The Problem with Fairy Tales

I love storytelling. But how often do we hear stories told to our young that are inspiring for girls? Any story that begins “Once upon a time…” often follows a similar line when it comes to the character of a young girl. Here is a poem I wrote in response to the problem with fairy tales:

Girls,

You should ensure you cook and clean
And huddle in the cellar, mostly unseen.
Expect: cruelty and beatings tha will demean;
To be treated as an object, something obscene.

But don’t worry girls…

Observers will feel, “Poor you…but better awaits.
Except this for now as it is your fate.”
Only upon reaching your lowest state,
Cry out “Rescue me!” Then sit and wait.

But don’t worry girls…

Magic, potions and princes ride in to save you.
With money, palaces and jewels shining blue.
A magnificent man will come to your rescue
And whisk you away to start a life anew.

But don’t worry girls…

Now you have a lifetime to be eternally grateful,
To play your role as his precious little angel.
But careful. Don’t become a little thoughtful.
And realise your freedom is rather doubtful.

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A Modern Day Inspiration: Shirin Gerami

Shirin Gerami

Today I heard a determined and passionate woman on the radio. She sounded tearful and I have to admit I wanted to cry with her.

Meet Shirin Gerami. A 24 year old Triathlete. Tomorrow she hopes to compete in the World Triathlon Championships. Shirin will be racing over a 1500m swim, a 40km bike ride and a 10km mile run. Now I have completed a 10k run and that was hard enough. I am neither capable of swimming 1500m or cycling 40km, let alone the combination of all three.

I have always thought that triathletes are completely bonkers. It NEVER looks easy; every metre looks gruelling. Anytime I have watched a triathlon on the TV, I have been in awe, not really being able to comprehend how on earth they manage to complete it.

But for Shirin Gerami it has been even more difficult to compete. Shirin lives in the UK but was born in Iran. Like most people competing at a high level, she wishes to compete for her country: Iran. As an Islamic country, it has been difficult for many women to compete in sports such as swimming due to the cultural sensitivities regarding clothing. However, Shirin is a determined woman.

Shirin believes that if she wishes to compete for her country, rather than complaining, she should do everything she can to respect their values and beliefs. She has worked hard to find solutions. Special clothing that ensures she remains covered, has been designed and the organisers have agreed to provide special changing areas. You see, rather than being defeated by obstacles, Shirin has fought to find ways around them.

In fact, she recently flew out to Iran to discuss the matter face to face. I can’t think many athletes would have long haul flights and meetings with officials as part of their build up and preparations. But Shirin is passionate about competing and has been willing to explore all avenues to find a way forward. Whilst in Iran, she secured verbal agreement that the clothing and arrangements were acceptable and that she could compete for Iran, becoming the first female triathlete to do so.

Yet, at the time of writing, with the race only hours away, the written confirmation is yet to appear. But still, she has not lost hope. Still, she remains optimistic and determined.

I beg you to listen to Shirin’s interview with BBC Radio 4 here. It is not often you here a woman talk with such conviction and passion. It is also a lesson in determination and pushing on, finding out exactly how much you really are capable of achieving. It is clear that she has not only applied these attributes in her sport but also to the difficulties she has faced in being able to compete for her country.

It is also worth mentioning her modesty. When I contacted Shirin, to ask whether she would mind me writing this blog post she commented that whilst she didn’t think she was an inspiration, she was happy for me to write about her as long as I didn’t exaggerate. But I really do think she is an inspirational woman.

What I have learnt from Shirin today is to ensure I try to find solutions rather than accepting things as they are and if I decide to do something, I should give it my absolute all from the bottom of my heart and soul.

I can only hope my daughter grows up with half of your determination. Thank you Shirin.

UPDATE: IN THE LAST FEW MINUTES (EIGHT HOURS BEFORE THE RACE START!) THE PAPERWORK IS THROUGH AND SHIRIN GERAMI WILL BE THE FIRST IRANIAN FEMALE TRIATHLETE TO COMPETE IN THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS! CONGRATULATIONS SHIRIN AND “ENJOY” EVERY SECOND OF YOUR RACE!

An Historical Inspiration: Grace Darling

grace darling

Last week, I saw some friends of mine celebrating Grace Darling. They wondered if she was known outside of the North East of England where children are regularly taught about her.

I confessed that I had not heard of her and decided to investigate, with their help.

On the 8th September 1838, Grace Darling, who lived in a lighthouse, was unable to sleep due to the raging storm outside. She decided instead, to watch from her window. It was then that she spotted the shipwrecked Forfarshire . She woke her father.

At first they could see no movement and feared everyone had drowned but as the morning dawned, Grace spotted movement on the rocks. Neither her father or Grace thought that a lifeboat would be able to reach the survivors. Grace pleaded with her father that they should go out in their boat together to attempt a rescue.

With the storm battling the sea and waves, they pushed out in their coble. It was tough going but they managed to reach them. Grace managed to manoeuvre the coble close enough to the rocks so her father could leap out and help those stranded. She managed, despite the storm, to keep it steady for her father to help survivors into the boat.

Once the press got hold of the story of a young woman battling storming seas to rescue others, she became widely known. It is a shame that this is not still the case.

We must remember that back in 1838, this was not a feat that most people would have thought a woman capable of achieving. It would have taken great strength physically and of character to do as she had done. I am always inspired by someone who is willing to risk their life to save others and I am sure she has inspired many others to do the same.

A Western Wind Blows: Honouring Heaney and a poem for Syria

poetry

Below is a poem I have written for Syria. It is very much inspired by the great, late poet, Seamus Heaney. You can find out more about both Heaney and Syria in the information below the poem. Happy reading!

A Western Wind Blows

The time has come for Heaney
To halt.
His spade.
To stop.
The planting of many seeds
Nurturing and nourishing
Hearts and minds and souls,
Fully grown.
Roots dug deep.
Never to be blown away.

But where the Western wind blows East,
A destructive digging descends.
Blue berets
Measure, probe the depths,
The earth’s bleeding gashes and wounds.
Plants ripped from roots.
Petals burnt, blistered.
And a Western wind blows,
Not seeking to rock and sooth,
But to spin a tornado
Crashing, crushing, destroying.

Seedlings scream.
Or are silent.
Yet the Western wind follows the path
Dug by the generations before.
The Western wind will not bend away.
Will not allow the sun through.

The beautiful, warm, nurturing sun.
Healing, soothing.

Again the old lie:
Dulce et Decorum est
Lives on.

Seamus Heaney

The death of Seamus Heaney (a famous Irish poet) was announced yesterday. If you have not come across his work before then please do look some of it up; much of it is widely available on the internet. I think however, that it is safe to say that it would be unusual for you to go through your school life and not come across at least one of his poems, so if you haven’t had this joy already, look forward to it! I remember very few of my English lessons but I do remember studying a Seamus Heaney poem called ‘Digging’. I have also used it in my own teaching. Above is the poem I have written about Syria. Having been written on the same day as the announcement of Heaney’s death, it is almost inevitable that I was going to be influenced by his work. You will see that I have used a range of metaphors inspired by his poem ‘Digging’ (see below). On a simple level, ‘Digging’ is a poem about Heaney watching his father digging the earth like the many family generations before him but Heaney feeling out of place, like he somehow does not belong. Heaney, unlike the rest of his agricultural family, chooses a different trade and a different tool from his father’s spade. Heaney uses his pen to dig over his past. I have placed the poem below for your enjoyment:

‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Syria

Now to Syria. It has filled the news in recent days and has been a regular feature on our TV screens and in our newspapers since the outbreak of war two years ago. The government is a dictatorship so it has not been voted for. The leader is Bashar al-Assad. Some became unhappy with his leadership and how he treated people so various different opposing groups got together to fight a war against him to try and get him out of power. They are known as the Free Syria Army (FSA). This has been going on for 2 years and it is estimated that 100,000 Syrians have died as a consequence. The situation escalated recently as reports emerged that chemical warfare had been used. America says it has evidence that Assad was responsible but their evidence may have been provided by another country who don’t like Assad and so many do not trust it to be correct. The United Nations are investigating but some countries do not want to wait for them to report back and negotiate a response, instead wanting to undertake some form of military action against Assad. Currently there is no definite proof that chemical warfare has occurred (although there does appear to be video evidence of a horrific gas called napalm being used although this is not classed as chemical weapons). There is certainly no definitive evidence about which side was responsible. UK parliament was called back from their summer break to vote on whether a military response was to be considered. It was a close vote but it was a no (matching what much of the public wanted). America has decided to go ahead and as I write this we await their attack on Syria and the likelihood someone will respond to that! The reason it has been such a heated debate is that we went to war with Iraq without the United Nations agreement because we were told they had chemical weapons. That turned out to be untrue. Much of the public in America and UK are now much more cautious and wish to see evidence first and to work with the United Nations. As many have said, how are more bombs going to help when this is likely to lead to even more bombs?

Anyway, that gives you a little background. The poem I wrote was inspired by Heaney but is about the situation with Syria. Can you work out the many metaphors it uses? Oh, I should add that Percy Bysshe Shelley and Wilfred Owen had their influences too – more puzzles for you to work on but the Owen one is easy!

What’s the Big Deal with University?

uni

With the rising costs of tuition fees, many people may be wondering whether a university education is worth it or necessary.  

When the GCSE results were released last week, I saw numerous people claiming that it doesn’t mean anything as an employer had never checked the results they had put on their CV and advocated “just make it up”.  I am not going to claim that what they said was untrue but I highly suspect that this would have been jobs at the lower end of the pay scale. Many employers will ask for proof and colleges and universities certainly will so I think the best advise is just to be honest.

But why should you bother with a clamor for qualifications that are “just a piece of paper”? I came late to education; I was not really ready for university at the age of 18 and I by no means want to suggest that everyone should go through the education system and complete a degree.  However, if it is an option for you, I do think going to university is worth bothering with and landing yourself in debt for.  

There are of course an increasing amount of careers that require you to study for a degree to be able to access them so they leave you without a choice.

However many young people do not have a clear idea of what they want to do for the rest of their lives: most adults I know have changed their mind and their career routes at some point in their lives. Studying for a degree keeps so many options open to you.  In some circumstances, the subject you’ve chosen to study is important but not always.  Often employers are more interested in knowing to what level you can work to/understand.  

And this brings me to the real reasons I think a university education is a big deal. University opens the world to you.  Suddenly you have learnt how to learn.  You know where to look, what to trust and more importantly how to effectively question what is presented to you.  

Too often before, I would read something and unless it was in direct contradiction to something I knew, I would just accept what it told me.  Now I know how to learn and question, I am able to learn more on pretty much any topic I wish.  I can go and explore that world, question what is said, present alternative views or evidence, and evaluate everything to come to my own view or understanding.  It has developed me as a person more than anything else, yes, even more than becoming a mother.

Think back over what you have recently read, did you question it at all or just absorb the information? It may not seem like that big a deal but as I’m sure you’ve learnt, the Nazis were in part successful because they changed what was taught in schools.  That would never happen again, right? How would you know if you didn’t question what you were being taught?

We are surrounded by media today and on a daily basis you are bombarded with hundreds of pieces of information or pictures designed to influence you in some way.  That is a lot of other people trying to control your thoughts and feelings.  Much of this is left unquestioned, after all you don’t have the time to question them all.  But is it not interesting to consider whether you are being provided with a correct thought or view of our world? Nearly every media outlet will have its own biases and influences.  

An excellent education will allow you to take control of your own thoughts and views and that for me, is worth every penny. It literally saved my life.

Little Minty and a Tale of Heroism.

harriet tubman

I have a story to tell. It starts with a little girl.

Her name was Araminta Ross, “Minty” for short. Minty had an unlucky start to her life. For many of us, from the moment we are born, we become our parent’s prized possessions. Not so for our little girl Minty. That’s not so say that her parents didn’t love her dearly it’s just that Minty was owned by a woman called Mary Pattison Brodess and later, her son Edward.

You see, Minty’s mum and dad were slaves. Their children never truly belonged to them as they too became slaves as soon as they were born. Life for the Ross family was tough and they never had a day’s control over what happened to them. Minty should have had three older sisters to play and grow up with but Edward Brodess had decided instead to sell them. Can you imagine that happening to you? Three sisters ripped from your family and sold for cash and not a single thing you could do about it?

Minty had other siblings too. The youngest was called Moses. Rumours were rife and Minty’s mum, Rit discovered that Brodess was going to sell her youngest son. She hid him away for a month but one day Edward arrived with a man from Georgia who wished to buy Moses. They demanded she hand over the child. Rit could not bear to and threatened to split the head open of any man who entered her house. The threat worked and she was able to keep Moses. Little Minty had seen with her own eyes, a black enslaved woman stand up and resist.

As Minty’s parents had to work such long hours, she was left from a very early age to look after her younger siblings. When she was the tender age of five or six, it was time for Minty to begin her own work as a slave and she was hired out to look after a baby as it slept. As they often do, the baby would wake and cry. Every time this happened, the young Minty was lashed with a whip. She carried the scars with her for the rest of her life.

As Minty grew older, she undertook numerous tasks such as ploughing and hauling logs. Slaves needed to be incredibly strong and weakness was not tolerated. One day in a shop, she was asked to help restrain another slave. Remembering the lesson of resistance she had learnt from her mum, she refused but she got caught up in the crossfire when a two pound weight thrown at the escaping slave, struck her on the head. Minty was left for two days without medical treatment before being put back into the fields to continue work with blood still seeping from her head. Again, she carried the scars for the remainder of her life, suffering from fits.

Minty had a truly horrendous childhood that probably makes us feel guilty for ever complaining about our upbringing. Take a minute now to pause and imagine zooming ahead to Minty as an adult. What sort of a woman would she be? How would she feel about other people? Would she be angry or bitter? Will she have even survived beyond childhood, having already been disabled with a head injury and toiling away for so many years?

Minty did make adulthood and in around 1844 she married a man named John Tubman. He was a free black man but Minty was still a slave. At around this time, she changed her first name to Harriet. If you are American it is likely that you will know our Harriet Tubman but otherwise she is probably still a stranger to most of you.

Harriet became angered by her status as a slave and her owner’s unsuccessful attempts to sell her to someone else. After Edward Brodess died in 1849, Harriet decided she wouldn’t let his widow decide her fate and made preparations. She escaped with two of her brothers but after a 100 dollar award was offered for the return of each of them, the brothers decided to return and Harriet went back with them. Harriet did not leave it long before escaping again, this time alone. A network known as the Underground Railroad helped her to travel 90 miles north on foot to the state of Pennsylvania where slavery had been outlawed. To avoid capture she needed to travel under the darkness of night with only the stars to guide her. Remember, Harriet was still only in her twenties.

A year later, U.S. Congress passed a law known as the Fugitive Slave Law. This meant that even in states where slavery was no longer allowed, law enforcement officials had no choice but to capture and punish escaped slaves. As you can imagine, Harriet was again in a dangerous position. Many escaped slaves started travelling further north to Canada to reach safety. Who could have blamed our Harriet if she had chosen to do the same?

Harriet however, was busy thinking and worrying about her family that she had left behind. I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of bravery such a decision would take, but Harriet chose to return to the area from which she had escaped to help her family escape. And this is where Harriet’s extraordinary story really begins.

Harriet, with only her revolver to protect her, began working with the Underground Railroad and spent 11 years returning to the area in which she had been enslaved, helping many others escape. The figures are somewhat disputed, but many sources quote that she made 19 trips rescuing over 300 slaves. All before she had reached the age of 40! Not only had she shown incredible bravery in escaping but she repeatedly placed herself in serious danger in order to help others.

In 1861, the American Civil War broke out. Surely now was the time for Harriet to flee to safety and enjoy some peace in her life? Of course not! She could see that a win for the Unions, would probably mean an end slavery in America. Harriet at first worked as a nurse, helping wounded soldiers. A couple of years later, Harriet was able to use all the knowledge she had gathered from her secretive travels. As part of a group, she was able to map an unknown area and gather information that led to Jacksonville, Florida being captured.

But she did not stop there. Harriet became the first woman to lead an assault in the Civil War. She guided three ships around mines and once on shore, they caused enough chaos that more than 700 slaves could rush to the whistle of their steamboats and be rescued. A truly inspirational, brave woman.

If we could wish anything for Harriet after the war, I think we would agree that it would be a comfortable and quiet life with respect and honour for her actions and service to the country. Sadly, like much of our Minty’s story, this was not to be. After the war, she was travelling on a train when a conductor told her to move to the smoking carriage. Why? Well, black people may not have been enslaved but they were far from the point of equal rights. Harriet being the gutsy woman she was, and having been set an example by her mother, refused. She explained what she had done for the country ; how she had fought in the war. It made no difference. The conductor along with two passengers, physically dragged her from where she was, despite her desperately clinging on. Her arm was broken and as they threw her like a piece of garbage into the smoking carriage, she suffered even more injuries. Not a single ounce of respect was shown for a country’s hero simply because of the colour of her skin.

Even in her later years, Harriet never gave up fighting for what she believed in and worked with the Suffrage movement to speak out for women’s right to vote. She dedicated her life to helping others and I am in total awe of her and everything she achieved.

As a black person without equal rights, Harriet did much of her work without, or for little, pay. She remained poor her entire life. In 1911 when she became unable to live independently, she was taken, penniless, into a rest home that was named in her honour. Americans were beginning to recognise Harriet’s huge contributions and donations were sent. She died in 1913 with the words, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Even in dying, her thoughts were about helping others.

Harriet Tubman, or “Minty”, is now widely known and celebrated in America and has inspired many African Americans seeking equal rights. I hope you agree with me though, that “Minty” fully deserves to be known and throughout the world. Please spread the word and tell your family and friends the story of little “Minty”. She deserves the respect of all of us.