Friday, 17 July 2009 which I humiliate my mother

It’s 1951 and my seven-year-old mother is the new girl in school. She cannot speak the language. She cannot see the black board, because no one’s noticed she’s incredibly short sited. She knows her mother was hit with a cane across the knuckles for speaking Welsh in a Welsh school, so in this English school, she keeps her head down.

A few years later she leaves education at 14 with no qualifications and a tendency to panic near teachers, institutions and forms.

So it’s not until she’s in her sixties that she returns to the schoolroom. And only because her daughter (me) has asked her to and her granddaughter, Ruby, will benefit. She can do remarkable things for other people.

There’s a Family Literacy course at Ruby’s school, offered to all reception children and their families (reception class in England means four-year-olds; children in their first year at school).

Organised by the county council, and free to all, Family Literacy involves three-hour sessions held once a week in the school library. Half the session is just the adults, the other half sees the children and their teacher join in. Most of the time it’s mums who take part; occasionally dads. I think my mum is the first grandparent they’ve had.

The course helps develop adult literacy skills, with an optional exam at the end that’s equivalent to a GCSE (the exam taken by most UK pupils at 16, when compulsory education ends).

It also explains how children are being taught literacy in their school, vital for anyone trying to help at home because if you don’t know this year’s method in this particular school, you’re stuffed.

And as a Family Learner you also spend time in school with the child; the second half of the session. An hour and a half doing something - almost always messy - with an educational angle. Much needed consolation if you feel that four-years-old is a little young to disappear from home and family for six hours a day, five days a week.

The course also involves activities to do at home, and a diary to complete.

So Family Learning rocks. And in case you’re wondering where the maths fits in, there is also a course on numeracy, but not his year.

Having already done Family Literacy with Ruby’s older sister Emelia, I had the fair-minded parent’s dilemma of feeling I must treat them both equally, but not having the time to do it once more.

So I look around for substitutes. My mum comes into focus. She loves her grandchildren, she even likes other people’s children. She’s always lacked confidence with written English, so she’s sure to benefit from the adult learning side of it. And Ruby will love having Nana come to school. So I ask, and she agrees.

At this point I do confess smugness was setting in as I predicted a win-win-win situation. But smugness comes before a slap in the face.

Mum returns from her first session angry and panicking. Fidgeting with unease. She can’t do it. Everyone else can. She has never known what a noun is, and she never will. She feels so humiliated.

Oh bollocks.

I tell her to stop right there, I’ll do it. No problem.

We leave it unresolved. A few days pass. I test the water. Does she want to carry-on?

The Dunkirk spirit emerges. She says a person needs to ‘step outside their comfort zone’ (has she been watching Jeremy Kyle?). She uses the Old Dear Defence: at her age she has nothing to prove, so if she’s rubbish, so what? She’s spending time with Ruby and helpi
ng her, that’s what matters.

And she goes, with the ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude that carries you through your teens and dotage.

But she does give a damn about the diary and the homework. An incr
edibly crafty person, sticking, sewing, painting and stamping is her territory. Filling its pages with amazing diligence and creativity, it’s full of my daughter's handiwork and photos of mum and the girls grinning away with their latest creations.

And comments on how dim she is, and how she’s never going to get it.

Feel I am going backwards as class reminds me how little I know related to grammar…

She also records the little chats she has with Ruby as they do the homework.

Mum: What was the worst thing about today?
Ruby: Going to Tesco’s
Mum: Why?
Ruby: Mummy would not let me have the chocolate hoops for breakfast

And as the pages turn, her comments get a little bit confident.

I may yet crack this (if I could stop panicking)… I am not short of common sense and most of what we talk about is based on this…

No one else on the course bothers with the diary, probably because they’re busy, and have young children: creatures capable of warping time and space so you have none for yourself.

And to be honest, the diary is dull. The same layout each week with the same three prompts: ‘Progress I have made towards my targets’, ‘Achievements this session’, ‘What have I learned?’.

Oh, the temptation to scribble a knob in protest.

Mid-way in the course, the tutor Jayne takes my mum aside and asks her why she’s completed the diary with such dedication. Mum says it’s so Ruby will be able to remember this time more clearly, because you can’t recall very much from when you’re four, and because she, my mother, will not be here forever.

Jayne asks if she can take the diary to show to her manager at the council. It’s passed from office to office with looks of amazement: why is this woman filling in every page with such dedication when almost every other student gives up within a few weeks? They ask her if she will write a little piece for the council newsletter on her experiences. She does this longhand and gets me to type it up ‘to make sure the English is good’.

And having said for so long she won’t bother with the exam, she finds out that it will help the course receive funding if lots of people take it. So she does. And she passes. But having never sat an exam in her life, she says the real victory was walking into the room and sitting down. I agree.

Then Jayne puts her name forward for Learner of the Year, an award organised by the council with nominees from across Lincolnshire and Rutland. When the invitation arrives to the ceremony, she gets the giggles. The whole family decide to go. This is the closest we’ll get to a red carpet.

And so here we are, driving to the award ceremony at The Lawn in Lincoln, formerly the Lincoln Asylum, a posh Georgian building on the hill near the cathedral. Mum, Dad, Jayne and my daughter’s teacher Sarah.

Alas, Ruby’s in bed, she would have loved an occasion that required princess dress and tiara.

We take turns to tease my mum, especially when reception tells us to go to ‘the big room’. The big room in a big place like this turns out to be the central courtyard, only they’ve put a roof on it. 500 seats fill the space.

It’s a heart-warming night. All the nominees are called out for a handshake and certificate. Normal people who’ve worked bloody hard, most overcoming major obstacles, cheered on by teachers and their family.

And then it’s time for the winners in each age group, all introduced by a little speech. The game is to work out if it’s you or yours they’re talking about….

This person left school without any qualifications and returned to learning to support her grandchildren. She has overcome her nerves and lack of confidence to become a very valuable and well respected member of her group, willing to share her experiences and contribute to sessions. Once she realised
she could learn she worked hard and studied from books bought for her by her family to improve her skills. Her diary has been completed with dedication and passion and will be a wonderful reminder for her grandchildren in years to come. She has also overcome her phobia of exams to take the literacy National Test recently. Her tutor says she is an inspiration, what every grandparent should be like – she is amazing…

So yes, she had won. £50 and a long walk to the front of the room to whistles from the rowdies at the back. She did go very, very red.

You see I was right to be smug.


  1. My God your Mum is the nuts, she has fair brought a tear to my eye. You must be so proud of her. This blog must be the virtual equivalent of shouting from the rooftops. Love the way you write, you had me so caught up in the events.

  2. Wonderful. Simply wonderful! Many congrats to your mum for a reward very well deserved.

  3. Well done to your mum! Lovely post.

  4. This is wonderful! I ended up in tears.

  5. What a lovely post - brought tears to my eyes! Congratulations to your mum.

  6. This is is a marvellous story about a woman of courage written by a daughter who wrote it beautifully.

  7. Fantastically written. Your Mum is an inspiration and she should be extremely proud. I think it is wonderful.

  8. Thank you everyone for such generous and kind comments, and thanks also for the lovely feedback through Twitter. You've given me confidence to blog some more.

    I was in two minds about publishing this because it's quite personal and also it felt self-indulgent, but you've assured me that I have put the entertainment factor in and not just gone-on about me and mine. Will pass-on all your words to my mum. She's just started on Facebook (God help me).

  9. That was wonderful. Made me cry with joy. Your mum should be proud of herself. I can see how my nephews gain from having my mum around. Grandparents rock! x

  10. What fantastic writing, what a fantastic mum you have. Wish mine had been anything like that! I'm still all teary-eyed after reading - you're right to be proud, of yourself, your mum & your writing.

  11. Great post, incredible story. Thanks so much for sharing it. For years I worked for the woman who's behind this site: -- she builds coalition of family/adult literacy groups to help them leverage funding and other resources.

    Thanks for sharing this story. I'll be sharing it all over the 'net. :-)

  12. I loved this post, and I'm certain I would love your mum too. What a determined, non-sappy, get-things-done spirit she has! Literacy is a cause close to my heart (been involved for years with Reading in Motion, a great organization that uses an arts-based program to improve the reading skills of Chicago's poorest and most at-risk 5-8 year olds), but what I love most about this story is your mother's spunk and the way it was rewarded. It's like a perfect fable where exactly the right results occur. Will you give her my heartfelt congratulations as well?

  13. Great post and brilliant story. How great that she persevered and got such brilliant rewards.

  14. Angela, YAY for your Mum! Am SO impressed with her sheer grit & determination and also the brilliant "Nana" thing of wanting your daughter to remember her. The diary is such a brilliant way of enabling that to happen. My Mum was very short sighted & missed out on a great deal at school because no-one recognised it, so can understand how much that must have affected your Mum plus the language barrier but she's overcome it and in my book, she's a real heroine. And am now enjoying reading back through your blog & am following! xxxx

  15. What a wonderful story. What an inspiring Mum. You are all very blessed. You have the gift of encouragement. I came here thru Saturday's child and I'm glad I did. This story has given my day a little buzz. Tell your Mum that her affects are far reaching!
    Cal ;> x

  16. WOW I cannot believe this has generated so many comments, thanks to you all, I am gob-smacked.

    Why did I leave it so long to start blogging?

  17. I salute your mother. Her story is inspirational. As a journalist and novelist, I treasure stories of my parents' generation and this definitely falls into that category.

  18. What a wonderful inspiration your Mom must be for her grandchildren! Thank you so much for sharing this story of her success! Congratulations on making David's list today.


  19. OH bloody hell, I'm weeping at the respect and love your mother has for you, her grandchildren and for at last herself....It takes guts....fabulous woman!!! RESPECT!!

  20. You must be so proud of your lovely mum. She's an inspiration to grandparents everywhere.

    CJ xx

  21. What a Wonderful story Angela! I guess we were quite a few getting teary eyed while reading...

    What a courageous mother you have, and what a way of writing You have! I truly loved reading this, Thank you for sharing!


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