That Noun-Verb Thing

Many years ago, I started teaching the English language and, as a result, learned much more about my mother tongue than I’d ever picked up at school. The more I learned, the more I fell in love (a novel experience for me – usually, enduring mystery is the clincher), and the more I wanted to know. I embraced all forms of English, welcomed them to the fold, while firmly promoting a standard I held dear. A standard based fairly and squarely on my parents’ and Eric Blair’s.

After a while, I became an examiner. It’s probably the work I enjoyed most. Meeting, and listening to, people from around the world, whilst assessing which exam board profile they fit, was both challenging and frustrating. I tried to be as flexible as possible, within the rules, to accommodate varieties of English which were mutually comprehensible. I have never been a hardliner with language: change ensures survival, and it’s that quality of English which has paid me adequately well over the years. Some colleagues were not so tolerant. An oft-repeated, post-exam, heated discussion was ‘that noun-verb thing’. Colleagues unfamiliar with iTunes would erupt into rage over a candidate using ‘gift’ as a verb.

To be fair, when I’d first encountered it, the American trend for making nouns into verbs had caused me to shudder (occasionally, it still does – ‘to desk’, anyone?). However, as with other changes, I realized that I needed to acknowledge it to deal with it. Ignoring what we don’t like does not make it go away. English is user-led, another secret to its survival and success, so respect for the user shows respect for the dictionaries of the future. A usage is coined, people adopt it, people like it, it endures, it enters the dictionaries.

Yesterday, I reflected on ‘that noun-verb thing’ again. There was a Greek General Election, billed as an opportunity for Greece to rethink itself and its relationship with the outside world. Going the rounds on social media was a Greek cartoon – easily translated and immediately understood. A man at a podium asks the crowd in front of him ‘Who wants change?’ Everyone raises their hand. Then, he asks ‘Who wants to change?’. No-one raises their hand.

This speaks to all of us. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi; if we want change, we have to be that change. Acknowledge it, take ownership of it. The verb activates the noun. Let’s do it!


On the Third Day…

of December 1993. Taken from my diary when I was teaching English on the island of Symi, Greece.

Can’t write well, was up to 4 a.m. thanks to a party and am forgetting how a good night’s sleep feels. I’m stale and my throat is sore. The school owner is visiting from Rhodes, so I take myself to a quiet corner of the classroom and prep there. That done, I go out to buy bread, biscuits and veg. Take coffee with K at her very quiet cafe, after collecting D’s music centre. Bigger! Louder! Better! (Well it will be when this fug clears…). A walk around the harbour reveals the pack of male teachers at Elpida’s, talking in a hearty-blokey way. Not in the mood for that at all, I go to visit MA. She’s miles better company and we chat about constructive use of time – y’know, making it matter. I eat too many biscuits because they’re warm from the bakery opposite and she tells me I’m too small. I’m easily persuaded! The weather’s fine, the laundry’s done and I’m back on the bicycle enjoying the scenery. Return from my ride in time to take a ‘phone call from my sister – she’s just landed a new, permanent job at County Hall. So happy for her! That conversation had, (my former employer) Mr J rings to discuss getting me back to work in Rhodes. He’s lined-up a group of civil servants as students to start after Christmas and has found a teacher who’s willing to come over here to ‘replace’ me (who is this mad person, I ask myself?). Anyway, no time to ponder as DS (fresh from his male-bonding at Elpida’s) is outside, at the bottom of the steps, waiting to walk me up to a teachers’ party at Dolares. It’s a Salonikan celebration and we stay until 03.15, when we walk back down – smiling and laughing all the way. Bed by 4 a.m. Again.

of December 1994. Taken from my diary when I was teaching English on the island of Rhodes, Greece.

Wake early, plagued by thoughts of no pay (again). The temperature is colder than in London, there’s an icy wind. It’s overcast, so there’ll be no hot water – nothing like a cold shower to dowse self-pity. I have an odd rash on my body – standing in front of the mirror, it appears to be a fire starting from the big toe on my left foot and spreading upwards with its flames licking my thighs, abdomen and chest. I itch. A lot. Calls from S & H to meet by Agios Athanasios church at 8 p.m. for a night out. Next, I reserve a seat to Cairo for the new year with Ethiopian Airlines at the closest travel agent. Visit M to tell her the good news and she goes to check ferry times for the trip. Nervously excited! Especially as I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it. Meet D at Academia, where we wait for our students to emerge from their FCE papers. We’re definitely far more nervous than them. KL passes and invites me over to Koskinou for a ‘final’ dinner before he leaves for Australia on Tuesday. In the afternoon, I try to nap, but it’s too cold, the girl next door is shrieking again (having forgotten being ‘shot at’ by J as a warning the last time – where’s a firearm when you need one?) and the ‘phone keeps ringing. My private lesson is OK, though my concentration is poor. I pass my bill to the student, it is not paid (of course). In the evening, D comes round to take a call from her mother in the States, the rest of the gang come round, we go to meet S & H and all go to eat at ‘Vrachos’ in Ialyssos (lovely setting and place). Back to ‘ νυν και άει’ in the Old Town, with a great DJ, before going on to a very crowded ‘Melrose’ at 1 a.m. Well, dear reader, I danced, I drank, I smoked, I sang. All with no thought of tomorrow. That can wait.


A Long November Weekend

The weekend of 6 – 8 November 1993, on the island of Symi, Greece. Recorded in my diary of the time, when I taught ESOL there. The 8 November is the festival of Archangel Michael of Panormitis. The Greek Orthodox Church states that the miraculous icon of the Archangel Michael on the island of Symi is one of the four miraculous icons of the Archangel in the Dodecanese, Greece.

Saturday dawns and I still feel rough. My fever is running high, my voice is running away and my nose is just running. There’s a teachers’ lunch in Horio but I don’t go, instead I walk the few meters to the Vapori to sit with D for a medicinal drink. She has one, too. Prophylactic reasons. Back to the apartment, I listen to old cassettes to divert myself from unproductive hovering and feeling doom-laden. F comes round to tell me I’m getting better, she’s always right, so I must be. Apparently, my illness will pass by Monday. Have a hideously bad night’s sleep.

Despite this, Sunday comes and I am feeling better. Well, a bit anyway. I then contrive, through hovering-with-intent, to spend the day at a friend’s house. This helps me avoid housework very nicely until 4pm. Then, fed up with mess, I clean and tidy the apartment. In the meantime, even more people have left for the festival at Panormitis and the harbor area is becoming quieter. Further attempts at hovering-with-intent-to-be-invited-in fail miserably but I have a greater reward in going for a walk in excellent company with M and S, two of this year’s teachers. Not for the first time, I thank my lucky stars for this group of good people.

The three-day weekend rolls into Monday, and the harbor’s almost completely closed up as it seems the entire local population have headed off to the monasteries at Panormitis and Michailis. Elpida’s is the only cafe open. My fever has passed, F was (as ever) right. I have lunch with her and D. She’s cooked – it’s a lovely meal, washed down with heart-searching talk and retsina. I sleep soundly for two hours in my newly-cleaned apartment, woken only by a call from a student’s father. Him: Come and collect food. Me: OK. I go. The ‘food’ consists of two bottles of wine, something described as ‘marmalade’, and a lobster. Gotta love gratitude! By the evening, Pachos has re-opened. I go for drinks with S and H over from Lindos for the day’s festivities and we’re joined by some teachers. My Lindian friends are worried for my peace of mind and want me to leave with them. I won’t. I’ll stay. But I am tempted. Really I am. The urge to bolt is never far away.


21 October

1994. Rhodes, Greece.

Two days of thunderstorms. And the rain, the rain! The streets become rivers, the air so drenched it is hard to breathe. Nothing feels dry, indoors or out. Dreadful road accidents leave a trail of casualties – four British tourists drowned in Archangelos. Concerned colleagues make sure I have lifts to and from work, and students keep advising me to be careful (especially after the tourist accident – the British obviously can’t handle rainy weather). On a dash into town I manage to reach the bank and withdraw my rent money for the Cretan florist. By chance, I bump into a couple I know who are leaving Greece to go and live in Sweden. We make time for coffee in a café full of the sound of dripping. I wish them well, they are good people. By the time I hand the rent over, the brown paper envelope containing my hard-earned drachmas is, just like everything else, completely sodden. The landlord nods, smiles and spreads the notes out on the shop counter to dry. I leave. My Level 1 class is calling (not very loudly, mind you). My beginning students learn many weather-words as we watch the drama of the storm unfold outside, safe in our (almost-dry) room. There are unlimited ways to describe rain. I’d not realized this before. 50 minutes with Level 1 in a downpour will teach you this. In the break, splash across the road to the main building to receive phone calls, trying not to be jealous of those who have landlines at home. By the way, I fail miserably at the not-being-jealous thing. Once in the main building, I have to queue for the bathroom. After five minutes, I’m in and I try to dry off. Don’t know why, but I do try. Then, I hang around, feigning casual disinterest, in the office. I circle the phones, to no avail. One of the secretaries has a worried mother in Athens who needs to know her middle-aged daughter hasn’t drowned/ been swept out to sea/had lots of other bad stuff happen because of rain that only distant mothers can imagine. That’s that, then. Break over, I swim back to spend two fun hours teaching one-to-one (there are few times I am able to use that phrase; those words, in that order) with the student known to other staff only as ‘Jane’s Albanian’. My callers get through while I’m in class. The not-drowned secretary leaves me notes, all of which say the person will phone back. If they can, of course. My lift home from work on Friday night, sparing me from the rain, is on a scooter – seriously. Wetter than walking – how is that possible? Forget the wet for a while at a birthday party. One of my colleagues is celebrating her 22nd, and a large group of us squelch noisily into a nearby pizzeria where a good time and many beers are had by all. Diving back into the rain on the Vespa gone midnight, I reflect that tomorrow I will have a sore head and wonder if I will ever feel dry again.

(Taken from the diary I kept at the time)


Say Do You Remember?

September 1993, that is… Back from visiting my parents in Rhodes over the weekend, I feel quite distant. Always takes me time to readjust to The Rock. Start the day by filling the well for an hour, delivering my laundry, going for a swim (really more of a ‘bob’ as there’s a swell), then to Elpida’s for coffee and OJ. Back in the classroom, am worn out by Junior A. They are distracted by a passing funeral procession; the route passes the classroom window, the kids always want to see the corpse and compete with the keening mourners. I manage to stay calm, while encouraging them down from the furniture they’ve climbed onto to get a better view, and debating bringing ear plugs to work. Expelled a student for the first time (hopefully last). This causes excitement across the harbor and, at least, gives people something ‘real’ to chat about. Competition hots up for the ‘vacant’ desk as mothers petition for their children to enrol. Indefinite wait, as none of us know when the owner will be visiting. The wind is still high, so the boat timetable is upended. There’s been no sign of the Rodos ferry, which eventually arrives 24 hours late. Two hydrofoils make it into and out of the harbor, though. Comfort comes in many forms. I picked up a BBC World Service signal again. Found five good reads in a local tourist book exchange, which I unashamedly swapped for some trashers. An invitation to birthday cake and drinks is followed by a surprise dinner at Tholos. Cycled to the restaurant, but the food was so good I ate too much. I had to walk back very slowly. Thankfully, at the school room in time to take my parents’ phone call – they’ve arrived safely in Athens. Upstairs to bed with the BBC. Much depressing talk of Russia but, more happily, Sydney’s won the bid for the 2000 Olympic Games. Taken from the diary I kept while teaching in Symi, Greece


The Gerund

On being, doing and having.

My parents valued language, it was a dear commodity at home, and I grew up surrounded by books and adults who could, and did, read and who could, and did, voice opinions on what they read. Television arrived in our household long after the printed word had stolen my heart and captured my imagination.

Thanks to this preparation, plus one year at a private Montessori school, by the time I arrived at my state-run primary school at the age of four, I could read and write. School was strict and an A grade in any subject was hard-won. It was a war I was willing to wage for the English language (especially as my mother took a very dim view of low marks, indeed).

Within the subject of English, marks were awarded for ‘Reading’, ‘Composition Oral/ Written’, ‘Spelling’ and ‘English Progress’. Teachers’ handwritten comments did not have to match the mark awarded – you could be described as ‘outstandingly good’ and still receive a B (as I did). It took until I was nine to get As across the board: ‘An excellent year’s work has been concluded with test results which are outstanding for a child of Jane’s age’.

Thereafter, my English marks didn’t fall below B+ (apart from one year when my class teacher was trying to persuade my mother I needed private tuition; tuition from that same teacher, of course). On reaching junior school, I gained A for effort and 1 for achievement in English all the way and from there was sent on my way to high school at the age of 13. By this time, I’d already had several years of French tuition at home (from my mother) and at school. I’d taken to that, too.

Now, here’s the thing – the way we were taught both languages was very different. At the outset, English was taught by rote – methodical reading, copying and testing. Correct spelling was highly prized. Slowly but surely, however, politics eroded my English language learning. I increasingly fell back upon the knowledge of my privately-educated mother to fill in the ever-growing chasm between teachers who maintained that grammar was a dirty word and my desire to know more of the language I loved.

By the time I was 14, the closest to an English grammar explanation a pupil could drag out of any teacher in public was that a verb was ‘a doing word’. Desperate for enlightenment, I followed my Latin and French classes with increasing fervour – here, we were being shown into the secret workings of language. Thanks to the grammar translation and audio-lingual methodology then being used to teach those languages, the ‘just express yourself!’ exhortations of successive English ‘teachers’ faded away. I was weaned from my mother’s parsing of sentences (for which, I remain thankful) the day I realized a gerund was not a mutant rodent companion for my sister’s hamster.

I have since spent time teaching English to speakers of other languages, many of whose knowledge of the inner workings of their own language (thanks to state education systems which value their pupils’ intelligence) has helped them greatly in acquiring the new one. In the process, I continued my own education – still striving to improve on the paucity of information doled out almost reluctantly at school.

On being, doing and having. My language; understanding to make it mine.


Tuesday 23 November 1993

(This is taken from the journal I kept when I was the English teacher on Symi aka ‘The Rock’. To afford privacy, I have removed people’s names).

Bright skies give way to thunder, hail and rainstorms. The street by the school becomes a river and the side stairs to my apartment a stream, as hail bounces then floats away. Just in time, I rescue a cassette of music left for me at the gate – miraculously, it is undamaged and I listen to it while waiting for the storm to abate. A phone call – do I like the music? Yes, I do. There’s a funeral for a fisherman’s mother and the dark, somber day, with threads of light and patches of sunshine, seems appropriate somehow. She died on his name day, yesterday. I choose not to go to the funeral and instead, in a brief dry spell after lunch, go for a thoughtful, quiet walk with a good friend and her dog. The Nissos Kalymnos made it in this morning and there’s almost a party atmosphere as people emerge from winter hiding into the sunshine, while it lasts. Over-confident, I outstay the sunshine and the heavens open while I’m out. I take refuge in the doorway of the Ionian Bank. There’s a group of us, sheltering in different doorways, all caught out by the rain – we shout to each other and laugh. Oddly, we’re able to shout things we wouldn’t normally even say to each other – careless of others and convention. It’s cathartic. We agree, loudly, that we’re mavericks, before one of the men shouts over that I look like a cowgirl and that’s why he and his wife entrusted their children into my care at the school. In the absence of an alternative, I take this as a compliment (being a cowgirl was, after all, my second choice of what-I-wanted-to-do-when-I-grew-up, after being a Lost Boy was ruled out by my kind, but insistent, father). I do make a mental note to watch his children more carefully in future, though. Back at school, teaching was OK, though early turnout was low because of the weather. During the afternoon, various people jump in through the door to dodge rain and hailstones. The children take it all in their stride and classes continue uninterrupted, though in a slightly giddy Noah’s Ark-type way. Various phone calls in the breaks between classes to check I’m OK – the weather reports having traveled beyond The Rock. After school, I walk to Elpida’s for company, a drink and something to eat. There’s a female Greek teacher on the island; tall, slim and pretty – she’s flavour of the year. She’s not at the cafe, a group of her admirers are. I become an agony aunt as they all clamour for advice on how to win her over. I give it my best shot, but this wears me out by 11pm, so I leave. On the way back, I stare into the now clear night sky and see a shooting star.

Weather report: sun, warm, torrential rain, hail, bright, rain, storm, (funeral), rainbow, clear, damp, dark. Good night.

Published on axrhodes on 23/11/2013


Testing Times

I was fortunate enough to be in town for Open House London (20 – 22 September this year) as the event celebrated its 21st birthday. Victoria Thornton started the architectural party in 1992, when 20 buildings agreed to open their doors to the public for free. In 2013, more than 800 buildings took part in London alone, with the concept now taken on by 20 other cities worldwide. Spoiled for choice, the first place I visited was the City of London School for boys (I was staying in the City), where I spent a surprisingly (to me) long time in the sidings with the Model Railway Society and also came across a display of old exam papers by the tea urn. Here’s a sample. Testing times, indeed.

– By the way, I feel quite deeply that vulgar fractions and terminated decimals have been too long ignored. Just a thought…





Thinking ahead

On Thursday 22 August, children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) results. Usually, these examinations are taken at the age of sixteen and are used as a benchmark for the child’s employability or future study potential. Usually, the national release of the results leads to heavy debate in the press and pubs about the declining standard of children’s attainment, the inability to meet targets, unsustainable pressure on children, inflated/deflated grades.

Here, I’d like to declare a major, personal, vested interest in Thursday’s results (just so’s you know). Firstly, I’ve worked as an examiner (not for GCSEs) and thoroughly enjoyed the work and secondly, and far more importantly, my eldest niece was one of those receiving her results on Thursday. To say that I’m very proud of her would be an immense understatement; she did so well last week, I’m telling anyone prepared to listen and many who I’m sure aren’t (but are too scared to tell me, given the zeal with which I’m delivering the news). Put simply, she’s a star.

Now let’s take a step back from measuring the nation and quantifying its future to take a look at the children themselves. They matter. I love my niece and her sister almost as dearly as I love their mother (my sister). My nieces are great people and it’s a testimony to the way in which they’ve been raised, to believe they can do anything they set their mind to and work towards, so congratulations to their responsible grown-ups. Of course, I’m biased and proud of it. But my faith and happiness in children extends beyond this.

After years of enjoying working with teenagers from around the world (in education), I was fortunate while on holiday last summer to meet and get to know a particularly great group of children. I thought then, how bright the future looks in their hands and how exciting the world looks through their eyes. That cannot be measured or quantified, only enjoyed – not only by them, but by all of us fortunate enough to live on this same planet with them. We should all cherish our children’s futures and give them our love, not our thoughts – they have their own (thanks, JFK and Khalil Gibran). I’m happy and confident that, thinking ahead, this world is theirs.


Early Learning

I have never liked having my photograph taken – still don’t – but do make an effort to keep existing pictures (well, ones I approve). Early, black and white, ones were taken of me when I was sent to Oxford House School, Lexden Road, Colchester at the age of three. A Montessori preparatory school, it was (and still is) a parents’ dream. There I am, standing gauche and skinny in my summer school uniform in my garden at Number 47 North Hill – a child of the 1960s, with sixteenth century gargoyles behind me and the remains of a Roman villa underfoot.

I’d long wanted to learn to read and write – I grew up surrounded by books and with parents who read daily; to me, to each other and to themselves. My books had pictures, why didn’t theirs? What were those patterns on the page and how could they hold attention for hour after hour? My father patiently wrote out words for me to copy. Early attempts at writing my name onto items around the house led to indelible accidents with biro ink – my father’s brown leather wallet had my blue name writ large. Forever.

I copied beautifully and clearly and through the looking glass. A left-hander, I automatically and instinctively wrote from right to left with reverse lettering. My writing made perfect sense to me; and to others when held up for scrutiny in a mirror. In an attempt to convince me to conform (my parents had failed to persuade me to write ‘the right way round’) and to channel my constant questioning, it was decided that school would be ‘a good thing’. A short search provided the name of a suitable institution which was also walking distance from home, from Number 47.

The pink and white gingham dress, the white ankle socks, the regulation shoes, the boater, the beret and the grey blazer were all purchased. My photographs were duly taken and I was sent to school. I did not like it. Not at all. This through no fault of the school or its teachers. I just didn’t like school. In fact, this continued for the next thirteen years – until it was post-compulsory. At best, I learned to tolerate it; at worst, I learned how to write my own sick notes.

Every morning, while attending Oxford House, I went through my rapidly-established ritual. I had the same breakfast, or would eat nothing. I had to be walked, hand-in-hand, by my father from front door to school gate, or would not move. Measles were a cause for celebration. My godmother came to pick me up from school in her pink bubble car and deposited me in front of my exasperated mother in the garden at Number 47. She shook her head, I smiled; confident of a categorical argument won without a fight.

The school uniform remains almost identical at Oxford House today. After some years away from Colchester, and in a neatly ironic way, I returned to Lexden Road as a teacher. Every morning I watched the little children in their ever-so-slightly-large-to-grow-into uniforms, hand-in-hand with parents or nannies, walking into the school building. And I knew that if I’d had children of my own, that’s exactly where they’d have been and that’s exactly the uniform they’d have been wearing. And I’d have been as sure as were my parents that I was doing it the right way round.