Today, our youngest child had his last day at school.
His eldest brother began his school life back in 1996 when he was three years old. We’ve had children at school ever since, four in all - I’m going to miss it.
My wife surprised me one morning when she asked me which school I thought we should send our baby son too. It was news to me that we had a choice. I’d grown up in a village with one bilingual school (English and Welsh) and was intrigued to learn that in the big city of Swansea we had a choice of English or Welsh medium education.
It didn’t take long to establish that the Welsh medium had considerable advantages. It was smaller, had excellent reports, good extra curricular activities and the parents seemed to be mostly professionals, not that you can generalise. It seemed to be the closest you could get to a private school within the state system.
The downside was taking the risk of them not managing with Welsh. It’s not a given, especially since the city they were growing up in was not that Welsh any longer. It also meant that I would be the only parent able to help them with their homework as my wife, an English woman, was not getting on too well with learning our tricky tongue.
On balance we felt the Welsh school was worth a punt and put his name down for Ysgol Gynradd Bryn-y-Môr. I’m glad to say, it was no risk — we never regretted the choice.
His first days at school were a wrench to his mother and me. He was all gussied up in his new school uniform, brand new sturdy shoes, little grey shorts and a bright red sweatshirt. The house became a little duller on his departure, an ear out for the phone in case anything happened. We had his baby sister by then so it wasn’t exactly an empty nest but we nonethelss eagerly awaited his return all of three hours later. He’d come home bubbling with stories and songs he’d learned and tales of the new friends he was making as he began his journey away from us.
We soon got used to it, work filled the gaps, and before we had time to think about it our little girl was all in red and grey and shiny shoes too. By then we’d also started the long haul of school runs, parents’ evenings, Christmas concerts, Sports Days, school matches and themed assemblies to which we were invited once a term. I didn’t know it then, but as our family grew it would be an unbroken twenty three years before I would be free of attending school events.
Our robust little boy became known for refusing to wear long trousers even in the depths of winter, …you know, the boy who wears shorts! Our daughter made a raft of friends that came for giggly sleepovers and joint birthday parties, a house full of little girls is definitely best avoided. The school they attended became a family, there was a good yard culture where the mums and dads gathered twice a day to gossip and compare and the various evening events were well attended. We made new friends of our children’s friends’ parents, with whom we now had so much in common. The teaching lived up to its reputation led by an exemplary headmistress who was literally old school.
The kids both thrived in the nurturing environment, then we surprised ourselves by adding another chick to the brood. Our second son proved to be a bigger handful than the other two put together. He wasn’t naughty, just busy, we lied to each other. The little bugger gave us more than a few sleepless nights (and still sometimes does) but his effortless charm and winning smile always made it worthwhile — apart from when he’d get out of bed shortly after being put down and throw all his clothes out of the drawers.
By the time he joined his siblings in school he’d calmed down a bit and quickly explored his gregarious nature by taking to it like it was what he’d been waiting for all the while. A German friend told us at the time, when we were debating how soon we should be sending our kids to school, that in Germany they have a simple test. If the child can reach their left ear with their right hand over the top of their head, they are ready for school. It sounds ridiculous but actually makes some sense, we checked, and he could touch his ear with ease. He walked around like that for some time after just to convince us.
Our daughter by now had become a creative dynamo and was well liked by her teachers. She threw herself into activities, appearing in any concert going, the odd charity fashion show and painting and drawing to her heart’s content. She had a huge desire to please and I remember taking her to a parents’ evening where we were sat at a tiny desk with her work to review before meeting the teacher. She insisted on coming with me and showed me her work, bursting with pride. It was very touching and the teacher lauded her with praise for her efforts. When we came out she let out a huge sigh of relief, I asked her what she was sighing for? Well, I can stop smiling now, my cheeks are aching so much!
The eldest boy was also gaining a reputation with his drawing and won a prize at the National Urdd Eisteddfod (a Welsh creative festival for youngsters which he called the Welsh Hitler Youth). He was well ahead of his peers and it looked as though he would be following a creative career path. The school, however, proved their mettle in adding strings to his bow and giving him the self belief to go any number of ways when the time came (he eventually did Biology). The school also instilled a sense of national identity without being preachy or excluding about it, a fine line to tread.
In the year 2000 we managed to create another one, a fourth child and a third son who firmly placed the second son as the middle one (a situation that suited him perfectly, if ever there was a typical middle son, he is it). It’s said that William the Conqueror filled the ranks of his army with the middle sons of noble families. He believed them to be the ones with something to prove being driven by the need to make their way in the world. Bang on.
It’s funny how the dynamic changed now we were a family of six. As an only child it was all new to me, but my wife was the youngest of four herself so she understood the various machinations that left me bewildered. The eldest was in many ways an only child with three siblings, forging the way and often falling foul of our inexperience as parents. Our daughter was the only girl, so no competition there. And the two youngest formed a strong bond of their own, looking out for each other and sharing toys, clothes and experiences more naturally than we could have hoped, despite the four years between them.
The youngest had a September birthday and was therefore the oldest in his year when he eventually started school. This gave him enormous advantages not least in size, as he was a big lad to begin with. He was a solid citizen in many ways, stoic and dependable, taking no nonsense from anyone. I found it fascinating to watch as he charged off without as much as a glance backwards on his first day at school. To be fair, he was accompanied by his three siblings who had paved the way with their good behaviour and hard work.
For one year, a golden time, we had four at the same school, just before the eldest moved on to secondary. The youngest caused the others some hilarity with his slightly unconventional attitude to school assembly which he assumed to be an opportunity to drop his shorts and pants in front of the maximum number of people at once.
We were still picking him up at 11.30 as the first year was half days. When it was my turn, I’d detour to the nearest bakery to buy him a mini sausage roll and have a natter about his day on the way home. Then he’d konk out on the floor in the living room or under the coffee table for a blissful sleep after his busy morning.
You take a little more time with the youngest as it has begun to dawn on you how quickly they grow up. It’s an old cliché for sure but no less true for that. It was a busy time too, we’d just moved to a bigger house, incorporated my business, bought a new car and my wife had started her own business — childminding, no less!
I loved seeing them come home, having a chat with each in turn about their day. It was always interesting to find out what they’d had for lunch as we were firm believers in school dinners. My favourite response was from our middle son, when asked what kind of meat he’d had, replied flat meat. The youngest equated school mashed potato with Sliveen Poo (Sliveens were a monstrous alien species in Doctor Who).
The time came for our eldest to go to secondary school, Ysgol Gyfun Gŵyr, another Welsh medium school with an excellent record. It was a five mile bus journey from the stop, luckily opposite our house, and our boy made the most of the convenience, crossing the road just as the bus was approaching, my daily advice ringing in his ears, Be good, have fun, take care, learn lots. I uttered this mantra every time they left for shool, I don’t know if it found purchase in their minds but repeating it every day made me feel better.
The secondary school was serious business. New uniform, timetabled lessons, assessments, exams, expectations piled up. He did well. Proved to be a good pupil and worked within his means, found his feet, made new friends, learned new skills. One more step away from us.
In the meantime the others forged their own extra-curricular pathways, bringing friends home for tea, going to parties and socials, performing in plays and concerts. The two younger boys showed an interest in sport, both becoming good rugby and cricket players, and athletes, representing their clubs, school and county in a variety of events.
Of course, we had the occasional call to school to pick one or other up early due to illness or injury but thankfully there was never anything serious. In the most part they were healthy children, not prone to feigning anything for a day off — they’d have short shrift from their short, shrifty mother if they had tried to. It also helped that they enjoyed their school days enormously.
Our eldest went several years without missing a school day. To my shame I once sent him in, not believing that it was an optional attendance day (I forget why, exams or something). He was the only one on his bus, stayed in the school library all day and was the only one coming home on his bus too. The driver felt so sorry for him that he stopped for him to buy sweets on the way back.
As I was running my own business, I was often in the fortunate position of being able to take a couple of hours to watch any mid week matches the younger boys were involved in. I stood in many a cold, muddy field (and that was just the cricket matches) with a handful of other parents, more often than not with a big smug smile on my face. It was a welcome interlude to the working week which I miss terribly now it’s come to an end.
I was forever grateful for the peace of mind we were lucky to have knowing that our children were in a safe environment for the time they were in school. We were enormously fortunate I know, but I was never in doubt that they were in anything other than a nurturing establishment that had their best interests at heart. Apart from a slight over emphasis on the performing arts (typical of Welsh schools), I had very few complaints about either school they attended.
Twenty three years of shining shoes on a Sunday evening, covering exercise books with sticky backed plastic every new term and dropping off forgotten packed lunches and homework have all now passed.
All four made it to University, two are still there, making their way in the world with ever diminishing help from us. Because that’s what happens when they start school, they start preparing for the all too soon day that they don’t need you any more.
At the end of every school year I would put Alice Cooper on full volume when they came home. “Schooool’s out, for Summmer!” “Schooool’s out, for EVER!”
I never really thought it would be.