Conclusive proof that children love unpaid manual labour

The beautiful spiral herb mound

I have finally mustered the energy to write today’s post after spending most of the day thus far convalescing in bed, tentatively sipping Ribena in a smog of profound self-pity. How did I end up in this pathetic state? Well, it all began many years (hours) ago…

There is a community gardening project called OxGrow down Abingdon Road in Oxford. It is a plot which used to be a bunch of sports grounds and tennis courts for one of the snootiest colleges here, but they have kindly donated it the grounds to the local community to be gradually cultivated and tended until Hogacre Common becomes a lush and teeming eco-paradise. I have been going on Sundays since the start of term and it only took me three minutes among the gorgeous and heaving veg beds to fall in love, and since then they’ve erected a ‘bee platform’ (believe it or not, bees prefer to live on a platform. It makes them feel above the common bees) and expanded the vegetable garden to an incredible degree. We’re growing dozens of exciting varieties of heirloom potatoes and garlic, the onions at the moment look like gleaming juicy gemstones laying on the compost and the strawberry plants are so aggressively lush that the green berries underneath the leaves are nothing but an endless taunt withholding what they are going to become. The work parties are every Sunday whether or not it is glorious sunny weather or the ground is smothered beneath a thick fleece of snow. There is always tea, there is often rain and there is always, without fail, plenty of digging. I love it. Digging is man’s most soothing and wholesome pastime; it makes you feel like a hearty medieval peasant and has the cathartic effect of letting you take out all your anger and stress in every enormous kick you give that big soil-clad spade. At the end of the day, everyone is free to take whatever produce is ready to be picked and you’re usually so cream-crackered the next bit is almost as good as the work party itself: resting back at home with an enormous cup of hot tea and gently hardening mud on your knees.

This Sunday, to celebrate their own volunteering achievements, a student/pupil tutoring scheme called Jacari brought a bunch of their enthusiastic members and tutees to the garden; nothing says ‘celebrate’ like being made to dig clods of soil when you’re 12…Everything was so calm and tranquil for the first hour or so, while we did various odd-jobs around the beds, until suddenly an army of children swarmed in and started gettin’ all up in our pitchforks.

Honestly, it was the most terrific fun. Since my ‘job’ (read: toil) in Berlin I have missed mucking about with kids something awful and unfettered access to spades and worms had put them into an excellent mood. Give kids complete free reign in the outdoors with gardening tools and they become the kind of brilliant beasts you always hope your kids will turn out to be; they squeal with breathless astonishment every single time they find anything vaguely insect-y, ask endless questions and do hilarious things like ‘accidentally’ shovelling soil into the back of your jeans as you’re crouching in the neighbouring bed thinning crops…yes…

The best thing of all, though, was when I was allowed to take my own group of kids off for an explore around the grounds. It was then that I, for the first time, realised how cool and exciting my mum was when I was growing up. She used to take us through the woods for hours, and being the head of a family of nerds she initiated us into the world of insects, birds and fungus (the latter of which my grandmother also tried to do but almost got herself banned from ever seeing us again after she almost managed to persuade us to eat the mushrooms we had found on our ramble). My dad, a vet, helped by bringing home little pots of mealworms or crickets for us to poke at, or even brought the occasional grass-snake or even kestrel that was currently being given medical care. We grew up surrounded by wildlife. And it seems it all stuck, for I found myself teaching these children thousands of little facts and neat things about nature that I had just assumed all kids innately know as part of being twelve years old, but the kids – and quite a lot of the adults – were soaking it all up in shiny-eyed fascination. It was incredible. Several of them had never encountered the buttercup test. One of the student volunteers asked the kids if they knew what a ‘hog’ (as in Hogacre) was. They chanted ‘noooo’. The volunteer hesitated and then muttered that she didn’t actually know either. (I delicately let them know it was another word for a Big Fat Pig.) This is not the kind of thing kids need – they want thousands of small and useless and amazing facts and they want them ALL THE TIME. To be the provider of said facts is simply endless fun.

 These kids didn’t know what stickyweed was, which in my view is a tragedy and a kind of infant poverty, so I diligently explained why it was called stickyweed, how it came to be so sticky and then explained to them the rules of that honoured game where you have to try and stick as much of the stuff on your brother’s back as you can without him noticing. We were lucky enough to find some froghoppers so I could explain how they make their little frothy dens out of their own ‘spit’. We talked about what compost was, how you can tell a dead nettle from a real nettle, and oooooohed at a skeletal leaf that had been completely ravished by the satisfied snail resting on its tip. It’s times like this that I wonder at all the families you see in supermarkets, telling their kids to ‘I don’t know just shut up Damian’ when they keep incessantly asking questions. Having the privilege and the trust to answer a child’s questions is one of the most fun and exhilarating feelings and even if you don’t know the answer you are at least in the position to make that connection with the child: you can tell them an interesting story of what the answer might be (“Oooh, maybe bananas are bent so monkeys can use them as boomerangs, what do you think?”) or at least encourage them for having had the gumption to ask in the first place (“Do you know, I have no idea! It’s cool that you noticed…!”) Suffice it to say, if I have kids – and it’s a big if, since I have looked into the heart of darkness on that score – I will ensure that they know all about inkcaps and puffballs and stickyweed as soon as they can stand. 


After being gone from the garden for a length of time close to ‘abduction’ on a legal scale, I had to bring the kids back and they all marched off to their treasure hunts and gnashed on crisps. And they went home, hopefully to a future filled with afternoons spent covering their peers in adhesive strings of flora and getting shouted at for being a mess. We all got to take a fresh new onion home, alongside a glorious array of broccoli, asparagus, leeks, chard, and all kinds of delicious just harvested produce.


It all came home with me and went into a delicious vegetable ginger-honey-miso stirfry with a huge field mushroom that had come from the market a while before. It was delicious. And then, hours later, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, it kept me awake all night and made me more violently ill than I have ever been in my memorable past. But it was worth it. Pass the ribena.

Free and easy in the big city

This is it. On Tuesday I set foot in my last school for the last time and gave my last lesson. On Wednesday I collected all my teaching materials together, resisted the urge to burn them and ceremoniously dumped them on the table at my office. I then spent the rest of my day disinfecting, de-clogging and emptying out my room until it once again began to resemble a domain where a human person might happily live. My sweet flatmate presented me with a celebratory big bunch of roses and my colleagues and I toasted our success with Club Mate, one of the deadliest and most delicious ways to stay awake for six straight hours (it’s a popular caffeinated soft drink which tastes like how cigars smell and has a mysterious and shadowy stranger as its logo). 

And that was the end. No longer a teacher, now I’m just another one of the aimless students bumming around Berlin commenting on the awesomeness of just how ‘like, Berlin‘ everything is. Suddenly and abruptly stopping work is a bizarre thing to have to come to terms with. No longer having a wake-up time or an after-work time, all time is finally free time, and my brain is taking this opportunity to dumb down in the most startling way. I find myself spending solid minutes pondering things which before I was too frazzled even to consider, but that now I have the luxury to consider and reflect upon for entire chunks of wasted life. For example, my thoughts over the last few days have dawdled on such topics as:
– Mint-flavoured floss. Why does this exist and how does no-one notice the brazenness of marketing such a product? No-one brushes their teeth, then flosses with regular floss and thinks, “Well, my teeth are sparkling and my breath would be perfect if it weren’t for this overpowering stench blasting out of the small (admittedly clean) crevices between each tooth…” I will never buy this again simply as a protest against capitalism.
– Berlin strikes me as an incredibly dusty city compared to everywhere else I have ever been. There is dust everywhere and whenever I get home having been outside I find that my shoes and feet are coated with a fine layer of Schmutz which then gets onto the floor and then back onto my feet and ends up just getting trekked around the place which is irritating because it means your mum was always right when she said that you ought to take your shoes off and stop trailing dirt from room to room. I think this is why the Germans love to sweep so much. The dust.
– Could you make jam from melons? 


Clearly this new-found free time is not good for me. It’s time to go out and start living it up Berlin style and discovering yet more exciting things, I reckons.



But never fear. This is the city of endless possibilities and there is no reason to be bored when you can go out and do something weird and new. Let me tell you about the Freiluftkinos.

 Freiluftkinos, outdoor cinemas, are a big deal here in Berlin, and the minute the weather stops being so oh-good-god-I’m-never-going-to-be-happy-again terrible they all open and start showing a selection of crowd-pleasing or ‘eh?’-inspiring films depending on the venue. Beautifully, each one has its own draw, from the Freiluftkino in Kreuzberg where you get to lounge in deckchairs while watching your movie to this particular spot in which the cinema is buried deep within the trees of a gorgeous Volkspark, conveniently near to a varied selection of fine drug dealers. We will all be used, thanks to conventional cinemas, to having to sell a kidney to buy popcorn and to arguing with latecomers in the first half of the film because even though they’re late and obnoxious they still claim the right to sit in their designated seats and shunt you over to your place right beneath John Travolta’s colossal left nostril. But here it’s different; as long as you clean up your own mess you can bring what you like, so you get a wonderful atmosphere of people drinking Rotkäppchen from picnic cups and eating their snacks from Tupperware rather than the ultra-rustly packaging of every sadistically designed cinema snack. 


We saw the film Almanya, a sweet and funny flick about a Gastarbeiter family living in Germany and what happens to them when they go back to Turkey to renovate a house that should later serve as their holiday home. I won’t go into a full review of the film but it seemed to be a crowd pleaser from the fact that everyone clapped at the end and the woman sitting behind us was hooting with laugher so loudly I wanted to clap her for being an example of living life to the fullest. At any rate, it’s certainly worth a try regardless of whether you’re going to see a good film or not, just for the fun and the novelty of sitting on little foam cushions and watching a film on a screen lightly peppered with bird droppings.

Lovable rascals

This is Berlin, I promise. Don’t look up too long or you’ll step in something…

Allow me to paint you a picture with words and sounds. You are asleep in bed at 6am on a Sunday morning. You are comfortable, warm and happily drooling onto the pillow. You have not slept well during the night but now you are nestling blissful in the cocoon of slumber, the mellow breeze of the morning gently toying with the hairs on your forehead. Suddenly and without warning this song explodes through your window and into your subconscious at tremendous volume.

You leap up and close the window but it’s coming from the flat next door so it simply barges through the wall instead – and you are then forced to spend the next two hours that should have been sleep-filled instead wondering why the neighbours are:
a) listening to this song on repeat for two hours
b) listening to a synth xylophone cover of the song rather than the original if they like it so much
c) doing so at 6am in their kitchen.
These are the same neighbours who regularly have colossal and loud raves in their flat every Wednesday and Thursday night, and who last night seemed to be watching just the car chase parts of all of Hawaii 5-0 with the television pressed up against the wall. There are so many people around who are simply bad and naughty; people who don’t give a single microscopic hoot and know they’re being antisocial, tossing Snickers wrappers on the ground and letting their dog chew your iPod headphones with no other feeling than a mild sense of triumph. Oooh, I’d like to smack them until they weep. Funnily, though, I don’t think any of my favourite kids that I teach will ever grow up to become these people, and my favourite kids aren’t goody-goodies or sweet little girls or cherry-cheeked cherubs. No. They are the really, fantastically, bloody naughty-as-sin kids.


The naughty children I teach are so much more deserving of the huge quantities of energy and attention I am forced to give them. Sure, the good children have earned good treatment and are often brilliant kids, and it is important to make them feel that they are getting recognition for being obedient or well-behaved or clever. It is also crucial for the group as a unit to show nothing but approval for the ‘good example’ kids and nothing but dismay about the ‘juvenile detention’ kids. Little Leonie is a smarmy, competitive and boastful shrew but she gets lots of stamps and high-fives because she is at least trying to exemplify what the kids think the teacher wants as good behaviour. 

It’s an impossible juggling act because this must be carefully balanced with the praise the other good kids get, the praise the kids who are just casually drifting along with the crowd get, and the praise the bad kids get when they do something remarkable like sit down. The good kids know they are good and often become distraught if they feel that they missed out on earning a brownie point; I have one pupil who collapses into a gooey crying heap the minute he is not instantly high-fived and given a standing ovation for saying a word. My superiors advise me to make these good children into examples by praising them as a form of telling off the others, as in, “Now look how well Marc is sitting, isn’t that fantastic! We should all be sitting just like him. Super!” This is unbearable enough but there is a very good reason to avoid this entirely, and as someone who used to be the unbearable swot in the class, I should know. The problem is that in holding up the good kids as examples to follow, they become incredibly easy to hate. You can see the other kids narrowing their eyes and puckering their mouths if these teachers’ pets ever get this treatment, and I just can’t do it to them; I have to protect my own kin. The fact of the matter is, when a kid is good they are praised, and when not then not. 

But no-one can understand how heartbreaking it is to always have to yell at the kids you love. And god help me, I love the naughties. They are hilarious – Julius has a rock-star mane of long hair and roars like an asthmatic lion when he gets excited or angry, which is all the time. Alexander is the only kid I’ve known to actively refuse to represent male characters in games in favour of female characters (“Ich will ‘sister’ sein!!”) and Leo is so, so, so desperately rude and naughty but his debonair eloquence at the age of three is so disarming I sometimes want to embrace him for the startlingly offensive things he says. Naughty children are exciting and rebellious and never boring; you can tell that the reason they are bad is that they are in fact geniuses who already know too much about the world. Julius had a horrendous fistfight with his two mates in class this morning and after I had succeeded in calming them all down, he smoothed down his hair with dignity, turned to the other two and said, “Now look. After all that, I want to know – and let’s agree on this – are both of you still my friends?” His equally naughty friend Michel replied, “Well, all I know is that I am my own friend and my name is Julius.” These kids are four years old and it was such an arresting moment of sincerity I wanted to buy them all presents for being awesome. These bad kids won’t grow up to be bad adults; these are the children who will become in charge of important firms or making new inventions because they have energy, wit and brain.

I love it when the kids secretly cover my attendance list with stamps when I’m not looking or when they ruin the entire game or story because they have realised that ‘boots’ sounds like ‘poops’. It shows such imagination and reluctance to be normal and boring and average, and for that reason every time I shout at them I am secretly wishing that if I ever reproduce my own child will be just like them.  

Springtime for *cough* and Germany…

There are queues outside every ice cream parlour in the city and people are showing off their knees with gay abandon. It must be officially spring in Berlin. By the looks of what’s suddenly filling all the clothes shops we are in for a long period of yet more bloody maxidresses, dungarees and – *gulp* – neon hotpants. Everyone is in a cheery and celebratory mood and therefore the time has come for every German to participate in what is both a homage to the true backbone of German culture (Wurst) and probably one of the main things English and German people love as manically as each other. I am speaking, of course, of Grillen, the noble BBQ. When it comes to Grillen the Germans go just as mad as the British, wheeling out their apparatus the minute a fleck of sunshine appears through the clouds and barbecuing everything from the traditional sausage to pesto-flavoured tofu. You shoot the Scheiβe, drink a brew or twelve and stay out with your barbeque until it gets dark or you get thrown out of whichever place you’ve chosen to grill in. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds well and good, but this is Berlin! Couldn’t it – hell, shouldn’t it – be a bit edgier?” Why yes, yes it can. And therefore I ended up going to my first German Grill of the season illegally on the rooftop of one of the edgier buildings in one of the edgiest districts, Neukölln.


I knew from the minute I stepped out of the S-Bahn station that it was going to be a good evening when I saw a beautiful Berlin moment happen right before my eyes like a small present from fate. A tweenie girl licked her giant ice-cream too hard and both scoops thudded onto the pavement. She groaned and walked off licking the creamy residue off her sad-looking empty cone. Milliseconds later a homeless man came along, kicked the ice-cream boulder like a football and then sauntered off roaring with laughter. It was so sudden and hilarious I couldn’t have been in a better mood by the time I reached this incredible place.

The block of flats my friend lives in has an amazing loft space under the roof. It is a truly cinematic space, full of echoey eaves and dusty rafters. Inset into the roof are little porthole-style windows and one oval window with light mint-green glass, and in the main loft space there is nothing on the floor save one abandoned roll-top desk. We all climbed the rickety ladder to emerge onto a wonderful flat rooftop deck which looked out over the whole city. It was exactly as brilliant as it sounds. From the rooftop you could eat your kebab and regard the city as if it were your kingdom; the view from a roof is somehow so much better than from the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm because everything is still so near, you can thoughtfully regard the lights of Alexanderplatz in the distance or just annoy an old woman by watching her and waving as she does the dishes by her kitchen window. As if it weren’t mushy enough, when night fell there were fireworks in the distance as if daring us all to hold hands and start singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or something. 

And thus ended my first week of May, the first week of the last two months of my time here. Only seven more weeks left of my contract to go before I am no longer forced by contract law to go into schools and pretend to have fun with small children. The end couldn’t come sooner, for while I am in love with this city and having what will probably be one of the best years of my life here the work hasn’t got any more pleasant or less gruelling; my voice sounds like the secretary slug-creature from Monsters, Inc (you didn’t file your paperwork, Wazowski…) and thanks to walking around the entire city every single day my feet have come to the conclusion that there is no pair of shoes comfortable enough that they won’t slowly but agonisingly remove all the skin from your heels and toes if worn too much. I spend my days nowadays playing ‘the family game’, a game I invented which the kids love so much they quite literally squeal with anticipation the minute I wink and suggest that they all line up by the wall. Each of the kids is made into a member of the family and I play the role of the gross old grandpa who wants to give his family members a big embarrassing hug. I call over various members of the family and they have to try to run from one side of the room to the other while avoiding my grabby grandpa hands. For some reason this pushes kids’ buttons in a way no other game ever has, and they get ever so creative and hilarious when they play it: some of them will point to the ceiling and go “Look! A pig/bird/policeman!!” to make me look away in confusion while they run past, some of them run round and round in circles for about fifteen minutes until I have to remind them that at some point they will need to get to the other wall otherwise we’ll be at it forever, and some kids are oddly resigned and simply walk slowly and with melancholy sacrifice into my open arms. It’s an exhausting game, but it gets me through the days and it seems to make the kids’ days when I inevitably fall over. You gotta give the people want they want.

Who says young people have short attention spa – ooh, a bird!!

Any good insect-themed bowl requires time, concentration and commitment.

There is a general assumption these days that ‘the youth’ have lost their ability to concentrate on any one thing for more than fifteen seconds thanks to the scourge of the Internet and television and the general overwhelming bombardment of stimuli with which our premature consciousnesses are forced to deal with on a daily basis. This is a rather insulting theory and goes alongside the ‘exams are getting easier’ and ‘children are getting oversexualised’ arguments which help to perpetuate a grumbling bitterness towards the Yoof of Today which we all thoroughly resent, thank you very much. But more than being insulting, this is a destructive theory as it has led to a very uncomfortable new set of theories and reasoning applying to teaching and communicating with younger generations. It is assumed that since our attention spans are so fleeting and our demand for stimulus so ravenous, we need interactivity, movement and fast-pacing when it comes to our learning and our entertainment. We are forced to endure lessons where resentful teachers make us play terrible ‘educational’ computer games where you walk through a human gut or conduct your own poorly-animated archaeological dig, we must write our homeworks in the form of kitsch Powerpoint presentations which somehow count as more stimulating than any other thing in the world because they are capable of making a bullet point zing across the screen with a noise like an old-fashioned camera taking a photograph in an empty tin can underwater. Because it involves movement and colours and sound effects suddenly a boring subject is supposed to be transformed into a whirlwind of intellectual intrigue, a source of knowledge so absorbing you lap it up like a greedy, greedy kitten.


Of course, interactivity in learning is very important; you will learn far more in doing something yourself than when you simply have someone read it to you in a drab monotone. Chemistry is a subject only made bearable by the fact that you work through the theories involved by doing your own experiments and making your own conclusions which can then be applied to the abstract content. However, this works well as an idea because there is a clear purpose to experimenting and it has a sense of being real-world valuable as opposed to some gimmick. And let us not fully dismiss gimmicks in themselves when they have valuable mnemonic use; a bunch of bored sixth-formers are much more likely to remember the theory of electron shells when they are made to whirl around the room (hopefully screaming ‘wheeeeee’), no matter how simultaneously humiliating they may find it.


But there is also a lot to be said for young people’s capacity simply to be interested. Give us a dry subject and of course it will take goons dressed up as the Vikings dancing around a psychedelic cartoon oyster to make us pay attention. Find me any middle-aged person who doesn’t react exactly the same way. But give us a reason to be interested and we will engage ourselves, or at least try; it is hard to deny that we all remember and learnt best from the teachers who found their own subjects interesting and vital and did little more than inject their own enthusiasm and interest into their teaching to make it work. When our wonderful German teacher taught us about the Wall, she told us about her own experiences and gave us an idea of the collective German feeling at the time and without having to do anything more than tell us the story of what happened we were hanging on her every word.


Still, it is not the ‘youth’ that really concern me when it comes to this question. The people that are really at risk from the ridiculousness of these assumptions are the really little ones, the ones that are still coming to terms with the complexities of putting on trousers. Every time you make an assumption about a certain group, you risk perpetuating that assumption or even causing it to become true in the first place. Yes, little kids have short attention spans, but children have always had short attention spans to a certain extent, even back in the days when people like to believe they sat for hours at a grassy riverbank fishing with a length of their mother’s sewing cotton. No, kids have always been stimulus-hungry piranhas, devouring one activity for a couple of minutes before swarming over to another or simply staring with a menacing underbite out of the empty preyless waters. Give them something that they can truly be interested or engaged in, however, and it is a doddle keeping their attention; there have been times when I have managed to avert complete meltdown with kids of friends or family simply by teaching them how to make origami water balloons and letting them quietly be fascinated for a good half hour. 


We are making a huge mistake by pandering to this imaginary child who only likes things that are multicoloured, flashing and change subject and backing music every minute. We are setting them up to expect that kind of interaction with the world and not giving them a chance to ever be fascinated in the first place, never silently offering them the question: ‘would you like to know more?’ For example: recently I watched two whole episodes of Blue Peter to give me some material to write about for a BBC application. Blue Peter, for those of you who don’t know, is a TV show for kids presented by a trio of grinning Bright Young Things who take the viewer through a series of different items to do with everything and anything that is interesting or relevant. In the past, in any given show, you might have seen a really good report on how buildings are demolished, an item on show dogs and a performance of what they can do, a musical number, a feature where one of the presenters briefly joins the U.S. Marines and a ‘Make’ where they construct a fashionable London bistro for your Barbie out of a cardboard box and PVA glue. It is a marvellous idea because it fits exactly that young mindset where you are constantly full of a million questions about everything and you haven’t yet decided quite what you don’t want to know yet. But – good grief. Ten years ago a report on demolishing buildings would have been four or five minutes long and contained lots of good explosion videos, an explanation of how they stop the buildings falling on other buildings, an interview with a demolisher and a final climax where the presenter gets to blow something up himself. Now, the item would have been a minute long, and would have run thusly:

(videos of explosions set to a well-known Muse track)

Presenter: Woah! When a building gets in the way, you’ve got to get rid of it somehow!! How exactly?!
Builder: Well, we use dynamite to – 
Presenter: AWESOME! (presses plunger and explodes building in the background)
Presenter: Amazing! This has been really ground-breaking!! Back to you in the studio Mindy! (cut back to frantic-looking blonde in technicolour set)


It was atrocious. Each of the items was so short and superficial that there was barely any time to even understand what the topic was. The Blue Peter make, which used to be so complex and beautiful, was this time simply a hideous ‘rabbit’ made by stretching two elastic bands around a flannel. Of course children are going to have fragmented concentration if that is what they are being fed! Give them a mediocre thirty-second-long video of a pen factory and they’ll be interested for 30 seconds; give them a great two-minute long item about pen factories and they won’t complain at all either.

This is what grieves me about my work. I spend forty-five minutes with children pelting various activities at them as if they were dogs being encouraged to chase different coloured balls across the room. That isn’t even far from the kind of activity we have to do with them. We have to make everything a short game and get the kids leaping and running and sitting down and standing up and singing and repeating…and yes, often they beg for the time when a particular game will come to an end but that is less to do with their own lack of attention than the fact that the game is simply poor. They love stories. They love games where they can draw things or games that have more than one rule. They love learning the body parts by playing doctor for a good five minutes rather than frenziedly poking each other’s shoulders and noses for one. If you keep giving them new topics and seguing between them with transitions as subtle as getting them all to hop on one leg they will simply have a wild and fragmented experience and a fragmented knowledge of the language they are supposed to be learning to boot. 

Ultimately I fear the root of my resentment is the fact that I am not allowed to sit down with my kids for a good hour and do cutting and sticking with them. But I am worried that if we don’t ever raise the standards of our teaching to hold their attentions, they will begin to lower their capacities to be interested to meet our offerings, and that would be a colossal shame. Kids are curious about everything, why would we want to render them all a bunch of yappy-dogs, just barking at things that wiggle and squeak?

Should you be learning English if you haven’t yet learnt to use a fork?

Yes! It’s a real Trabi! (Plus owner who was not happy about me taking this picture.)

Now I’m not prone to exaggeration (cue raucous peals of laughter from live audience) but Monday morning’s lesson has got to be one of the worst any of us babysitter teachers have to deal with. It is a group of four children: a baby of one-and-a-half years, who can barely speak at all and has a tenuous grip on reality as it is; a two year old Turkish boy who is stocky and strong like a baby buffalo and doesn’t really know any English, German or Turkish but does know how to say “Onur MAAAAAAD!” in German just like the Incredible Hulk; a three-year-old girl who is rather bright and willing to join in if it weren’t for…; the other three-year-old, the adorable blonde who made his fame on this blog months earlier as that cherub who takes his family jewels out of his tights and kneads them like a stressball. It is one of the most impossible groups of pupils to teach, not in the least because none of them have even the faintest glimmer of interest in learning English; the other ‘zone- in this kindergarten is a bomb-site of broken and scattered toy bits and crayons and sweeties which no child would under any circumstances want to leave behind in order to play farm animal memory game with a weary and shoeless ‘teacher’ (something about having to remove my shoes makes me feel like I have lost any authority I could have had before the kids even enter the room).




This class is a shining example of how quickly kids develop when they are so very young; the four of them together, if they ever stand in a line,  resemble the evolution diagram  because each of them occupies such a different plane of early development. The baby is so small that she can barely stand, and spent today’s lesson lying completely motionless on the floor in a manner so lifeless that I had to stop a couple of times and watch her until I was sure she was breathing. She was, and for some reason was also grinning all over her sticky face as if enjoying some kind of treat. Onur, the two-year-old, is just beginning to get a hold on the logic of real life, which is why it’s possible to see him over the lessons getting more and more aware of the ract that language has a communicative role; this unfortunately manifested itself in him working out what ‘Nein’ means and roaring it at me every time I ask him to do anything, from sitting down to being an Easter bunny. Fascinatingly this is coinciding with his developing understanding of games and the point thereof, as a few months ago he used to be a silent force of destruction slowly trudging around the room oblivious of the fact that we were playing things around him, whereas in the last couple of weeks he has been able to point at a card in the memory game and even realise which card is the right card to be pointing at. 


Out of the two three-year-olds, the youngest (the male) is determinedly resistant to everything and is firmly in the stage of still being fascinated by his own and other people’s bodies, meaning that when he isn’t also saying ‘nein’ or massaging his tender parts he is begging the other one to touch her belly to his or is pressing his face against her bum. The girl, the oldest, generously allows this behaviour but is herself now far too mature for this and absolutely loves the games; unfortunate, then, that none of them are possible when the other three participants are rolling on the floor, tearing the room apart or inspecting their perineum. I allow her to play ‘Doktorarzt’ every lesson as it is her favourite game and allows me to subversively sneak in some body-part learning, but she is currently in that point of childhood where you are fascinated by the idea of having babies and so it doesn’t particularly move her that my head or nose or fingers require an injection but I do now have an impressive clutch of invisible babies to tend to.


Yet as they age by mere months each of these kids is changing so rapidly I can hardly believe it. The baby began as little more than a drooling flesh-bag, whereas now she is picking up English words and knows when they correspond to certain pictures and when I am asking her to repeat them back to me. Onur never used to understand that words meant things so it used to be a case of me shouting single words at him and him shouting them back at me in a kind of detached way as he was busy throwing things and pressing his face into the wall at the time; now he is grasping their relation to the world he lives in and occasionally will deign to sit down for a full two minutes or so. And the two older ones have learnt new and creative ways to misbehave, such as stealing and hiding my mp3 player headphones somewhere in the toy crate. 


It is one of my most chaotic and least productive classes but it is quite intriguing to watch these little beasts become more and more complex as they age. Like kittens you don’t notice them looking any different from day to day but you do remember the day they stopped puking on that sofa cushion, and I suppose they even look different too. It must be strange to be a Kindergarten minder and watch thousands of toddlers enter your doors too tiny to eat by themselves and leave big enough to tell you they think what they’re eating is yucky. For someone who only spends three quarters of an hour per week with them it’s a little like watching every third episode of a TV series. Still, sometimes you are lucky and catch a really good episode; last week was my favourite so far, when the girl was being a little demon and then accidentally kicked the bottom of a vast clothes rack propped up against the wall. It fell directly upon her with a colossal WHAM. She was flattened to such a degree that you couldn’t even see her under the enormous thing, and when I lifted it up, trying to surpress all my fear and amusement, she was spread out like a photocopy of herself. It took her about four seconds to recover.

Please mentally read the following text in the voice of the pubescent boy character in The Simpsons

Butternut squash-chili-ginger soup. You need this soup in your life.

It has been a quiet week on this blog, and for that I apologise. The reason for this is that the flecks of baby-spittle which landed on my tongue at the beginning of last week heralded the beginning of the end for my physical well-being. It began with a cold, which rapidly deteriorated into a godawful sniff-fest forcing me to fill my entire bedroom with used tissues, and then after the weekend deepened in complexity and heft rather like a fine whisky; all of a sudden I was unable to talk in any voice other than a faint quacking noise resembling the voice of that broken squeaky penguin in Toy Story 2. Feeling left out and bored, the rest of my body decided to get in on the action and my big toe began to creak like old wood and explode with acid pain every time I did something crazy like walk or go up or down stairs. “Why didn’t you guys tell us you were having a party??” demanded my teeth, and proceeded to become hypersensitive to anything that is any temperature or flavour outside of completely neutral.  Unable to speak, walk, eat, drink, sing or dance around properly my daily doings are currently somewhat laboured.

But I so seldom take sick days, and at school used to covet my hundred-percent attendance rate as if it were a Victoria Cross medal.I have my gleaming 100% fixed in my mind and will not let it go for anything less than amputation. I once attended an audition during the throes of Swine Flu and passed off my almost-not-there voice by choosing to play a weeping old lady for my improvisation. No pathetic germ or measly inflamed tendon will stop me from marching Thatcher-style through life, and thus with gritted teeth and a pronounced limp I have been teaching my lessons, turning to the dreamy wonderfulness of this spicy, nutty soup with a crusty hunk of walnut ciabatta to serve as my medicine.

Teaching when you are feeling like death warmed up is a guaranteed disaster. The only classroom situation that suits such a state would be if all of the children had been mesmerised into sedentary contemplation moments before one enters the room. Unfortunately I don’t have any Dido that I can pipe into the classrooms before my arrival so this is never the case. It is fascinating to see how children react to a teacher when we reveal that we are not inhuman machines designed solely to ponce about in front of them; they appear completely aghast that the Teacher should Not Be Untouchable like the guys on TV who are exactly the same every week. It does strange things to their moods and ultimately causes any authority you had to disperse like smoke in a draughty concert hall. Here, for example, is a breakdown of the week’s worst lessons:
Monday
The class with the baby. Sadly the baby is ill, as is one other child who the Erzieherinnen (looker-afterers) tell me (with worryingly dismissive apathy) is actually in hospital. Thus in a class of just two children the youngest spent the entire class sort of sloddling (a cross between slithering and waddling) around the room doing destructive things while the other entered the room, sat quietly in the corner and wept with heart-breaking misery. She wouldn’t do anything I asked or had planned to do so in the end we sat quietly for the lesson and pretended to cook things for an imaginary family of farm animals who were very picky about the colours of their breakfasts.  
Tuesday
One child gets so furious after I ask him not to play catch by grabbing multiple children by the shoulders and dragging them behind him like sacks that he leaves and goes back downstairs; the other children sense that I am physically weak and demand that they should not be made to do anything except hide and seek all lesson. In the afternoon the children are so indifferent to their croaking teacher that they all somehow get hold of huge wads of bubble gum and chew it open-mouthed pointedly in my direction.
Wednesday
Oh sweet Moses. An Open Lesson of French-Revolution proportions. The boys realise that I cannot shout at them and run around windmilling their arms, refusing to sing the songs in favour of going ‘WAA-WAA-WAA’ in time with the syllables of the lyrics. The boy whose mother is present suddenly becomes irate for no reason and spends half an hour sobbing in wet, outraged yelps.The girls are concerned and unsettled. In the afternoon the few children who are not absent reply to my every request with a variation of ‘no’.
Thursday
I sit the children down at the beginning of the lesson and explain in my whisper that because I cannot talk loudly they must be ganz lieb and promise me that they will be good this lesson. They all adorably nod with earnest respect and promise in unison. Never before have so many children injured so many other children in a mere forty-five minutes; near the end I manage to make a loud quack to get their attention, and surrounded by sobbing toddlers I tell them off for being bad even though they promised to be good. They all club together and explain that they all forgot that they promised. In the afternoon the children are late, rude and violent, and one boy who didn’t want to do English bare-faced lied that his mother had forbidden him from doing English. For five minutes, I believed him.

Anyway, as I say, such a week necessitates recovery time and soup. The soup was finally achieved tonight and if I get a few requests I might post the recipe, as it was honestly ladle-lickingly delicious. Recovery time comes in the form of streaming episodes of quality comedy, and so, without further ado, allow me to make some recommendations that you may or may not have yet tried, so that you too will have something to slump in front of when in the throes of illness.
-30 Rock. Starting with this because it is the most embarrassingly mainstream. I was strongly against this show for a long time because I saw it as such a disappointment; a much-lauded example of a successful female comedian in the spotlight which in fact seemed to suffer from Ugly Betty syndrome, that self-massaging worthiness of having a character criticised for being ugly, fat and disgusting when they are in fact highly attractive and desirable. However, it takes a few episodes to realise that the other characters only see Liz Lemon as these things because they are so completely absorbed in themselves and their own perceived awesomeness; once you have made that realisation the show becomes a delight to watch, a parade of self-obsessed twerps who are so oblivious that they are impossible not to be fascinated by. Also, Alec Baldwin is a titan.
-3rd Rock from the Sun. Yeah it sounds almost exactly the same. But this one is about aliens pretending to be humans so they can conduct research on Earth, and it is deliciously over-the-top and wildly silly. It has the fat bloke from Jurassic Park as an obese policeman who thinks he is a sculpture of Sex Itself, and it has a hint of Back to the Future pantomime about it which you don’t find in modern series.
-Absolutely. This is the weirdest show you might ever watch.

Scottish people doing inexplicably bizarre sketches with wild accents and appallingly grimy sets? Yes please, very yes. 
– The Kenny Everett Video Show. This was the daddy of things like The Fast Show and is excellently funny. As a bonus it features completely unnecessary and unexplained dance segments by an erotic and very 80’s dance troupe, Hot Gossip. The sketches are stupid and wild (there is a regular character called Brother Lee-Love who is a Harlem-style preacher with one or sometimes two enormous plastic hands) and a lot of the humour comes purely from Everett’s clear love of the kind of tragic special effects that at the time were the most cutting-edge thing on the market. 

– Finally, The Goodies. This is ideal watch-while-you’re-ill telly. It was Bill Oddie’s big break and unbelievably popular for a time. The theme tune is goofily catchy and while the episode plot set-ups may make you raise your eyebrows so high they’ll get caught in your stylish mohair hat, the slapstick segments are so cleverly filmed and beautifully timed that I sincerely hope you find yourself doing that kind of suffocation laughter that I fall into every time.

So there you go. Now get some soup and you’ll be fine.

The Kindergarten method of contraception

My maternal instinct has always leant towards a more stereotypically manly side of the spectrum; I love children, get on with them tremendously and find them often adorable but when confronting the question of having my own in any other real-life context than ‘some day maybe’ my maternal instinct coughs a lot, changes the subject and then turns on the TV. It is a huge decision and I am not going to cement my intentions on something so significant so early in my life, particularly while I am still such an indecisive person that I can spend a good half-hour in the supermarket trying to choose between regular oranges and blood oranges. However, like many of my colleagues, here our job comes to the rescue in allowing us daily access to a wide and exciting variety of small children ready to pound any inclination to become a parent down into the dust. It is astonishing how many of us in my company admit that their attitudes to kids and parenthood have changed (not necessarily permanently, but we shall see) since starting to work with them. Before I began working with infants, I had no idea, for example, quite how disgusting they can get. I am currently ill once again since on Monday a child literally and suddenly coughed directly into my open mouth; said infant was positively dripping with opaque green mucous and by the end of the lesson her entire face had a nauseating glistening sheen, completely coated with the various unhealthy fluids she was leaking. Today a child I do not even teach was so overcome with affection for me that he simply had to embrace me, which was unfortunate considering that he was so covered in food and snot that it looked like he had been sneezed on by a feasting dinosaur. He was unnervingly damp, too, and as with all the kids like this (and there are many) they always seem to want to hug you exclusively with their mouth and hands .

This line of work has also awakened me to the rather sad thought that while children are precious and the time during which they are little and wild and creative is short, a lot of what they do and produce during this time is sadly unremarkable. All of the ‘gifts’ I am given are so rubbish and apathetically produced that I can’t bring myself to stick them on the fridge: I have received, in the past, a blank sheet of paper with one edge coloured sky blue, a scribbled maelstrom which had then been folded and glued sixty times until it was no more than a rock-hard clump of frantically coloured Pritt-Stick, and my personal favourite came yesterday when I was given as a ‘present’ a hinged paper model of the human jaw that they had clearly had to make in science class. Presumably when one is a parent one sees golden potential in everything your child does, but how much of this flotsam can you save before you have to make the heart-breaking first ever decision to throw one of these bits and pieces in the bin? 


One thing that has not changed about my attitude to children, of all ages, is their immense capacity to be hilarious and ingenious completely out of the blue. All it takes is the right word, the right tone, the right idea, and within seconds you have their gleaming smiles and wide eyes fixed solely upon you and within milliseconds they will be having their own mind-blowing ideas to suggest to you. I have had to promise one class that they will all be getting hand-made (‘gebastelt’) tiger masks as a surprise present for Easter because they honestly looked so hopeful and joyful when asking for this present that refusing would have been cruel. Don’t ask me where they got the idea from in the first place but they have mentioned it every minute of every class every week since. I also particularly like that children are unashamed to be completely in love with something they do – this seems to cause a kind of insane tunnel-vision where nothing else seems important or fun, to the point where one of my pupils actually chose not to go on a school trip to the natural history museum because she didn’t want to miss out on the ‘points’ that I give the kids who arrive to their lesson on time.


But I’m not about to pretend that this post is in any way going to be a balanced argument or have an open conclusion. As it is, I feel like most of my colleagues; working all day with little children is making me want to fling my uterus into the nearest ditch. When you have your own, you can love them and care for them and have them as a little project. When you teach other people’s, all you see day after day is a parade of bored, crying, gooey, whiney, eye-infectiony faces and you don’t get to do the best things, like reading the bedtime story or giving the christmas presents or helping them learn to swim. And I’m a cynic, so I am going to assume that those things are all overrated anyway.

Life Hack: How to make the best of a bad daily routine

This is the substance that replaced my blood long ago

I met a few colleagues the other night and we inevitably ended up discussing our job. Our work is starting to reach a worrying crisis point in that a huge and faintly embarrassing number of us have resigned and the few of us left hanging on wake up every morning and pack our colossal rucksacks full of flashcards with a reluctance I can only describe as verging on Edgar Allan Poe-style dread. Furthermore, the worst part of it is that those of us who are staying in the job are all merely doing so because we are forced to remain here, unfortunately compelled by our unfair contracts and tenuous living conditions to stay employed by our company simply because there is no alternative that would not result in heavy and unpleasant repercussions. The unrest and unhappiness among my colleagues and I is getting to the point where we resemble dogs before a storm, shaking and whimpering while the weather appears balmy and peaceful because we know that there is something dark behind those thin white clouds. If you have no other reason to read this blog, do check it from time to time for the simple reason that I am convinced this will all implode at some point and things will begin to get very interesting indeed.

However, if you are in a situation where your bad job or pursuit (by which I mean studying or job searching) is like mine, unavoidable and causing unhappiness, the only way to prevent the unhappiness is not to change the job but to change all the little bits that fit in around it to ensure that the pure time that does not belong to you is at least spread out by time you can make better. To make my lifestyle and rhythm bearable, I made the following changes and since then have been palpably happier; if you follow these ideas, I’d wager you will feel the same. 

1. Mornings. Stop them being nothing but that dark hour when you have to amputate yourself from the heavenly bliss of sleep and duvets. Firstly, set your alarm not for when you simply have to get up or even to allow for a couple of hits of the snooze button but rather for a significant chunk of time before you need to begin getting ready: half an hour at least. This means that you can wake up, have an extra few minutes of sleep, and then have five to ten minutes of time in bed to just enjoy being in bed and being awake; you can read a bit of your book or simply spend a pleasant while wiggling your toes and inspecting your view out the window. It gets you into a level and contented state of mind for the moment when you do have to arise, so that you don’t resent it too much.

2. For goodness’ sakes, eat a decent breakfast and drink a large cup of whatever you drink in the mornings. If you are well-fed and hydrated you are more likely to feel ready for what’s coming up, and if you have a bowl of cereal be sure to follow it with a couple of slurps of tea; follow the rule of always ending your breakfast with something hot, as a warm feeling in the belly counteracts the cold and darkness as you exit the front door and makes you feel more sated.

3. Bring toys and things to do with you at all times. Install games on your phone, bring a doodle notebook, a good novel, a wad of bluetack, some knitting or sewing, a pocket puzzle – the kind of things you would take for a plane journey. Sure, they weigh down your bag somewhat, but it is worth it to be able to avoid dead time on trains or platforms where your mind is fully free and therefore able to ruminate about how much you hate your job.

4. Separate the dead time out into alternating chunks: time to enjoy and time to be productive. Bring some work or study materials with you too and alternate the fun things with the productive things so that you’re never too bored and you don’t feel the time is being wasted either. 

5. Give yourself little presents throughout the day. Buy yourself a coffee, take the time to make a really nice lunch for yourself the night before, borrow some CDs from the library and spice up the selection on your mp3 player. Little things like this spice up the day and lend it variety. And allow yourself the luxury of not worrying about the tiny expense of this; it is a waste of money to save your pennies for the future if your daily life in the present is time you will regret for not having been happy.

6. Spring up stairs. Walking up stairs feels like a mission and leaves you feeling tired and annoyed once you reach the top; paradoxically you feel less tired if you run or skip up the stairs and you also avoid ever coming to the thought that these endless stairs are a metaphor for the wearying and ever-uphill remains of the day ahead of you.

7. Finally, take the time on your way home at the end of the day to put yourself in a good mood for the evening. I like to take a new route home from time to time even if it’s twice as long because it lets me discover new things like dinosaur playgrounds; alternatively, have a big juicy apple on the way or designate a fun and much-loved song on your mp3 player which will become the ‘credits music’ indicating the end of your working day that you can play just as you near your house. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes simply to enter your front door in a decent mood – it helps you forget that you weren’t in that kind of mood all day and means that when you put the kettle on you have the energy to do something more fun with your first hour of freedom than sitting grim-faced in front of an appalling German cooking program.

It all boils down to engineering things so that your state of mind is always on the positive side of neutral and your thoughts never have too much idle time in which they can focus on the typical things that you resent. It sounds like a lot of effort, but for the improvement in mood it is certainly worth it. And if these tips don’t work, there is always this picture.

 

Kids say, do, sing, dance, touch or destroy the darndest things…

South Lichterfelde, where I teach on Thursday mornings. That white triangle in the distance? An abandoned carousel. Really.

Good god, I wish I could be young again. I don’t mean ‘heyday of my youth’ kind of young – I’d like to think I haven’t quite left that in the first place, not to mention that I am repeatedly mistaken for a sixteen-year-old (or younger) and threatening to make me relive puberty is the one surefire threat that would make me do anything in the entire world, even drop-kicking a newborn kitten against a brick wall. No, I mean like toddler-young, teeny-weeny young, the-kids-I-teach kind of young. They live a marvellous existence and don’t even know it. To wear tights as your default legwear regardless of gender or prejudice arising therefrom? To take a good hour to eat a whole apple because proportionally it would be like an adult eating a balloon-sized fruit? To find everything that makes a slightly goofy noise marvellously funny, even if it’s repeated numerous times? People, these truly are magical moments, and it’s a shame we spend all of them dribbling around in a hyperactive dizzy fog until it lifts around the age of six and we realise that the world is a dark, dark place.

The one thing I really love about teaching the real tinies is how appreciative they are of the effort you put in to be entertaining and funny. Unlike adults, if you do a really good dance or put on an especially wacky voice or simply raise your eyebrow in an extravagant way they make no bones about showing you how much they love it and find it hilarious, and they giggle and jump up and down and grin widely and sometimes they say brilliant things, like when I introduced a new song and at the end little Julian collapsed with a puff of tired breath and sighed, “That is my new favourite song ever.” The kids I teach constantly come up with wild and funny ideas or thoughts which I can scarcely witness without wanting to applaud them; Vlad, a burly little chap with a deep and sturdy voice, once said he didn’t want to come to English because he ‘was scared’. When I asked him what he was scared of, he gave me a devilish smile and said: “I am scared of my shoes.” Thank you, Vlad. Recently I was playing the fish game with one class – this game involves the children being ‘BIIIIG FISH’ and me being a ‘little fish’ and having to ask them ‘how are you?’ until the word ‘hungry’ comes up, at which point all the BIG fish run after the little fish and eat him (me). The big fish leapt on me with their usual vigour and chewed me down to the bones, at which point one child stood upright, deadly serious, and said, “I didn’t finish eating you up.” “Why not?”, I replied. “Because you didn’t have enough salt and pepper on you.”


They are nuts, and sometimes I wonder whether they are too young to be being strictly ‘taught’ anything, simply because their world works in a totally different way. Some of them can’t sing a whole song without spontaneously being violent to the person next to them, and some of them spend an entire forty-five minute lesson with their tongue lolling out of their mouth, swooping it around in big circles like someone swinging a wet rag. To teach such little ones you have to be constantly looking around like a lifeguard in a pool full of triple-amputees; there is always one child that needs to be told to STOP IT, another child who is gradually losing focus and a third kid who has just done something awesome. You must never ever forget the child who did the good thing like say a word properly or finally say ‘I am fine’ instead of ‘I am five’ for the first time because the praise is what they live and die for, and you can actually see their face drop if they do something right and you don’t give them the recognition right away. 

Praise and positive reinforcement are, I reckon, the two strongest strings to any teacher’s bow, but in this age group most of all. I have had several kids who are just plain old why-you-little kind of naughty and sometimes all it takes is a huge burst of compliments at a well-timed victory for their eyes to gleam and for them to spend the rest of the lesson behaving like a champion. They are suckers for the praise, too, which makes it so easy to dispense; there is one game I play with them divided into two teams competing against one another, and every week I engineer it so that ‘oh my good grief BOTH teams have exactly the same number of points, BOTH teams have won!!!’. Every week they scream and whoop with joy and hug each other for this tremendous collective achievement – my cynical childhood self would have simply furrowed my bushy eyebrows and commented that when everybody wins, everybody also loses. Play it right and you can have a whole group of toddlers pliable like putty; forget it or come to work in a bad mood and you can have them banding together in mutiny.


Finally, I have realised that the one thing I do need to keep me going from lesson and do my job well is to find one thing in each child that I think is cool or funny or clever, to avoid the trap of ignoring the ‘that little bugger’ in the room. This is not easy sometimes. The little three-year-old who constantly massages his testicles is hard to cherish. The kid who calls me ‘fat teacher’ is not so precious. But darn it, it can and must be done, and I find myself focusing in on the funniest little idiosyncrasies which are the things that have me marvelling day after day at how weird and awesome and alien little children are. I love Cedric because he does a Michael Jackson impression at ear-splitting volume at the end of every game. I love Jon because he dresses and stands as dapperly as a character from ‘The Great Gatsby’. I love Zoe because she looks exactly like my grandma even though she’s three. I love Julian because of his huge afro and huger grin. And I love the testicles kid because…well, I’m working on it.
  
p.s. my humble blog seems to have gained an exciting amount of momentum and I’d like to thank you all for reading and for your very kind comments and support; I’m really enjoying writing this but it wouldn’t feel half as worthwhile if it weren’t for knowing that you are egging me on. I’ll be coming up to my fiftieth post soon, for which I want to do something special (a video methinks…) but in the meantime I love reading your comments so keep ’em coming, let me know if you have a topic request, and do recommend Guten Morgen Berlin to friends, family and loved ones. For now I promise I will try to get posting at least three times a week so you can have your ‘Nase voll’ of me sooner rather than later. (‘Die Nase voll haben’ = to have had enough, literally to ‘have your nose full’)