Goodbye Mrs Kumar.

Tomorrow, our school is shut. In an education version of a state funeral,  Castle Lower has come to a rare standstill. No smells of hot dinners cooking swirling across the playground, no tag, no playing on the tyres, no assembly, and no nursery. Tomorrow is the funeral of Mrs Kumar, and no one is going to school.

Mrs Kumar was, for 26 years, the heart of the school, which sounds like a saccharine, clichéd kind of thing to say, except that it is completely true. Mrs Kumar was usually the first person you met when you came to sign your tiny, wriggly three year old up for nursery – often their first step into the big wide world of school. She was kind, and gentle and warm  – it was all ‘my darlings! look at YOU! ‘  This is exactly what any parent facing the prospect of handing their little bundle of joy and snot over to school wants – resentfully or joyfully – if you’re going to hand them over, then what could be better than to put them in the hands of a lady who was, clearly, the world’s best mum.

But the thing about Mrs Kumar was that she was FUN. She was forever laughing, a proper, wicked laugh that made you think of secrets and funny stories shared over a bottle of wine at the pub. She smiled, she hugged the kids all the time, and she was genuinely excited about all of the moments of tiny ecstasy that go along with children that age. ‘You zipped your coat up all by YOURSELF! Isn’t that BRILLIANT!’ And it was just genuine, she wasn’t playing along. Who would, with 60 odd kids trooping through the nursery over a day? If you’re not enthralled by the tiny victories of three and four year olds, you wouldn’t work with them day in, day out for 26 years. It would be like an awful punishment.

Mrs Kumar was no Miss Honey from Matilda – she was kind and soft and endlessly patient, but she had none of that insipid niceness or patronising tone that you might associate with lovely nursery school teachers. Mrs Kumar was crazy about the kids she looked after  – and she always seemed as if she was having a total blast at work. The nursery staff were frequently roaring with laughter; the kids giggling along. I remember seeing her at the school quiz night, in absolute hysterics most of the evening. She didn’t so much light up the room as set fire to the whole bloody place.

One of my favourite memories of Mrs Kumar is of Polly’s sports day at nursery, when Mrs Kumar and her great friend and colleague Mrs Fensome had decided to get in on the fun. None of this ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ thing, they had t-shirts (pink, obviously – Mrs Fensome loves chocolate, and Mrs Kumar loves pink, that’s what the children tell me, like it’s the absolute truth) made with TEAM FENSOME and TEAM KUMAR on. They cheered their teams of enthusiastic prechoolers on whilst bellowing at each other that there was cheating on the opposite side, and getting the kids and parents to yell their teams on to victory. Not in a scary, competitive way, just so you knew that they were having a brilliant time, and that this was not just another sports day; this was important.

Mrs Kumar was lovely to each of my children, all of whom joined her nursery class – one bright as a button and keen, one too terrified to speak to her for two terms, and one diva who asked Mrs Kumar to show her how to do a side ponytail. She was lovely to all three of them, sensing that they each needed a different side of her and giving them that plus a broad smile or a quick cuddle as they turned up each day in various states of urchin-ness. I know she did this for so many children – my friends’ children, and also for my sister, who was one of the first years of nursery at Castle, and who remembers Mrs Kumar as a young nursery teacher, lovely as ever. Everyone has a story of how Mrs Kumar made the nursery years special, or fun, or just how she told them not to worry – she’d seen a million worse tantrums/leg bruises/children incapable of speaking at three. It’s just totally normal, she’d say. Nothing to worry about. God how we all need to hear that sometimes.

She always made the effort to get to know kids – for her, it wasn’t about the progress, the school, or the parents, it was always about the child. Your child. Every child. In the cut-throat world of modern education, where stats and SATS scores are so often confused with the point, teachers like Mrs Kumar are a rare and precious reminder of the actual point of primary education: to nurture and inspire children, to make them feel like they belong.

A day off school midweek is an often-dreamt-of treat, but not tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll all feel like we’ve lost a little something, that school will go on, but never quite be the same.

The last time I saw Mrs Kumar was almost exactly a year ago at the Riverside Grill, out to a birthday tea with her family to celebrate her son’s birthday. She came over to say hi, and to tell the children that they were all getting so tall, and that they looked as happy as ever. She looked well, and told us how she couldn’t believe that her children were getting so grown up too. We laughed about how children you once carried about all day grew to be taller than you ‘and better at computers’ – she added. We were talking in that way that parents do, all the time, being both fascinated and horrified; watching life pass in your childrens’ growing up. She grinned and she waved and she was gone – back to have her dinner with her kids and her husband. We waved and we didn’t know that would be the last time. I guess I would have said thank you, if I had known.

Thank you for being Mrs Kumar. Wise and kind and vivacious: the best fun you ever had in nursery school.

 

 

 

The keys.

It was the first day of a new term today.

A new morning after a long summer holiday, with hot and sticky days in the town and blustery days on the beach; the first time we saw lightening in a cloud was this summer, huddled on the back step in Norfolk, watching the storm above the sea.

The usual morning chaos returned this morning, with the novelty of it bring the first week back ensuring we were up at a more reasonable hour than in July, with shinier shoes and neater hair.

I ushered the children- freshly uniformed and keen- out of the door and down the road, chatting and listening to their excited nervousness. I was thinking about my day ahead too.

And then I remembred. I had forgotten my keys. Again! Just like Sunday. I stopped, bag in hand, children cluttering up behind me on the pavement. Never mind. No time to go back!

I could see them, still on the side in the living room. Un-jangling.

Attempts to contact R failed. Later he said:

Stop forgetting your keys.

Yes, well. I should. I might. I’ll try to.
But in reality, I won’t. I will always be the key-forgetter, the paper-loser, the one who never quite remembers things.

I can leave the house with three children, three lunch boxes, three PE bags, flasks and book bags. I can remember phone numbers from old houses and irrelevant postcodes, lines of poetry and the lyrics to entire East17 albums. I will remember birthdays of people I never see anymore, recipes, the final scene from Hamlet, but I will always forget my keys.

Sometimes, the smallest of things can undo you.

On acceptance, bodies and backhanded compliments.

Occasionally, the need to say something vaguely controversial takes hold of me, and I simply cannot rest until I have shouted that ‘No I don’t bloody well like champagne, I can’t stand Holiday by Madonna and I’ve never watched Back to the Future!’

It’s all relative, obviously.

So here we go. In many ways, I like my post-babies body better than I liked my pre-baby body. Yes, even with the teabag boob-thing. (This phenomenon was brilliantly summed-up by my new favourite blogger, Steph at Sisterhood (and all that), which you should all definitely read.) That’s not the general line women are supposed to take. We’re supposed to resent them, these flabbier bodies that have betrayed us. We’re supposed to loathe them so much that we diet our way back into our skinny jeans and flick through the before and after shots of surgical procedures aimed at ‘reclaiming your pre-birth body’.

I’m not saying that I look amazing or anything, although I do actually quite like having less in the boob area than before. I was never entirely happy with my pre-childbearing years slightly Jordan-esque chest. The fact that I could now, if I wanted, wear a polo neck, or a halterneck dress, or that I can buy pretty underwear rather than the firm scaffolding type is liberating. My body has changed and grown, and is not the same, but I don’t resent it at all.

Ultimately, the way that I feel about my post-baby body is not about aesthetics at all. It’s about me relaxing, and letting go of a long-held belief that somehow, I should aspire to the bodies of those girls who were in FHM & Maxim and all over everywhere when I was 16. That accidental aspiration has gone the way of the ones I had when I was younger about being able to do the splits, or a no-handed cartwheel, or finding Narnia.

fhm

I have never, ever looked anything like this. (I do still love S Club though.)

Even though I never wanted to be those girls, and while I could see that there were more interesting things to aspire to than titillating 16 year old boys in a gingham bikini, I must have just absorbed those images and subconsciously held them up as a thin-yet-perky ideal. Luckily, images of Kelly Brook and various Hollyoaks girls no longer haunt my brain, and the relief is astonishing.

It’s like I had never really appreciated how much pressure there is to have this ‘perfect’ body until I had gone beyond the point of feeling that it might be expected of me. Having shrugged off the pressure, I found myself suddenly much more at ease with what I have now, which clearly, is not exactly supermodel standard, but I can honestly say now that I’m OK with that. It just no longer seems to be so important to have a perfectly flat stomach, or a hip bone with only the smallest amount of flesh around it, in fact, I can’t really remember why it seemed so important at the time. There’s more to life than adorable abs and an enviable cleavage, and it is sad to think that it took me having kids to discover the truth of that.

This is a funny and true story though: during an extremely long and insanely painful labour with Polly, a midwife said to me in a disparaging tone ‘you’ve not really got child-bearing hips there,’ and I (off my face on gas and air) considered it the best back-handed compliment of all time. It was clearly meant as a comment on my inability to get a move on with having the damn baby – the labour ward was busy at the time and my little hips were keeping other mothers-to-be waiting, but I was delighted that she had basically called me skinny. In labour. The general ridiculousness of this state of affairs has amused and disgusted me a bit ever since.)

So whenever people sigh, and say that all this fuss about how the media portrays women is not that important in the scheme of things, that magazines in themselves don’t cause eating disorders, or that of course fashion models need to be that thin to show off the clothes; that it doesn’t really make much difference whether Barbie is thin and blonde and busty or not, I think well. I think it does matter, actually, and all of those tiny things added together make this overwhelming sense of a certain body type that even young women determined not to be influenced by all of that just absorb. Just by living, and looking, and reading, and seeing, we are all being told that that is what is expected. That really, this tiny waist and perfectly pert boobs are what you should be aiming for.

Like pretty much everyone else I know with small children, the soundtrack to our summer has been massively influenced by the film Frozen. And every time I hear my girls shouting along to the words of Let it Go – I am proud. I hope that they feel whenever they yell ‘that perfect girl is gone’ that the way ahead is not perfection, but acceptance.