Jail Time

On the way home from work on Friday, on the spur of the moment, I decided to visit Colchester Castle and make the most of my resident’s pass. It was dark, the gates to the park were barely open, and the Castle itself was about to close to the public for the night. Randomly, I thought I would shop local! in the museum shop. Specifically, I was looking for a Christmas tree topper with a difference and hoping for a Boudicca (ideally with chariot), but I would have settled for a centurion or Saint Helena (Colchester’s patron saint). Sadly, there were no such decorations, and nothing which could be adapted to suit.

As I was the only visitor, members of staff were eager to tell me what I was looking at; to act as my personal guides. I declined their help, I wanted to be alone with my ancestry, and I escaped to the Castle gaol. It ceased to be used for that purpose in 1835; but in its 600-year history, the gaol had held prisoners of war, convicted criminals, and suspected witches. A sound and light show is activated when visitors enter and reflects this latter part of the story – when Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’ came to Colchester in the 1640s. He was busy here; more witches were executed in Essex than in any other county in the UK. But we Colcestrians persist, as we must.

(Happily, dear reader, I headed home to make my own Christmas tree topper and – naturally – there is now a decorated dog topping my tree, to add to the two live ones ‘decorating’ its base).

My Back Yard

Long ago and not so far away, was my first home: 47 North Hill, Colchester, Essex, UK. It was there that my sister was born, and there that I was raised to realise that we are our stories. There, too, I learned to respect other stories, others’ stories: to understand that history is always in my back yard.

I was reminded of this, last weekend, when a friend and I visited Colchester on the first of this year’s English Heritage Open Days. After a backstage tour of the Mercury Theatre, and before a tour of 3 West Stockwell Street, we braved the crowds to enter Colchester Castle Museum. I’ve loved the Castle ever since I can remember, but I hadn’t been in to the museum for four years. On Saturday, entry was free for the English Heritage Open Day, but a ‘special offer’ to local residents, of 13 months entry for £6.50, was irresistible. I shall now be a regular visitor. My ancestry remains on display, here the mosaic removed from the garden of what became number 47, previously the site of an extensive Roman villa. There, glimpses of the Boudiccan Destruction Horizon, glints of the recently uncovered Fenwick Treasure, and gasps of: Colchester, surrender?

To which, of course, I answer: Never!

No-one Puts Jacqui in the Corner!

This is a guest post. Recently, I spoke with a friend about her dyslexia and the impact it has had on her. I encouraged her to write about it, and she did! Here she shares her experience of growing-up dyslexic and her enthusiasm for lifelong learning, together with her determination to succeed:

I’m coming to the end of a long hard seven years, but what an amazing seven years it’s been!

In 2011, I made the decision to return to formal education, not for career development but for personal enlightenment and satisfaction. I did it with the determination to show what I could do to everyone who put me down when I was growing-up. To all the educators who called me thick, stupid and lazy – you were wrong!

This summer I will graduate with a BA (Honours) from the Open University. When I started school in 1966, I didn’t hear the word ‘dyslexic’, I heard ‘she’s not academic’, or ‘she keeps herself to herself’. That little girl wanted to scream out ‘I want to read but I can’t make sense of it!’ After struggling through school for a few years, I was entered for the Eleven Plus examination, together with my classmates. Failing that examination, as I was bound to do, meant that I was sent off to the local secondary modern school, straight into the special needs department. Once there, I fell in love with any practical skills work I was given – metalwork, cookery, woodwork, needlework. But…I still wanted to learn those academic subjects.

Life became harder when I turned 13 and my mum and dad separated, so I had to move house and school. But, at this new school, I wasn’t sidelined into a special needs department, I was kept in mainstream education. Even better, I had a fantastic English teacher who helped me to achieve four Certificates of Secondary Education. I was able to go to college and follow a secretarial course. From the age of eight, all I’d ever really wanted to do was follow my dad into the Royal Air Force, and soon I was able to do this, too. I was 17 years old and wanted my dad’s praise.

Later, when I’d had children, I took jobs in retail to fit in around childcare. I continued to take every opportunity I could to study and to learn, taking courses in IT, employment law, and health and safety (to name a few). But I still wanted to do more and still felt the need to show my mum and dad that I wasn’t thick, lazy or stupid. This brings me to 2011, when I took the decision to start studying for my university degree. I started with the humanities – history has always fascinated me, I shared that interest with my mum. I soon changed to an open degree so I could study many more diverse subjects.

Not long after, I was finally statemented as having dyslexia, this opened the doors for so much support. Financial assistance followed, so did practical help – I now have the use of assistive technology, including software which has helped me write this blog post through dictation. What I want to say here, my message if you like, is never give up! Always go for your dreams, don’t let anyone put you down! Now, I can say to all those educators who pushed me aside, ignored me and failed to help me ‘Fuck you! Look at me now!’

I cannot wait for my graduation ceremony this summer, even though I’d love to share it with my mum and dad and they’ll be missing…

Word of the month: /ɪnˈvɪdʒɪleɪt/


Verb: Intransitive


Meaning: Supervise candidates during an examination e.g. ‘during exams, all she had to do was invigilate’

Origin: Mid 16th century (in the general sense ‘watch over, keep watch’) –  from Latin invigilat – ‘watched over’, from the verb invigilare, from in- ‘upon, towards’ + vigilare ‘watch’ (from vigil ‘watchful’).

Pronunciation: invigilate/ɪnˈvɪdʒɪleɪt/

(With thanks to Oxford University Press @en.oxforddictionaries.com)

What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

Something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

Carver was given his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in 1987, and wrote this poem based on that fateful consultation with his physician. It begs questions of miscommunication, misunderstanding and discomfort – of what is said and not heard, of what is heard and not understood and, of course, of what goes unsaid.

“What the Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: Collected Poems. 

Day 6 of 21: in London

in June 1995. I returned from living and working abroad and started teaching ESOL in my home town of Colchester; before becoming a student again myself. My first class was a group of Russian language teachers from the former East Germany, who were being ‘re-trained’ to teach English.

This three-week course will pass very quickly, I’ve a great team of colleagues and the students seem fine – though I’m not sure how happy I’d be if I were them, being ‘advised’ suddenly to switch from teaching Russian to teaching English. The first week passes in a sunny and breezy fashion; well, the weather does. Able to sit outside to finish re-reading ‘The Levant Trilogy’ while eating my lunch, I’m sometimes joined (silently) by students who feel lonely but don’t want to speak. We smile, nod at each other, then sit companionably awhile until it’s time to return to the classroom. Once there, I quickly find that seemingly innocuous grammar points can lead to instantaneous student catharsis.

For example, work on the third and mixed conditionals to express regret or nostalgia; well, I would take that back right now if I could. Truly. First student (after looking intently at her dictionary): ‘If I had known that my abortion would give me such sadness, I would never have listened to my husband’. Cue mini-group hug with friends and then tears. Lots. My emergency supply of tissues is quickly exhausted so I fall back on distributing my emergency supply of chocolate buttons. The last one of those eaten, another in the class volunteers: ‘I would have killed my sports coach if I had known he was doping me when I was a child. I’ve never been able to have children.’ Some students are visibly cheered at the thought of killing-any-random-piece-of-shit-who-ever-treated-me-badly, and smile with faraway looks in their eyes. Eerie silence descends and then the tears start again.

One of the women, realising that my emergency rations have been consumed, produces her own. She pulls a roll of toilet tissue and a tin of Quality Street from her bag. Chewing those toffees has a calming effect and definitely shuts us all up. We make a picture from the wrappers and I announce haughtily I don’t believe in having regrets, so let’s move on shall we? We do, just far enough. My ability to ‘make students cry’ becomes a badge colleagues make me wear for some time. Each course participant is asked to keep a diary; hopes that mine will use this document to keep trauma on the page are quickly dashed. They write about me. (1) If all teachers are like her, students must learn easily and with pleasure. (2) She is fantastic and humorous. (3) An energetic and lively woman with a sense of humour – very interesting. (4) Jane demands quite a lot, but we like this. (5) I’m sure she likes teaching and has good relations with all her students. (6) A charming, energetic young woman – her gestures and facial expressions are especially striking. In the meantime, classroom recollections of trauma become ones of pleasure, admittedly often illicit, but I feel we’re getting somewhere (and consuming less chocolate and fewer tissues).

I’ve signed up for a six-day working week, and on the sixth day we visit London as part of the group’s cultural orientation. Everyone boards the coach in good spirits; the day before we had the hottest June day for 20 years and we’re still talking about it as the temperature dips and the sky clouds over. Orientation over, we all go our separate ways to do our shopping-thing or our let’s-catch-up-with-old-friends-thing. Fun done, back at the coach I notice we’re one down. I ask her friends, who, initially, say they have no idea what’s happened but they’re sure she’s fine. We leave. By the time we’re back, I’ve been told that this woman has had a miscarriage in John Lewis on Oxford Street and that her ‘friends’ got her to St. Thomas. They were very reluctant to tell me anything, then almost blasé about the whole episode with no intention of staying with her overnight. I find this strange. I ring the relevant authorities to report the event and check all is well. Three days later, discharging herself from hospital, this woman has returned from London in a taxi and reappeared in class. Nothing is said. No catharsis needed here, move along please – oh, and by the way, say nothing to the husband who’s visiting next weekend. He didn’t know about the pregnancy. It’s day 9 of 21.