Thursday, 14 September 2017

I'll Be There For You

I'm curled up on the floor of my living room in my comfiest clothes, watching a Netflix romantic comedy whilst one set of impossibly tiny clothes dries outside on the patio and another set flies about in the washing machine. I've just hung up the phone, having been chatting to a work friend for 40 minutes, and am waiting for the phone to ring again so that Dale can tell me he's free to pop out of work and meet me in Mothercare. I'm purposely ignoring the cries of the custard creams in the cupboard and telling myself I'll chop up some fruit in a minute.

It's a Thursday afternoon.

Welcome to maternity leave.

I've been incredibly emotional about maternity leave- as I imagine most people are, since it only occurs when your hormones are completely out of control, your life is about to change, you're somewhere between vaguely uncomfortable and unbearable pain twenty four hours a day, and you keep being told that you're going to experience huge trauma followed by the most love you have ever felt any day now.

But also- I love my job.

My job is my current baby. I was lucky enough to launch the education centre I work in. The day I started it was an empty shell with a couple of desks and a single phone. I went in in my leggings and baggy jumpers and got covered in dust putting computers together. I unpacked boxes of office stuff and spent days organising and reorganising where we were going to keep books and stationery.

I went through the first CVs, hired the first team, signed up the first member.

(Just to be clear, this was all with two other managers. I'm not taking all the credit.)

When Minnie Mouse was in labour, the only thing that stopped me tearing my hair out was the distraction of interviewing new tutors to run our centre. When Dale and I were living in different counties and could only see each other every other weekend, hanging out with hilarious children and saving up their quotes to tell him kept me sane. When I was given the worst news I have ever been given, I spent the day teaching children maths and English- watching their little faces light up when they got something right, watching them visibly inflate when I praised them for their attitude- and was temporarily relieved of thinking about it all.

That's the job itself.

Then there's the part that makes or breaks every job: the people.

I am fortunate enough to have worked alongside incredible people: managers, tutors, parents, and of course, children.

When we got engaged, my colleagues were among the very first people I told. The tutors contributed far more than I'm sure they know to the planning of my wedding, and I can't imagine having made it through this pregnancy without the input of some of the parents.

I went through a phase of telling people I was pregnant and being met either with a reaction along the lines of 'I thought so, you've been looking ever so bloated', or 'wow, was it a shock?' Neither were reactions that I particularly appreciated, and it got to the stage that I had heard little else.

Then I saw a particular member. She's nine.

"Can I tell you a secret?" I asked. "I have a baby in my tummy."

She threw her arms in the air, squealed, and cried 'amazing news! Congratulations!'

It was honestly the most grown up and heartwarming response I had.

Some of my proudest moments happened in that centre. From the moment the first child came in to tell me he had passed the 11+, to the time an eight year old member finally spoke for the first time outside of his family home. From the small, daily triumphs like watching a nine year old finally make the connection between multiplying and dividing, to watching a tutor excel following their training and go on to become a qualified teacher.

Every day was filled with small triumphs and hilarious moments, and anyone who knows me will know that my favourite things about this and every other job I've had are a) the ridiculous sentences you say when you work with children b) all the brilliantly funny things you hear when you work with children.

I could write a novel filled with them, but here are my favourites from my last week...

1) "I don't want to alarm you but do you know that there's a flip flop in your hair?"

2) "I think I should try and write this more perfectly, it really doesn't make sense." A six year old boy after reading back his sentence.

3) "And were you concentrating or were you sticking pencils up your nose?"

4) "I went to have a drink of water but it made my ear hurt so I don't think I can do any more." A (different) six year old boy trying to get out of doing his maths.

5) "See if you can guess my favourite dinner." Five year old girl. "It's a type of meat."

"Okay...roast dinner? No? Steak? No? Sausage and mash? No? I give up."
"It's chocolate ice cream!"

6) "It was my sister's birthday last year." Five year old boy.

"Last year? Was it? Are you sure you mean last year?"
"Yep, definitely."
"He means yesterday." His ten year old sister.

7) "I went to London yesterday, to see the Eiffel Tower."

8) "Do you think you should be blowing raspberries or doing your work?"

"Blowing raspberries."
Oh right....

9) "Then I had to stand up on the train all the way back from London to England."

10) "Why is she crying?"

"She asked her sister to guess her favourite pizza toppings. She got them all right. She didn't want her to."

Of course it wasn't all laughing at children and chatting with parents; there were times when the pressure got too much, or expectations were too high; when people were rude or frustratingly unreasonable. But there was never, ever a time when there wasn't an amazing person beside me or on the phone to remind me that people are occasionally awful and that that's not my fault.

When I had been doing this job for a year I looked back over what I had achieved and, more importantly, what I had learnt, and was both impressed and proud (in a self-effacing, British way, mind you) at how much it had given me in such a short amount of time. I remember thinking 'imagine where I'll be in another year.'

A year after that I had been promoted and was facing a whole host of new challenges- equally frustrating, fun and full of self-development, and equally impossible without the amazing people I had around me.

A year after that and here I am. Spending my afternoons writing, watching Netflix and eating. (Just so you know in the time I've written this I've had two squares of chocolate, a peanut butter cup and a hot chocolate. The fruit continues to sit sadly in the bowl on the kitchen table.)

My last few weeks in my job were emotional, to say the least.

Most days I arrived struggling to breathe as my baby is squashing my innards and the rush into the centre didn't help. I've been suffering so much with heart burn that if this baby comes out with anything less than a thatch to rival my Grandad Derek's (he has the most incredible hair, even as he trots through his 70s) I'll be highly disappointed. And I'm so, so tired. Absolutely exhausted, all the time. Which means I spent a lot of time thinking that these blissful days off couldn't come soon enough.

But then one by one I'd realise it was my last shift with a tutor, or the last time I'd see a certain child, or their parents. Or a child would make me laugh so hard that I couldn't breathe for different reasons. Or one of the other managers would say something so relate-able, or would find something as funny as I did, and I'd just want to sob at the thought of leaving.

In the last month we had a fourth manager join us, so that when I left they would continue to be the necessary team of three.

We, as a group of four, had a magic about us, I like to think, in that we were all so different in so many ways, but so similar in all the important ways. We spent a lot of time finding the same things funny, and the same things infuriating, which brings people together in such a special way, doesn't it?

I had worked with one member of that team for two years, one for almost a year, and one for a month. And in all that time had spent the majority of it communicating in Friends quotes, and making sense of everything (as I always have done) through Friends comparisons.

Which is why, when I left work on my last day as a team of four, I emailed Jo Whiley.

The radio 2 listeners among you will know that it's incredibly rare that they provide the opportunity for the public to request songs, but every weekday evening on my drive home Jo Whiley runs a feature called Taxi Service. This involves listeners who are on the road contacting her with the song that they want to hear whilst they are playing taxi driver, and let her know what or who it is that they are taxiing.

I sent the following email:

Hi Jo! 

It's the end of an era. I am about to taxi myself and my unborn baby home from work for the last time after 3 years in the most wonderful job with the most genuinely fabulous team- feeling so emotional! 

We will, of course, stay in touch and continue to bond over Popmaster and taxi service from afar, but if you could play I'll be there for you by The Rembrandts after 3 years of communicating in Friends quotes I'm sure it would brighten all of our drives home!! 

Thank you so much, love your show always, 


I listened intently to Taxi Service. She read out a series of texts and emails that weren't from me, and eventually played No Scrubs by TLC-which was an excellent choice- just not mine. 

She then played another few songs before the news. 

The news finished, a standard BBC radio ad went out, and then the opening chimes of I'll Be There For You burst onto the radio. I, having managed to keep my emotions in check all week, promptly burst into tears and sobbed all the way through the song, before Jo came on and read out my email and said she hadn't seen it in time for taxi service but couldn't let it just go by. 

Safe to say all of us cried at the sound of that song that evening. One of the girls said that when it first started she thought 'it's a divine intervention, what are the chances?!' And then she immediately thought 'wait, I bet Rebecca's been in contact with them somehow.' And then she cried. 

It really was the perfect ending to my three magical years, and was made even better when, on my actual last day (for which only two of us were in), the other two managers, plus a manager from a different centre, turned up to surprise me with cake and presents and love. 

And now here I am, two weeks later, feeling wonderful for just having spoken to them again. 

So yes, I took so much from this job. Leadership and credibility and assertiveness and business sense.

But the biggest thing that I will hold onto from this job is that there are such incredible people out there. Children, who are hilarious, inquisitive, wise, kind and naturally thoughtful. Teenagers, desperate to make a difference in the world and full of life and enthusiasm for starting out their adult lives as role models for children. Twenty-somethings, still discovering who they are and changing and improving every day and being understanding, kind, hilarious and curious as they do so. Parents, comfortable enough to share their life stories with me and thoughtful enough to want to help me. Parents, who just want the absolute best for these little humans they've created, and who will fight tooth and nail for them to have the best.

I often tell my Grandma stories from work and she will say 'gosh you do meet all sorts working there, don't you?'

Yes I do.

There is very little that will surprise me about humans now.

But what I do know is that whilst there are scary things happening in the world, and whilst the media may be insisting that adults are greedy and selfish and cruel, and children no longer have any manners or respect, I can confirm that for the most part, this is not true.

I have met all sorts in my job, and whilst they are all different, they are all wonderful, and ultimately are just trying to do the right thing by the people around them. There are exceptions, of course. But they are exceptions.

And so as I pulled the shutters across for the last time on what had been an empty shell with a few desks and a single phone, and was now a fully functioning education centre filled with incredible people, stories and memories, I kept the tears at bay and let my heart fill up instead. 

I will continue to use all that wisdom from all those incredible people for this next adventure.

My actual baby. 

In the mean time, I'll be here for you.

Eating, mostly.

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