30 Thoughts As I Approach 30

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On Wednesday morning we’ll wake up to the news that America have elected either Trump or Clinton as their president. Incidentally it’ll also be my thirtieth birthday. Here are some thoughts on that matter. Actually a lot of these thoughts aren’t about that matter they’re just thoughts.

1. I wonder how old I’ll be when Article 50 is triggered?

2. I should probably start wearing matching socks now.

3. A decade ago I had a much clearer career path ahead of me than I do now.

4. At what age will it be considered inappropriate to go to “Pets At Home” just to look at the rabbits?

5. Where IS Liz Truss?

6. I never imagined I’d be living back at home at the age of the 30. Even if it is only temporarily.

7. I think 15-year-old Zoe would be happy with how 30-year-old Zoe turned out. Even if I’m not living in New York with 8 cats. And I don’t have a job with a salary. Or even a proper home.

8. Although I’m quite relieved that 15-year-old Zoe’s plan to have 4 children by the age of 40 never really worked out.

9. I move to Amsterdam in 9 days. That’s pretty cool.

10. I should start learning dutch.

11. Maybe I’ll make a cake.

12. Buy. I meant buy a cake.

13. And by cake. I mean cheese.

14. People born in 1998 can legally drink. Not just a glass of wine with a meal but properly drink. 1998.

15. Whilst I’m quite looking forward to turning 30, I’m pretty sure I was only 22 last year.

16. I am married. Married. Writing that is far more surreal than writing about turning 30.

17. I’ll probably still be one of the youngest people at National Trust properties (who hasn’t been dragged there by their parents.)

18. How the hell are UKIP still a real thing?

19. It’s probably time to accept I’m never going to be a Blue Peter presenter.

20. And it’s unlikely I’ll ever be an Olympic athlete. Although I’m not ruling that one out entirely.

21. Where did my “30 before 30 list” go?

22. Is it acceptable to write a “40 before 40 list” now or is that just ridiculous? At least I’d have plenty of time to actually do everything on the list.

23. I wonder if my love of having a pint on my own is a legitimate pastime or something to worry about?

24. At what age will I start feeling like a grown-up?

25. I should get some sort of skincare routine. That’s something grown ups do.

26. Whilst I’m at it I should teach myself some new hairstyles just so I have a third option other than “up” or “down.”

27. Does anyone actually feel like a grown up? Where are all the grown ups?

28. Does this mean I have to own an iron now?

29. At what age will it be ridiculous for this blog still be called “The Girl On The Piccadilly Line?”

30. I fucking hope I don’t wake up to the announcement that Trump is President.

 

 

Heaven Knows We’re Miserable Now

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One of the most difficult things about saying goodbye to Year 6 at the end of the year is the knowledge that, regardless of which school they are off to next, they are about to enter a really difficult few years. Being a teenager is bloody horrible. You can be the most well-adjusted child, from the most stable and loving home and still have days, weeks, months where you hate yourself. Not just hate your arms, your nose or your thighs but genuinely hate yourself.

So it was depressing, but not surprising, to read that young girls in Britain are increasingly unhappy.  Research carried out by the Children’s Society found that 14% of 10 to 15-year-old girls are unhappy with their life as a whole and a third of them are unhappy with their appearance. Apparently the researchers who interviewed the girls heard them describe themselves as “ugly” and “worthless.” If I’m really honest, I was surprised that it wasn’t a higher percentage. To me the fact that 66% of the young people interviewed DIDN’T feel unhappy about their appearance is very encouraging. The worry is that the number of young girls who are unhappy has risen by 10% in the last 5 years (interestingly boys percentages haven’t budged.) Are teenage girls getting more unhappy? Isn’t being unhappy and hating your body almost par for the course in your teenage years? Isn’t teenage melancholy the reason entire genres of music were created and why people listened to the Smiths. Or is that just one of those horribly insensitive “didn’t worry about that in my day” comments? In a letter to his 16 year-old self Stephen Fry wrote:

“I am perhaps happier now than I have ever been and yet I cannot but recognise that I would trade all that I am to be you, the eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering and despairing 16-year-old Stephen: angry, angst-ridden and awkward but alive. Because you know how to feel, and knowing how to feel is more important than how you feel.”

I am not trying to dismiss mental health issues or play them down in any way I just don’t know anyone that at some point in their teenage years wasn’t filled with insecurities about their appearance. Obviously just because “that’s how it’s always been” is no reason to allow anything to continue and our hope is that quality of life would improve with each generation. I’ve only read two short articles on this piece of research. I’m currently on a train trundling through the Gobi desert and downloading articles on my phone is a bit like like trying to download music with dial-up internet. I’ve only managed to find articles sharing the percentages and suggesting we increase support for teen mental health – so far so good. What I haven’t found is any analysis as to WHY these girls are unhappier, particularly with their appearance, compared to girls in previous years. So I thought I’d do my own.

I think every generation believes that when they were younger “kids were allowed to be kids” for a lot longer – I’m not sure this is true. A 10-year-old living on London in the 1940s for example would have faced traumas that are incomprehensible to a 10 -year-old growing up in London today. Still each generation sees the world their children are growing up in as more cynical than their own childhoods. When my parents were 10 they could play out in the street until it was dark, front doors could be kept unlocked and everybody knew their name. Similarly, when I was 10 if I wanted to phone a friend I used the phone in the lounge, after 6 o’clock (and for no longer than 10 minutes because we’re not made of money.) I didn’t have my own mobile until I was 14 (Nokia 3210 – obvs) and there was no internet access at home until I 15. There was no WhatsApp or Facebook even MySpace was still an idea waiting to be developed

It was the 90s and the height of Britpop, arguably a time that was less image obsessed than the X-Factor world young people grow up in today. The women I saw on TV and in the newspapers were Denise Van Outen, Zoe Ball and Sarah Cox – smart, confident and funny women who were as comfortable at Glastonbury as they were on the sofa of the children’s programmes I loved. They wore baggy clothes, hung out with Oasis and drank lager; I thought they were cool as anything. Like most young girls in 1997 my idols were the Spice Girls. Say what you want about them but they were five normal looking girls without a fake tan or a size 0 between them (at least in the early days.) They had frizzy hair, mad clothes and were all proud to be different. When I compare them to the role models the current generation of children have from Cheryl Cole to any one of the Kardashians, perfectly groomed within an inch of their lives, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that these women are more damaging role models for young girls than the women I admired 20 years ago… right? Not quite.

In 1996 a magazine published a photograph of Emma Bunton and her mum walking along a beach in their swimming costumes. The headline read, “Which One Is The Spice Girl?” The implication being that Emma Bunton’s figure was indistinguishable from that of woman over double her age. I remember looking at the picture and admiring Emma’s lovely figure (thankfully I was completely unaware of the magazines attempt to body shame a 21-year-old) I thought to myself, “My legs look a bit like Emma Bunton’s” At 10 years-old I was proud – I looked like a Spice Girl! For the next couple of years I would look at photos of Emma and try and judge if I was still as thin as her. I’d replicate her poses and judge whether my thighs spread out more than hers when I crossed my legs or if I had more rolls of fat on my stomach when I sat down. I didn’t ever tell anyone about my Bunton Body Barometer and by the time I was 14 my obsession with the Spice Girls had been replaced by an obsession with Robbie Williams – and my thighs were definitely much narrower than his so that was fine.

The photographs I have from my early teenage years are generally awful. There were no GHDs so if you were blessed with unruly, frizzy hair then that is what you had. Limited income and a lack of affordable brands meant most of my make-up came from the bargain bin in Superdrug: orange eye shadow and foundation two shades too dark. It didn’t matter that we had shit hair, hand me down clothes or crap make up – it was what we didn’t have that made a difference. There was no, what my husband refers to as, “Personal PR” social media accounts to present our lives as glossier, happier and sexier than they really are. I read in an article that teenagers are guilty of “checking in” on Facebook to places they haven’t actually been in an attempt to make their lives seem more interesting. The 90s equivalent was just bullshitting about what you did at the weekend and, more often than not, you got called out on it.

We couldn’t edit photos to make them more attractive and we knew nothing about the hand on the hip/leg forward pose I now rely on to hide all manner of sins in photographs. We didn’t have to deal with Instagram: hundreds of thousands of images, carefully prepped and posed for, cropped and filtered to make everyone look thin, beautiful and blemish free. We didn’t have social media promoting “The A4 Waist Challenge” or “The Thigh Gap Challenge” – in fact the phrase “thigh gap” wasn’t in the shared lexicon of the time.

Adam Edwards in Year 9 may have fantasised about seeing pictures of us in our underwear (because that’s what teenage boys do) but he would have never have had the nerve to have the conversation to ask for one. Even if he had we would never have agreed mainly because it would have meant buying a disposable camera, waiting for our parents to be out, getting the bus to Boots, hoping the person that developed the film didn’t know our parents. Then finally, upon receiving the photos, we’d have had to have prayed there was at least one that was taken without our finger over the lens. Today all Adam Edwards has to do is send a text, Snapchat or WhatsApp to the phone that also has the camera on. He may even be chivalrous enough to send a picture of his genitals to get us in the mood. The pressure is huge.

I am not for a second suggesting that the current generation of teenagers are in anyway more naïve or foolish – in fact the opposite is probably the case. Teenagers have enough on their plates without women in their late twenties sticking the knife in from behind the the safety of a computer screen. There are plenty of teenagers who have a perfectly healthy relationship with social media. Those that are struggling need nothing other than our support and reassurance. After all, they are dealing with pressures and challenges that those before them never had to. Worse than that – a lot of those challenges are ones we did not know we had to prepare them for.

So what do we do? Social media continues to grow at an exponential rate; we can’t hold it back. Some might suggest that young people should spend less time on their phones but it would be astonishingly hypocritical for me to argue for that. We need to accept that social media and the challenges that come with it are here to stay and we need to educate. We need to teach that who they are is more important than how they look. That being smart, loyal and kind is as important as looking good in skinny jeans. It’s taken me 29 years to learn this lesson and I still have days where I fail completely, where I delete photographs taken from an angle that doesn’t flatter my thighs.

More than anything we need to be loud. The positive messages that these young people hear from us have to be so loud that we drown out the doubts put in their mind every time they log on.

 

Off Track

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Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessing. And  once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”  

Elizabeth Gilbert

It’s been nearly three weeks since my last post. In that time there have been several legal challenges made against the Labour Party by erm, the Labour Party, the Conservatives have announced that they are planning to build more Grammar Schools (shock), Donald Trump continues to insult and abuse everyone he meets: from the parents of a dead soldier, to a crying baby and Nigel Farage has grown a moustache, one assumes in an attempt to look more statesman/German porn star-like. Lack of inspiration is not my excuse for not writing it is just, for once, I have been somewhat distracted by some more uplifting news: Tim and I got married last week. It was a beautiful day filled with the most incredible people. I won’t bore you with the lovely details – I’ll just leave a few of our photos here:

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I should just mention our wonderful photographers Neil and Lisa who are responsible for these beautiful pictures – not just because I know they read this blog!

Last week was also significant for a second reason. We finally activated what we refer to as: The Plan (capital T capital P.)
The Plan

Tim and I have made no secret that we were really struggling with the state of the education system. Earlier this year we both publicly resigned and we’ve documented our ongoing frustrations on our blogs. If I’m honest the decision to leave teaching has been made for a while. Our head teachers knew long before our public resignations and our friends and family long before that. In fact, the moment that exit poll flashed up on the screen on May 7th 2015 we knew it wasn’t a matter of IF we’d leave the profession, just a matter of when and, more importantly, how. Neither of us has ever done anything else; we’d both imagined we’d stay in teaching until we retired.

But handing in our resignations in January filled us with a sense of optimism and hope that we hadn’t felt for long time. We were young(ish), educated and free to choose the direction our life was going to take – we just had to decide what direction that was. It’s the sort of decision most people are faced with when they are 18 and fresh out of school or at 21 as a young graduate. At the age of 11 I knew with such certainty that I wanted to be teacher so I was never confronted with that crossroads. No difficult decisions or soul searching was required, just a few forms to complete to secure my place on the PGCE course. Now here I was at 29, resigning from a successful career that I had, until recently, enjoyed. It was as terrifying as it was exhilarating.

We had three big decisions to make: what our next jobs would be, where we were going to live and, even more importantly, where we were going to go on our honeymoon. What followed was months of discussions and several draft versions of “The Plan.” You name it, we considered it. From buying and renovating a windmill, to buying a plot of land and building an eco-friendly lodge complete with allotment and solar panels to retreating to a cottage in the Hebrides to write stories and make/sell/eat fudge. We researched every career we could possibly do next: from politics, to cheese making, writing, plumbing, developing a scheme that would help Primary school teachers teach politics even foreign currency trading.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making (lesson) plans.”

All we knew for sure was we wanted to ensure that the next stage of our life had more of a work-life balance than that last. We’ve been good at the work bit but the life bit requires serious improvement. Two teachers/school leaders does not equal a lot of quality time together. It means evenings spent too exhausted to talk or hunched over data or books and weekends spent trying to catch up on sleep – and we haven’t even got children to factor in at this point. It’s not a sustainable model and it’s certainly not a happy one. We’ve both been in the education system since we were four years old. That’s 25 years of the day being structured into hourly lesson slots, set lunch hours, bells ringing to let us know when we can go to the toilet or have a hot drink. What I think we’re both craving more than anything is more autonomy and control over our time.

After much deliberation, discussion and number crunching, we decided we would kick start our married life with a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Inspired by Phileas Fogg Michael Palin we decided on a round-the-world trip – by train. Which is why I am writing to you from a café in Leningradsky station, Moscow, not from a sofa in Wood Green. We’ve spent the last two days on a sleeper train from London, because nothing says honeymoon like 48 hours confined to a small cabin with an old Russian lady and an unwashed student. Our plan from here, after a few days exploring St. Petersburg, is to take the Tran Siberian Express to Lake Baikal where we’ll hole up in a chalet before continuing to Mongolia to stay in a yurt with a Mongolian tribe and a few goats. Then it’s back on the train all the way to Beijing. After we’ve done London to China by train, it all gets a bit more honeymoon-like. We get on a plane to cross the ocean to Hawaii where we’ll kick back for three weeks before continuing on to San Francisco to do coast-to-coat America on, you guessed it, more trains. All being well, we’ll be back in the UK at the end of October to catch up with our loved ones, wash our clothes and repack in time for our move to Amsterdam in November.

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Why Amsterdam? A few factors swung it: we needed to be somewhere accessible that meant we could still get back to London, somewhere we could get by with English whilst we learnt the language (Tim has multiple languages up his sleeve where as I have only a smattering of Italian phrases at my disposal which will only get you so far in Holland.) We ideally wanted somewhere politically left-leaning and we didn’t want to live somewhere that would mean relying on a car. So Amsterdam it is. We’ve got a place for 6 months and we haven’t decided the plan from then on. Tim’s got to be back in London for a short time because he’s starring in a one-man show about education – yes really – more on that another time.

So my posts for the next few weeks may be slightly more sporadic depending on whether I can get access to the internet. For the next few weeks I may even venture away (just slightly) from education and politics at times. That said, we arrive in Washington about three weeks before the Presidential Election so I’m sure I’ll have a word or 1,000 to say about that. The Labour Leadership Election takes place whilst we’re in Hawaii and, whilst it feels wrong to dwell on the dilemmas facing the Labour Party whilst sitting in a tropical paradise, I imagine it won’t be far from our thoughts; it has already dominated our conversation whilst travelling through Belarus yesterday.

 

If you’re interested you’ll find be able to follow our adventures and musings here. Normal service will resume in October  but, for now at least, The Girl on the Piccadilly Line is off track.

 

 

The Daft Dad Stereotype Needs To Stop

“The first rule of being a man in modern Britain is you’re not allowed to talk about it.”

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It was a very ordinary Tuesday. I went out to collect my class and one of my favourite parents (yes, we have favourites) came running up to me dragging her daughter behind her. “Sorry Miss Brown, it was Daddy’s turn to get her ready today so surprise, surprise, she hasn’t got her glasses!” This isn’t a one off. I’ve heard dads blamed for, incomplete homework, no book bag and unwashed hair. Of course it could just be the case that there are hundreds of incompetent men out there producing children without the intelligence to look after them but I doubt that’s true. It got me thinking.

I am a feminist. This means I believe in equal rights for men and women. In many ways women still aren’t treated equally to men and I will always speak up against that. However, there are mutterings at the moment of a “crisis of masculinity” that cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Research conducted by the Men’s Health Forum, a charity which aims to tackle male health inequalities, found that men are more likely to take their own lives than women – in fact suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 35. The research also discovered that, on average, men attain lower at all stages of school, are more likely to be homeless, are less likely to access NHS services when they need to and, as they get older, men have fewer friends than women and feel more isolated.

So what is going on? Men still earn more than women, they dominate politics and business and are less likely to be the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. There isn’t an expectation on them to sacrifice their careers for family life and, to top it all off, they don’t have to give birth. Yet suicide is the cause of death for 26% of men under the age of 35.

So let’s start at the beginning.

School Days

The problem starts in the first few years. Seven-year-old boys are 7% less likely to reach the expected level in reading and writing than girls. By the end of Primary school, that gap is eight percentage points. It gets wider the older the children get: at 13 it’s 12%; by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap is 14 percentage points. So whilst 66% of girls achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, only 56% of boys manage the same. Show me a maintained school that doesn’t have “boys’ writing” on their School Improvement Plan and I’ll show you a school in denial.

One could argue that this is because we have an education system based on an outdated model that measures how many revision notes you can remember and how neat your handwriting is but that is probably being too cynical. Also, I seem to remember the Daily Mail once published a “schools are sexist towards boys” article once so let’s give that argument a wide berth. The reasons boys don’t achieve as highly as girls is a separate article/dissertation in itself (one that I may write in the near future.)

Media Men

Now I am not for a second suggesting that the way men are portrayed is worse than the way women are portrayed but I think there is definitely an issue here. Adverts, in particular, like to present the man as a bit daft, bumbling and almost childlike. Think of any advert that shows a “regular household” and you will see a man struggling to get their heads around childcare, internet providers or electrical goods whilst the women run around sorting out the house, the children and generally saving the day.

Of course the reason this started was to subvert the stereotype of the airhead woman being rescued by the competent, strong man. Whilst I understand where this formula came from I can’t help but feel it is counterproductive in the fight for gender equality. We’ve all agreed it isn’t right to perpetuate unfair, female stereotypes so why don’t we feel the same way about male stereotypes?

A couple of years ago there was a Boots advert that showed two women, full of cold, talking about the busy days they’d had. When they ask about each other’s partners they both explain their partner is tucked up in bed with a cold – bless him. The message is clear: women get on with it whilst men mope about. If that advert was men talking about women it would have been called out as sexist.

From Homer Simpson, to the man who was late to his wife’s prenatal scan because he took a detour to McDonalds or the “Huggies” Dad Test –  advertising love the “dumb Dad.” He is presented as an additional child, creating more work for the Mum. The message is loud and clear: he is surplus to requirement within the household.

Gender Roles

It used to be so simple (albeit unfair.) The man went off to work/kill a mammoth and women would stay at home to cook dinner and clean the cave. Thank God/Father Christmas it changed. Women don’t have to choose between a career or a family, they can have both, either or neither. Inevitably, this fact has had an impact on relationships between men and women too. Women don’t have to rely on men for a roof above their heads/financial support/protection from bears and men cannot assume that the house will be clean and dinner will be on the table when they get home.

This is fantastic and I am so grateful to be born at a time where I can choose whether or not I have children, where I work, where I live and how I spend my money. This does mean that couples, rather than making assumptions, have to have a conscious discussion about the roles they are going to play in their relationships. Are they going to share housework equally? Who will sort bills? Who will do childcare and who will work or will you both do a bit of both? Obviously this issue affects both men and women but are men going to opt for childcare if they are constantly made to feel as though they aren’t doing the job as well as a woman would?

Partners

When I first got together with the Man on the Piccadilly Line people would talk about “training him up” which is a strange way to speak about a human and I’m not sure if any of his friends asked him the same question about me. We’ve allowed this idea that men would be “lost” without women or need us to improve them to take hold. It is unfair, untrue and never said by men about women. It’s the female equivalent of the man that talks about “her indoors” or “the old ball and chain.”

I’ve never heard any of my male friends say, “Yeah she’s putting on weight. I’ve told her she needs to get rid of her tummy so she’s joined a gym. I’ve bought her some new clothes to try and replace those god awful cardigans she wears.” (I’m a big fan of a cardigan.) Yet it’s a common theme women trying to “improve” their partner and not in a “helping them achieve their dreams” sort of way. In a “wear this, eat this and be a bit more like this” sort of way. It’s not by ANY means all, or even most, women but it’s enough.

Surely when you commit to a relationship you are committing to love that person for who they are not for who you hope you will be able to train them to be. By marrying me, The Man on the Piccadilly Line knows that every couple of months he will probably get a phone call asking if he’ll be home soon because I’ve locked myself out. He knows that if we get lost it will be he, and he alone, that has to get us found as my sense of direction and map reading skills resemble those of a snail. He also knows that I will leave my hair straighteners on at least three times a month. Equally, I know that most of our holidays will be taken by train, I will occasionally find the freezer emptied of food and replaced with bags of ice for a DIY air-conditioning experiment and I will sometimes lose him to a novel he’s writing, the World Cup or Battlestar Galactica marathons. I’m sure you could try and train the person you love to be more like version you have in your head but you won’t be particularly successful and it will make you both miserable.

Yet comments like this are so common they’ve almost become acceptable in some female circles. You can talk about your partner’s appearance, annoying habits and make derogatory comments about their intelligence, organisational skills or competencies. (Disclaimer: obviously we are allowed to moan with our friends.) I just worry that for some people there is a sense of achievement in promoting how incapable your partner is in comparison to you. It is possible this stems from some women feeling it is justified. After all, women have had more than their fair share of this sort of treatment, this just resets the balance, right?

I am a feminist. This means I will always fight for equality between the sexes. I’m not saying that men deserve to be held up on a pedestal and neither am I denying that women still suffer at the of hands inequality far more than men do. But let’s be vigilant. The fight for equality is not won by indulging lazy stereotyping.

Vote for me!

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I’ve entered the UK Blog Awards and we’re now into the public voting stage. The Girl On The Piccadilly Line is still very new in blogging years and I know it’s unlikely I’ll win but I figured it was worth a shot. So if you’ve enjoyed reading my musings on everything from Ofsted to cheese I would be so grateful if you’d click on this link and vote for me for Best Education Blog + Odeon Cinemas Best Storyteller.  Extra cheese for anyone that shares the link with their friends and family.