Ladies Only

The school uniform shop

So back to school – it’s complicated.

On the one hand, you’re reminded how fast time is passing and feel nostalgic about years gone by when your kids wore pint-sized uniforms and looked so cute and small in their back-to-school Facebook photos.

On the other hand, you’re doing a happy dance and ready to pop some bottles because, HALLELUJAH, the summer is almost OVER.

But first, there’s all the organising to do – the buying of supplies and uniforms, the labeling of clothes, the food shopping for snacks and lunch boxes, the fitting of school shoes, and the brow-beating of your children to get them to finally do their holiday homework.

I saw a Tweet the other day that made me smile – Real American Dadass wrote: “Back to school shopping is kinda like Christmas shopping. It’s an expensive pain in the ass but it leads to a great celebration.”

How true this is, especially when the school uniform shop is as packed as the malls just before Christmas. Of course, we could have gone weeks ago, but that would have been too sensible and anyway my boys – who are shooting up like beanstalks – might have outgrown everything.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 02.06.34Son1, fast approaching his teens, was barely speaking to us as we drove to the store; Son2 wanted to know what reward he’d get for coming with us. I’d persuaded DH to come too, and he looked grim, the memory of being dragged to school uniform stores and made to try on countless items of clothes by his own mother still fresh in his mind.

The queue to park was the first sign of the upcoming chaos, then there was the look on the other parents’ faces: a sort of hollow-eyed, tense, almost defiant refusal to engage: I know we’re all in this together, I know it’s hell, but I’ve been waiting for 25 minutes so just let me hog this poor salesgirl for a bit longer, ok?

I joined the throng at a desk serving uniforms for our school, and tried to block out the soundtrack of impatient exclamations: “You’ve given me the wrong size!” “Do you have this in a 12?” “Don’t you have intermediate sizes?” “There’s threads coming out of this!” (Ironic that the store is called Threads.)

My children were jostling with each other like hamsters, and when made to try items on they pulled faces like they’d eaten a lemon.

“It fits fine Mum,” huffed Son1, even though the trousers were so tight they’d have cut off the blood supply to his lower body. He pulled a face again. “Can we go now?”

“Try these!” I handed him a larger size and he eyed me like I was giving him explosives.

In all fairness, the lady who helped us was fast and efficient, but then in the queue to pay, our escape plan came to a juddering halt. The dad in front was on a mission to organise tailoring. Our school requires blazers and the kids have to be measured so they fit properly. I’d accepted my fate that the tailor wasn’t available until Saturday, but not so this Dad. He wasn’t here on Sat. The woman on the only cash register began making phone calls – all round Dubai to track down another tailor.

Why I thought we’d get out of the shop anytime soon, I don’t know (Open more than one cash register? How ridiculous! That would be … customer service!)

“Excuse me, is there another till?” I ventured after a while. I tried to be polite.

“We’ve been waiting a long time too,” growled Frustrated Dad, deep lines burrowing their way across his forehead as though his kid had drawn them with a pencil. We glared at each other – unwittingly pitted against one another in a who’s been waiting the longest? contest.

But it worked. All of a sudden, a young salesboy woke up and noticed the queue snaking round the shop. We got out … just. Thank God that’s nearly (there’s still Saturday to go) over.

Ladies Only

The overseas school trip (aka: pricey package holiday)

I’m back! It’s been a while, mostly due to work taking over my life for a couple of months.

Having just surfaced from full-time officedom, I suddenly find we’re just a week away from Son1’s first overseas school trip. I realise this is a rite of passage all parents must go through – that moment when you release your little fledgling into the big wide world and hope he flies far and wide.

As the Chinese proverb goes, ‘There are two gifts we should give our children: roots and wings.’

But I have to say, as the day approaches, and Son1’s excitement builds, it does feel ever so slightly bittersweet to know we’re about to watch him soar for the first time.

I also feel rather grateful that the trip is to a place we know very well – the UK – and isn’t one of these ultra pricey school jollies I keep hearing about, like the excursion to New York’s Wall Street organised by the economics department at my friend’s son’s school. Or the visit to a Nasa installation in Turkey that the same friend’s daughter went on. Another friend just waved her son off to the jungles of Borneo.

When I was at school, we went on a coach to the seaside at Littlehampton and thought it was really exotic.

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 23.27.44
Have fun Son1! I’m going to miss you

How things have changed over the past decades, as schools shift to what educationalists call “learning outside the classroom”, or, to use its natty text-speak acronym, LoTC.

But I digress. As luck would have it, Son1 and his friends will cross the world in safe hands as DH is flying the plane from Dubai to Gatwick. Okay, so this had nothing to do with luck at all. We knew which flight they were going on. DH requested to operate it, and got it.

Which led to this conversation yesterday:

DH: “You could come too, you know.”

Me: “I can’t!”

DH: “Why not?”

Me: “Can you imagine? Both his mum and dad on the flight, like I was stalking him on his first school trip.”

DH: “You wouldn’t actually be sitting with him. It would be fun!”

Me: “Well … yes. But. [thinking: I know mums who’ve followed their kid’s school bus in the car].

A pause while I scratch my chin.

Me: “If I came too, wouldn’t it be taking helicopter parenting to a whole new level?”

DH shrugs: “Think about it. We could go to Brighton.”

I mean, I really shouldn’t. Not on the same flight, on his first school trip. I just couldn’t.

Or could I?

Ladies Only

School reports – what the hell happened?

It’s lunchtime at work. On the day our magazine goes to press so it’s all hands to the pump meeting our deadline. I munch on my sandwich, and click on an email from school – the interim reports are out.

Well, actually they’re not ‘out’ at all; they’re hidden away on the school’s password-protected portal. I should look, I think to myself, just a quick look while I eat lunch. Two minutes later, I’m ruing the day I set up my account and didn’t commit my username to memory.

Wait, what’s this? The reports are available on an app. All I have to do is download the iParent app, put in a password, and Bob’s your uncle: Son2’s report will appear on my phone.

So, because I’ve really got nothing better to do today, other than meeting all our work deadlines, I attempt to download the app. I say ‘attempt’ – it’s yet another parent fail for me. My phone screen turns as white as a sheet, and I feel the heat rising in my cheeks as this happens three times: Damn app. Why can’t they just give me a paper copy of the report, or is that just really last-century now?

By now, I’ve become determined that this won’t defeat me, and so I trawl my in-box looking for portal log-on details. Woohoo, I find them, and I’m into Fort Knox – I can download the report. That was 25 minutes of my day I won’t get back (and my whole lunch ‘hour’), but never mind – I’m super curious to see how Son2 is doing.

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-00-36-00
Give us a ‘B’! No chance – those people at the Standards & Testing Agency have lost their minds

Let’s just say, this is the moment I’m reminded how infuriating school reports have become. While this one isn’t a full-length report, with pages of tables, targets and almost impenetrable numbers and letters, it still leaves me utterly baffled. Even after I read the two-page e-mail (longer than the report) explaining the UK’s new marking system.

“Can you make any sense of this?”  I ask DH when I get home. “It needs decoding.”

He reads it, scratching his head. “Hmmm. Well, ‘secure +’ in reading sounds good, doesn’t it? But what’s the number 2?” He shrugs.

“No idea,” I say, and re-read the blurb about attainment being presented in a series of steps within age-related year bands. Wtf? It’s a linguistic minefield: ‘working within’; ‘ideally pupils will make six steps progress’; ‘a standardised assessment’; and on consulting Google, ‘a scaled score based on their raw score’.

DH and I are thinking exactly the same thing: Why can’t they just tell us if he’s an A, B, C or D? We could understand that. And even talk to him about it.

 I peer again at the bar chart, but my eyes are tired. Son2, meanwhile, is lounging on the sofa, getting away with all this completely scot-free as his parents try to puzzle it out.

“Well, I’m taking ‘secure +’ to be good,” says DH.

“But the number 2?” I say.

“What about it?

“Well if that’s the year band, it doesn’t make sense or he’s really behind … he’s year 3.”

Oh how I miss the days of teachers writing a few scrawled, occasionally acerbic lines about their pupils.

Ladies Only

My first e-book: A quick summer read for just 99p (or less!)

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00064]Please share!

If you’re looking for a light summer read, please think about downloading my first e-book. It’s a short (ish) story, and a super-quick, easy read. I’m raising a celebratory glass, as, believe me, I nearly went cross-eyed trying to figure out how to get this on Amazon. I got there in the end ☺ … here comes the blurb:

Workaholic mum Julie Wainscote becomes an overnight Twitter sensation when her live TV gaffe goes viral. Fired from her job, she takes up the challenge of becoming a stay-at-home mum to her son, Jacob. But when she realises the school run is a catwalk, the coffee mornings involve competitive catering and the class bear has been to Lapland, she has to admit the adjustment required may be beyond her.

Does she have what it takes to join Dubai’s ranks of immaculately groomed school mothers?

Cupcakes & Heels is a delightfully funny short story about the dilemmas facing mothers the world over.

BUY IT NOW: If you’re in the UK, please click here

Or for America, the UAE and worldwide, please go to this US Amazon link. If this doesn’t work in your country, could I suggest searching for Cupcakes & Heels in your country’s Amazon store.

Thank you so much!

Ladies Only

Fascinating glimpse of a Dubai school in the 1970s

Jess under construction
Son2’s school is turning 40, which in Dubai time is quite ancient! Anyone who lives here will know this age is impressive and deserves to be marked, especially as four decades ago the school was just a small huddle of buildings in the middle of the desert, with staff and pupils trekking across the sand to the nearest shop during break-time.

Intrigued by all things ‘old’ in the UAE, I helped out at the most wonderful exhibition commemorating JESS’s big birthday this morning, and learnt so much I’ve been inspired to put together a blog post on what school life was like in the desert all those years ago.

Doesn't it look a little bit like they're playing on the moon?
Doesn’t it look a little bit like they’re playing on the moon?

The facility was planned when Dubai English Speaking School, the first British curriculum school in the emirate, could no longer cope with the rapid increase in the expatriate population.

JESS quote 2The school’s story began in a small flat in Deira, before its relocation to a villa in Jumeirah, which was generously gifted by his Royal Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai. The school moved to its present Jumeirah site in 1977, where it consisted of one villa, 75 pupils, six staff and three portacabins. The size of the classes depended on the size of the bedrooms.

Desert surrounded the school for miles; there were no villas in sight, and the buildings which now line Sheikh Zayed Road had not yet been constructed. Safa Park didn’t exist. The only thing that could be seen in the distance was the newly completed Metropolitan Hotel.

The track leading to the school from Al Wasl Road was just a dirt road and on foggy days it was easy to drift off course. Flooding was a problem and after heavy rain the entrance area would be completely under water.

These days there are 169 private schools open in Dubai. JESS was the second British curriculum school in the emirate.
JESS Jumeirah in the deserted desert. These days there are 169 private schools in Dubai.

“In those early days, one had to be very flexible and unflappable and able to take things in one’s stride,” says JESS’s original headmistress Rita Biro. “When we first occupied the site, the electrical connection had not been completed and the power was produced by a massive generator. My first daily task was to make my way across the sand to this great beast and use all my strength to throw the switch and I still have the muscles to prove it!”

Children joined JESS when they reached 4.08 months
Children joined JESS when they reached 4.08 months

Paul Austin, currently director of PE at JESS Ranches, arrived in a very barren Dubai in 1976. “All I remember being able to see was the desert and the Trade Centre. Sheikh Zayed Road was the Abu Dhabi Road and there were still camels walking around everywhere.”

He started at JESS in 1977, just before his sixth birthday. There were no sports facilities at the time, and he remembers doing a football club on the sand outside the school, the area now used for parking. He recalls just one fixture during his five terms at JESS, against the only other international school at the time. “I was the goal keeper, and although I’m told I played well, we lost 0-10.”

1975-1976
1975-1976

Academically, he remembers trying to make himself invisible during maths class. “In fact, my maths was so bad that when asked what my tables were like during an interview for Prep School, I confidently replied that we had desks at JESS so I wasn’t sure.” Like many of the children at JESS at the time, he went on to boarding school.

Since its humble beginnings, JESS has stood strong through two regional wars (with contingency plans for evacuation via Fujairah in the Gulf War) and the global economic crisis of the 00s.

A second branch opened in Arabian Ranches in 2005. Memories of this new development include travelling to the under-construction Ranches site and wondering why they were driving out to the middle of nowhere; having to use the toilets in the shopping centre; no playgrounds to start with; repeated closures due to water pipes bursting; and Costa Coffee deliveries.

Some things never change!

The exhibition is an incredible illustration of the JESS journey through time. Some things never change, though, and I wanted to highlight several snippets that made me smile:

Springtime in Jumeirah: The British Consul-General in Dubai judges the Best Hat competition
Springtime in Jumeirah: The British Consul-General in Dubai judges the Best Hat competition

Shoes & driving: I’m not sure what year, but during the early days, one of the mums, wearing very high platform-soled shoes and driving a 4×4, pulled in to park, not knowing where her feet began and ended. She accelerated instead of breaking and ploughed into a breeze-block wall, demolishing it.

Demand for places: Waiting lists have been a problem right from the start. When the school reached several hundred students, the headmistress had to call a stop to expansion, citing the difficulty of teaching amid rubble and construction noise.

Parent involvement: This tradition began from the get-go, with parents in Dubai more actively involved in school than in Britain. Parents ran sports clubs during their lunch breaks before returning to work at 4pm; mothers came in with younger children to assist with activities; and it was through an action group that the swimming pool was funded.

Spring in the sunshine: The annual spring fair is a long-running institution, including, back in the day, a decorated Hat Parade with Easter Egg prizes; a display by the Dubai and Sharjah Morris Dancers; an attempt to break the non-stop skipping world record; traditional stalls selling home-made cakes, marmalade, etc; a tombola, lucky dip and Guess Your Weight (!). More British than Britain!

Here’s to the next 40 years!

Ladies Only

Christmad: Twas the last week (of term) before Christmas

Ho! Ho! Ho! I’m sure I speak for school mums everywhere when I refer to the last fortnight of term as utter madness. It’s only now that it’s over that I finally get a moment to stop and think, ‘What the heck was all that?’

Because really, rather than winding down for the holidays, doesn’t it feel like being in a spin dryer that’s starts turning faster and faster, as though it’s about to take off? And then when it stops, the drum is still spinning pretty fast even when the lid is released? Feeling rinsed out doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Lest I forget what these last couple of weeks involve, here’s my Christmad rundown:

Decorating: Bring out the silver foil for a gladiator costume, with shield and hat. Cover aforementioned items with foil. Hide remaining Sellotape for the gifts you haven’t had time to wrap yet. Or buy. (Helpful hint: there’s always a run on Sellotape in Dubai in the weeks before Christmas. Basically, if you haven’t stockpiled it and are caught short, you’ll be gluing your gift wrap.)

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 00.54.40Handicrafts: Cajole children to write thoughtful messages for their teachers on handprints that will be made into a tree. Make a 25km round trip to get to Decoration Day conveniently timed at 11am. Attempt to stop your child spilling the glitter everywhere as you work on cut-out Santas and Christmas tree cards. Return to office with your skirt decorated.

Shopping: Procure a shop-full of gifts and cards for all the people who make everything tick and keep you sane (bus driver, bus nanny, teaching support staff). Stuff money in envelopes. Run round at the last minute looking for a PLAIN red or green top for the Christmas concert and place in labelled bag. Try to feel full of the joys of the season.

Food preparation: Conjure up a dish that gladiators would eat (birds? cheese? Settle for grapes, green). Provide food for ‘super snack’ for 10 children (cheese cubes). Cookies, end-of-year-party food, the usual 20 lunchboxes required for a fortnight.

Party clothes: Send child in festive PE kit (“fancy it up with some tinsel and a Santa hat”), and help him/her pick out a toy to take in for party treat day. Nothing expensive or noisy. Clone yourself so you can be in three places at once, or face having to fess up to your other child that you can’t get him to his class pyjama party.

Pantomime: Organise/make costume for Victorian Day on the beach. Volunteer as parent helper (think: sandcastles, Punch & Judy, hoops and ropes). Run 500 steps in sand, repositioning hoops.

And all this on top of the day job – which, oh did I mention, involves producing a 150-page yearbook during the busiest work period of the year.

When it’s all done – Breathe! Now you can start getting ready for Christmas!

Ladies Only

WhatsApp, mum? … The class chat group

Proactive parents will all know about the class mums’ WhatsApp group – the 24/7 group ‘chat’ on the ubiquitous phone messaging system, in which mums discuss anything from homework to lost items and how much to give kids for the bake sale.

I’m all for it (mostly) – it helps me stay on top of things, and any questions you post on the group are usually answered within seconds. I’m now included in four motherhood WhatsApp groups: two school groups and two groups for the baseball teams my sons play on.

"Just a quick reminder that tomorrow is Florence Nightingale Day – don't forget the kids' costumes!"
“Just a quick reminder that tomorrow is Florence Nightingale Day – don’t forget the kids’ costumes!”

The corners of my mouth did twitch upwards, though, when I found myself discussing these memberships with the working mums at my office – because, if I’m perfectly honest, there’s nothing quite like coming out of a meeting to a phone screen full of 26 messages about head lice.

Or getting home, tired, and hearing…

Ding, ding, ding, ding!

… As messages download about all the homework you haven’t had time to do with your children as you’ve been at work.

I’ve also come to the realisation that it’s an incredibly powerful medium. Just as social media has been at the core of some of the world’s biggest protests, WhatsApp brings parents together in a way that can actually overthrow teachers.

I was talking to V, full-time at my office, and the mother of a little girl. She was looking harassed – a slight flush to her cheeks so I asked her what was wrong.

Her eyebrows snapped together. “It’s the mums in H’s class,” she said. “I’ve got all these messages on my phone about the replacement teacher – they want someone other than the person who’s been chosen.”

She gave a half shrug. “I just think the woman should be given a chance.”

See what I mean? The mums in her WhatsApp group were planning a COUP.

Then there was my chat with A, mother of two boys and currently juggling a new job with a mad dash out of the office at midday to do the school run followed by a full afternoon back at her desk.

“There’s this WhatsApp group,” she told me.

I gave her a knowing smile. I could tell by the way her face had contorted that she was getting a little frustrated with the nature of some of the messages (“My son always forgets to bring things home from school!” “Yeah? Mine too!”; “I’m the first one to arrive for parents-teachers day!” *picture of empty school hall* “Reserve a seat for me!”).

“I got home the other night,” my work colleague A told me, “and there were 58 messages from the class mums – trending tennis coaching.”

Facepalm – but then again, as I’ve come to realise, the Mummies’ WhatsApp group is also incredibly useful, and who wants to be the only mum who has to be sent separate text messages from the virtual motherhood circle (that is, if they remember – I mean, do you live under a rock?).

Peer pressure, I’d say, and the fear you’ll get everything wrong are enough to make most of us get with the programme.