13 May 2005

On Speakin' Proppa

Written in response to a couple of recent comments.

My mother decided that, irrespective of the local accent, I was to grow up 'speaking properly'.

We moved from one end of Southall to the other when I was six and I instantly made friends with a little girl four or five doors up, who came to our house, planted her pink toy donkey on my mother's arm and squealed "Look aht, it's on ya!".

My mother's reaction was considered; she took the donkey, stroked it, and said "Hello Sonya", leaving the little girl to explain herself. It took me a decade or more to understand that mum had known exactly what she was doing.

Everytime I dropped a T, mum would quote that girl at me again, "lookaht, S'onya", or "bu-a-cups and die-sies in da back gardin".

Yes I was called posh, snob, mummy's girl. I was told that I thought I was 'it', even spat at once by an honour guard lined up in an alleyway, so there was no choice but to keep marching through, with my head down. My little brother had it worse.

I went to ballet. I actually had to go to ballet, because when I was two and a half the doctors had told my mother that without a lot of exercise I would likely grow up with one leg shorter than the other - it was dance or wear the clumpy boot. My brother (who later took the poise and balance he learned to rise very rapidly through the local Jiu Jitsu team and end up representing the County) wanted to do ballet, and begged and begged for a long time before mum caved in.

Can you blame him? He was sat there, an hour at a time every Saturday morning, watching me go through my class, which was a bus ride away from home. It was join in, or sit on a chair and shut up, whilst the rest of the world played football or went to the Saturday matinee at the local cinema. The thing is, it turned out he was good at it, good enough to try out for RADA (not good enough to get in, mind you, but some of us never even got to the audition). Even now, he looks very similar to (the elegant, toned down and bespectacled incarnation of) Sylvester Stallone, or the pre-podge version of John Travolta. A good solid Celtic build, but all legs and six pack.

Well over 6' tall now, he was late shooting up, and at nine years old and very short for his age, he was egged on by some 'friends' to show them what he did at dance class. He trustingly demonstrated the solo he was learning, a character piece about a tin toy soldier. He was then gang beaten for being 'gay' and his nickname on our estate was 'chocolate soldier' (actually 'chocolate soldier, ptew', with a token spit at the end) for months and moths.

But 'posh' is a catch-all name which makes the attackers feel safer and was a blanket term for all demeanor, including doing homework on time, getting the answers right at school, not having the nerve to steal from the sweet shop, etc etc etc. I got called gay too, or more specifically lesbian, when I hit teenage but went to an all girls school. The kids back home just assumed I was gay because none of the local boys had snogged me, let alone seen inside my knickers. Actually, Grammar school did me that favour as in those days uniform extended to your undergarments, and these really were 'knickers' - large, of substantial cloth, high waisted and low legged. Think support pants, or Bridget Jones, but in school uniform brown. It was impossible even to recognise your own first stirrings in those, let alone want to share them with others. As to sharing them with the snot-nosed wanna-be car mechanics on our block who were doing the rounds door by door and keeping score - well it never even crossed my mind, so no wonder they thought I was queer.

I think my mother was my saving grace. She had never gone through this herself - oh she had been bullied, mercilessly, thanks to being an unexpected 'accident' of a child in the depression hit 30s, to a sick man who drank his wages and a bedraggled mother who held the family together by taking in sewing and laundry and resented losing the light at the end of the financial tunnel courtesy of her unplanned fourth child. Mum was the tatty, dirty kid, the one always in hand-me-downs and late for school, always in trouble for tearing pages out of her school books (no such thing as paper to draw on in her house), always in scrapes for jumping through other people's gardens to try and approach school via the yard instead of the front gates, to avoid some of the late punishment. She got a name as a bully, too, because her big sister, brought up with a tad more care before times were so hard, could never fight her own battles. Mum used to come to the rescue by attacking her sister's protagonists, three or four years her senior.

That she had managed to bring her child up to be set firmly at the opposite end of the spectrum was, to her mind, a job well done and a real success, so every time I said I was bullied, her response was "Rubbish. Why, when I was a child....."

She probably did feel for me, in fact I am sure of that now, but made a conscious decision to appear to be cheerfully and completely unfussed and I have tried to adopt her reasoning. Whatever you do in defence of your children, do it out of their sight. Never show a child your fear or anger, particularly on their behalf, because it validates theirs. I honestly believe that the biggest favour you can do a child is to focus them on the positive, even if that means making light of things that make your eyes pop or your arms go cold.

Save your venom for other people's doorsteps and allow your kid to go to bed believing that really the whole episode was no big deal, so they wont be so scared next time. I used to go to sleep still angry and shaking, but wrapped up in how I could have stung them back, what evil and smart snipe I might have used to put the bullies down and shut them up, which, I guess, is better than believing I was right to be upset and that the world was evil and unfair and that I couldn't and shouldn't cope with it. I wasn't hard enough to be convinced I was always in the right, so there was a lot of analysis in the mix, imagining what might make a person be that evil in the first place, what reasons they might have for thinking they had any right to be that awful.

Things go in circles. I managed to completely avoid becoming streetwise and had to learn about liars, con artists and all the rest the hard way, at a later stage (or more specifically at close quarters, courtesy of my first husband). Later life toughened me up, same as it softened those hard nosed girls who made my life hell. Compared to them I am Shirley the Brave, with no fear of learning, no insecurities about my abilities, no trouble talking to anyone from any walk of life.

No, actually that last bit isn't strictly true. There is one particularly plummy accent that still triggers panicky little quakes of inferiority in me. Faced with someone who speaks that beautifully I cannot just be myself, cannot completely relax, but have to fight the urge to behave all bright eyed and bushy tailed, like a pet or maidservant, "yes miss, no miss, three bags full miss". Grief thats another of my wonderful mother's retorts. This glitch has it's up-side, because if I can feel like that, then I imagine that's what my own elocution did to my childhood attackers - their resentment was likely borne of a sense of inferiority and discomfort.

I do still have issues - the most lasting side effect of all this is that I find it difficult to distinguish between sadness and anger, as I was brought up believing that fight or flight were the only two options, that collapsing into a puddle of tears was a totally wasteful and embarrassing use of adrenaline. I would die sooner than cry and the only way I know to help people in a muddle of tears is to help them find something to take it out on, some small element of the situation to change and control, to laugh at, so that they can feel like they have achieved something or won back some ground.

I do honestly belive that if you offer a person a clear path to alleviating their woes and they choose to stay down and dreary, then they are attached to the depression, attached to the idea of 'being looked after' rather than of making things better. That's victim mentality, if not out and out manipulation and I steer well clear, nobody's riding me as an enabler, I refuse to be run ragged by someone who just wants to act out incapacity. "Ooh poor me" syndrome makes me sick.

Still, the thing about adrenaline is true; an overdose of the stuff can genuinely make you almost comatose; saggy and leaden and hopeless - it happens all the time with ADHD kids who switch between full speed and dead stop, beacuse the adrenaline just keeps pumping. If I feel the tears coming, I still automatically stand up and roar instead and give myself a good telling off for considering the sappy option, although having an evil temper to expel is really great for getting housework done in record time. I'm not very good with housework, having a tendency to deal with it aggressively means that I never get to a state of peaceful pottering, but save it all up for a blitz.

"Don't get mad, get even" - thats another of my mother's mantras. Its good, its proactive and there's no time to sink into the mire of self doubt and hopelessness if you are expending energy (preferably on inanimate objects).

So anyhow, to cut a long story longer, I pulled a bit of a Miss Havisham on my eldest daughter. When she was called Fucking Bitch in junior school, I taught her to answer with Copulating Canine. It made her smug, it gave her the upper hand, it made her feel like a winner, because the teachers all knew exactly what she was saying (and so did she), except that it wasnt swearing. The biggest boost for her was knowing that the teachers knew, and knowing that her opponent didnt have a clue what she was on about - it made her feel sharper and craftier, that she could, if she had to, make a total fool of this person who wanted to belittle her. "Have you got a cough-a-cough-a-cough?" was another favourite.

When the 'your mother....' taunts started, that really upset both Alex and Andrew as I was sacrosanct in their minds and it seemed like the ultimate insult to pick on their mother. Faced with direct statements that I was a street corner prostitute (!), I sent them back to school with the answer that if I was, I would be earning loads more than 'your ugly mum' and we'd have a swimming pool by now. Or 'Yours would be too, but she'd have to pay them, not the other way round'. I taught them to act like they couldnt give a toss what this other person thought, and put the instigator back in their place at the same time.

Yes, ok, so maybe I had spent over twenty years imagining how to be that creative towards the taunts of mere pre-teens. That doesn't matter. What matters is that I taught that kind of creativity to my children at an earlier age, and they ran with it, so that my daughter has a tongue like a razor now and there are times that we roll about laughing. She also has the self confidence to refrain from using it viciously, because she just never feels cornered any more. She is happy to say sorry, smooth things over and generally behave like an adult and that kind of self confidence is very magnetic. As soon as she had that aura of live and let live, of 'water off a duck's back' (thats my mum again!) she became attractive. All bullies are victims, they all tread on others to make themselves feel safer, and once Alex seemed impermeable she was the must-have friend and defender. The fact that all my 'if only's were eventually acted out and worked like a charm did plenty for my own self image, too.

We are twins, her and I, peas in a pod as far as attitude, morals, wicked sense of humour, empathy, desire to protect the underdog and the ability to spot one from a hundred paces; pretty much all of it, yet I am so proud of her, because I bred out most of the angst.

'Fake it til you make it' was the propoganda of a company called Amway - meaning 'pretend to be successful with this business until it comes true, think and act like you've won, already'. I am not sure thats very moral, but the concept sure as hell works when dealing with your kids.

I love the Serenity Prayer and there are self help sites built around it - here's a good one. However I would take issue with the author that the things we can change are not always just our own attitudes. If (to take an example from my own past) your (first) husband puts his motorbike battery on your antique family heirloom table and burns a battery shaped white square into the polish, then dropping the battery unceremoniously but deliberately out of an upstairs window can be extremely therapeutic. It achieves several things - yes the greatest (but least obvious at the time) is a personal change in attitude - from 'how could you' to 'that's you sorted, you bugger'. More immediately it also changes your husband's expectations of how far he can push you, and gets the bloody battery off the table and out of the house. So you might get a black eye - big deal, thats the last resort of a thick bully who has no more words to throw, but you still win. I guess what I mean is that sometimes we can change the world around us at the same time as changing ourselves, in fact the two are so closely intertwined that one happens whenever you attempt the other. Its all good!


Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

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