausting, but you should be working longer hours”?

Or, “I know you’re in a wheelchair, but you don’t even try to manage the stairs. Don’t you care about the kids?”

Mental illness, like any other physical illness, does change the way you have to work. I no longer feel I can put in all the extra hours I used to. I struggle to stand in front of a group of 30 needy teenagers for five hours a day, keeping my cool, staying professional, endlessly patient and positive. It is exhausting. Like Stephen Fry’s comments about hosting QI, it is difficult to teach with a constant, nagging feeling that you just want to curl up and die. By the end of the day, I am exhausted. So I go home and switch off.

I do, however, always meet my deadlines. I always plan and deliver lessons which Ofsted would deem ‘Good’. I know my students as individuals and I treat them as such. My marking is up to date. I attend every meeting and I support every, stupid, new initiative until they change it back again. I, in short, continue to do my job even when it’s killing me.

But I hate to think that people are looking at me and thinking I’m not doing what I should. So, I asked both managers to give me some suggestions about what it was that they wanted from me. I explained that I was confused by what they were saying – that I thought I was doing okay. The single, beautiful, suggestion was this: “You could put up some display work on your classroom walls”.

I told them I don’t do interior design, I have psychological problems.

Maybe I’m better suited to School Leadership… I am mental, after all.