Sat holding my mum’s hand on the 29th March 2018, Maundy Thursday, I kept reminding her that dad has always told us that he had enjoyed a good life and the past eight years, in his own words had been “a bonus”. “We’ve enjoyed many suppers with dad; if the Lord is calling him to his Last Supper tonight then he will be ready and we will have to accept His will”. The events of the last few months I never saw coming.
I was just about to get my hair cut when one of my sisters phoned me, “There’s no easy way to tell you but dad has been slowly slipping away over the past few days”. Roll forward six hours and I arrive in the resuscitation room at the local A&E to find dad sat up drinking a cup of hot chocolate a bit confused about all the fuss. Straight after Easter we went away for a few days to receive a phone call as we landed back in Manchester; mum had now joined dad in the local hospital. The doctors weren’t quite sure what was wrong with mum.
This is my mum’s story. She was one of a generation of women who rewrote the narrative of her life; she wrote the early story lines that would be advanced and developed in mine. Throughout my childhood and the years that followed I learnt the values from mum and dad that have been my anchor in the stormy sea of life and the compass to direct me when the way was not clear or obvious.
Mum didn’t pass her 11+; she attended the local secondary modern school which had no provision for any academic qualifications to be taken. She rues the lack of opportunity afforded her and other young people like her.
“As a schoolchild I had not been thought worthy enough to have anything but the basic statutory education because at the age of ten I couldn’t pass the 11+. For all those pupils who had equal ability but not fortunate enough to be supported and encouraged within the family environment I think it is such a tragedy for the lack of personal growth and a lamentable loss to our nation’s advancement.”
Four years later, having earned a reputation as a hard working capable pupil with an excellent attendance (many years with 100%) and the Head Girl’s Badge in her final year, Mum’s summer holiday consisted of a single weekend. She finished school on the Friday and started work on the Monday. After proving her work ethic, showing a courteous manner on the telephone and very neat handwriting, for the postal record book, she was allowed to go on a Pitman shorthand and typing course paid for by her employers.
Education for mum and dad would be the long hard miles of evening classes, day release, correspondence courses and later in life summer schools. Thanks to Open University they both gained degrees. Dad achieved his in 1979, I still remember the cheese and wine party we had to celebrate; it was so 1970s. Mum’s degree was celebrated with cream cakes; that was our standard celebration when good things happened.
Mum’s early education was limited by the secondary modern she attended but after having the family – myself and three sisters – she decided to apply to enter teaching, as a mature student, when my youngest sister went to school. Using the hours available during the school day she attended the local technical college part time and set about gaining the qualifications required. She also studied via a correspondence course, aptly named “Rapid Results” as she was aiming to complete her O-Level studies in one year. Having met the entrance criteria she spent the next three years making the most of her “golden opportunity” (to become a qualified teacher); rejected at ten years old but flourishing in her thirties she gained a treble distinction in her studies.
Mum taught in Special Schools in Liverpool; it’s wasn’t for the faint hearted. Without names Mum would talk about her working day sharing some heart breaking snippets about children who had been abused or traumatised by those who were supposed to nourish and nurture them.
Two stories thirty years apart stand out. “Barry” was in Mum’s class at school. He sat at the back of every class during four secondary school years just writing his name or copying from the board and being told “not you Barry” when work was to be done. He probably had significant special needs, needed help but was instead ignored and required to comply passively. Mum was determined that would never happen in her classroom.
Roll on the decades and you find “John” aged fifteen who wanted to be able to read a car manual. Mum had originally been trained to teach nursery and infant aged children but it was in the area of “special needs” education that she felt she could contribute most meaningfully and be fulfilled. Her initial assessment showed “John” hadn’t mastered basic phonics. However, one year later he left school with enough skills to be an adequate reader but just as importantly he had got the reading bug.
You are formed in these types of conversations. I think Mum was surprised that I remembered the “Barry” story; it was probably thirty or so years ago she told it me. The story never left me nor her anger at what had been allowed to happen. Mum always believed that teachers must be prepared to protect the interests of children’s well-being.
Education changed Mum; it opened up to her a world of thinking she had been denied earlier. My favourite story is when Mum and Sister Margaret, a nun with a fabulous sense of humour, were sitting, post lecture, discussing the meaning of life. In response to the question, “Who made you?” Mum gave the penny catechism answer she had learned by rote, “God made me.” “Why did God make you?” to which the response is, “God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in the next.”
Once Sister Margaret had pulled herself back together, her response was simple and profoundly life changing, “No he didn’t, your Mum and Dad did.” Education opens our eyes and allows us to explore deeper questions; once opened, the world in front of us changes. In later life Mum was invited to train with a national organisation as a marriage guidance counsellor. She describes it as “a tough, no hiding, no pretending insight into myself”.
In writing Liminal Leadership (this post is an edited from the book), I asked both Mum and Dad to provide me with some thoughts and reflections on their education. This is part of what Mum wrote,
“I married when I was twenty one to a man who greatly valued the importance of education. I owe most of my opportunities to further my educational aspirations to his support and willingness to be a positive contributor to the domestic scene. I think that his style of fatherhood has given our four children a very clear view of the importance of individual needs within the setting of family and community life.”
I gave the book to mum one Sunday afternoon and she stayed up all night reading it. The following morning she declared it a literary masterpiece that should be read by all. Mum affirmed you; she did the same with the doctors and nurses who cared for her.
To the NHS staff (Ward 24 and Critical Care) at Aintree University Hospital, you represent the best of your profession and the best of our shared humanity. The way that you cared for mum and the family, as we visited , was grounded in your profound professionalism and rooted in love. Thank you.
Sadly she passed away on Monday 18th June 2018; we all feel that this was not her time; that is not a decision we get to make. She had so much more she wanted to do and that will always be a great sadness to us all.
This is a slight reworking of the post, Mums Matter; written to celebrate Mother’s Day on the 26th March 2017. Mum always got up on a Sunday and read all my posts; this original post was a surprise for her and a thank you. I think half my blog views can be credited to mum; my stats will slump and I know just how they feel.
Written with thanks, love and both a deep sense of sadness and joy, Stephen xxx
An inspirational woman…thank you for reminding us of how we should be. I’m so sorry for your loss.
Sorry to hear of your loss, Stephen. She really sounds like an amazing influence, and support. I always remember you quickly following your expression “clutterf*ck” with “Sorry, Mum”, and this always made me laugh. Last year’s Mother’s Day post was absolutely inspirational. You’re carrying her baton now, my friend
Thank you, Lisa
Sorry to hear about your loss, Stephen. A moving and beautiful post.
Thinking of you and your family,
So sorry for your loss. My Mum was also a dtrong character who would have lived a different life had she been born in the 50’s as opposed to the 30’s. She was a particularly maternal mum but she cared for us in many practical ways. She wanted us to stand on our own feet and not have to rely on others. My Dad was a miner and during the strike Mum kept us on the financial straight and narrow when many got in to debt.
On the 18th June 2016, after a year of caring for my Dad as his vascular dementia progredded rapidly she rang one Saturday morning to say she didn’t feel well. I went down, called the doctor and she was admitted to hospital. The following day we were told she had a large tumour. She died 11wks later but before she died she she saw a solicitor, changed her will and left her share of their house to me and my sister so we were protected financially. She helped us find a care home for Dad then admitted herself to a nursing home so we could go back to work in Sept. One of the nurses who cared for her in the 4wks she was in hospital said to me and my sister “Your Mum is a very strong woman and she has raised 2 strong and resilient daughters ” I imagine they will get on well if they meet up X
What a wonderful woman your mum must have been. I think these two fine women will happily spend eternity together; so much in common.
Thank you. Love to you and yours x
A wonderful tribute to your mum & indeed parents. Sorry for your loss. Your family are in my prayers, Kath
I continue to be encouraged by your writings. In a rapidly changing educational scene where in my region there is a pursuit of higher and higher outcomes at the expense of cleansing some of our schools of ‘Barrys’. I take great encouragement that there are inspirational and committed leaders that still believe these children matter and deserve our very best.
Thanks, Justin. Barrys matter; it was mum’s bias to look after those in greatest need, always.
A beatiful testimony for a woman who sounds simply and quietly amazing. x
Thank you, Tina
This is a beautiful memorial: so sorry for your loss. Your book is an inspiration for many more of us, and your mum was right, we should all read it. I hope that family and friends will provide solace and space for grief. I don’t know if it will help, but I’ve just finished reading Prof Sue Black’s extraordinary book about death, All that Remains. Although it is five years since I had to deal with a major death in the family, I took incredible comfort from Sue Black and if and when you have the space and time for recovery and reading, I hope it will bring comfort to you too.
Thank you Zeba for leaving such a kind comment. I’ll look the book up and give it a read. Best wishes Stephen
I absolutely love the fact that as a headteacher you are happy to open up and share your human experience with us all. I will pray for your mum and for you all. She is very like my mum: a woman who has taught since the age of 17. Growing up I thought she had never heard, never mind said, a swearword until I learnt about the girls she taught in the Borstal and the hundreds of SEND children she has taught. She has been a gentle guide for me up to now and a constant witness to a way of leading without standing in the limelight. I am so lucky to have her in my life.
In turn Stephen your recognition of the gifts of the NHS staff is a witness to your own humanity ‘you represent the best of your profession and the best of our shared humanity. The way that you care for your pupils is grounded in your profound professionalism and rooted in love’ – That’s what your mum would tell you. No need to re-tweet. Very personal.
Thank you. It’s a lovely comment to read and add to the blog.
Sorry for your loss, Stephen. (Sam Pilgrim)
Thanks Sam. Lovely to hear from you; hope you are well.
This is a beautiful story and one that moved me to tears. How proud and privileged you have been to have such wonderful parents. Just as your mum didn’t have the opportunities at 11 due to an arbitrary test at that time, so many people miss out on wonderful role models like your mum. I too count myself as very fortunate and privileged to have had great parents but for those that don’t, our school systems need to ensure that no child gets left behind. So thank you to all the great teachers out there who tirelessly work to do their best for each and every child. Also thank you Stephen for sharing your personal loss and sadness and reminding us to be grateful for what we have, while we have it. God Bless you Stephen and your family and celebrate your mum’s life this Christmas. I will be thinking of you and families like you on Christmas Day who will be bearing the loss of a loved one, this year, perhaps for the first time. Our lives are all the richer for having known such wonderful people. It’s now our turn to enrich the lives of others and all the people we come into contact with. x
Thank you, Rosemary. That was a beautiful comment to read.