There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ kid

I’ve just got back from my first afternoon visiting a Teens and Toddlers project at a nursery. Much as I’m ashamed to admit it I did have preconceptions about what the teenagers would be like. I’d assumed they’d be surly and uncommunicative, and that it would be difficult to engage with them, especially given that the teens on our programme are chosen precisely because they’re deemed to be more ‘at-risk’ (of dropping out of school, having children young etc.) than their peers.

But I’m delighted to say my experience was a total eye-opener and my preconceptions have been shelved. The six boys on the project I visited are all thirteen years old, and whilst they are typical teenagers who don’t always listen, aren’t all that keen on looking you in the eye and occasionally act up, on the whole they’re really lovely kids.

Classroom sessions aside, the real joy for me was seeing the way the boys interacted with their ‘toddlers’ in the nursery. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon which meant the toddlers were racing around outside in the play area. One of the boys had arrived at the nursery fuming about having had a personal possession stolen at school, and the facilitators were initially reticent about allowing him into the nursery to see his toddler, lest he carry his anger through to their session. Once he was out there, however, he was totally unselfconscious and behaved impeccably with his toddler. He even had a number of toddlers gathering around him to play because he was so much fun to be with.

Another boy, who had in the earlier classroom session refused to look any of us in the eye and acted bored, came alive with his toddler and spent ages lying on the ground play-fighting with them. I saw each of the six interacting with their toddlers in such a heart-warming way that it made me see every one of them in an entirely new light. When we returned to the classroom after the session with the toddlers they were alive with enthusiasm and keen to talk about the progress they had made with their toddlers.

At one point in the classroom we discussed what age would be the right age to have children. All the boys unanimously agreed that older than twenty five was ‘past it’ as far as they were concerned, which made me – a childless woman of thirty one with no immediate plans to have children – laugh. It’s been so long since I was their age I’d forgotten how old twenty five seems; like a lifetime away, though of course it’s really not.

Watching the boys – and the toddlers, come to that – today, it really wasn’t obvious that they have turbulent home lives. But I was reliably informed by the facilitator that some of them have an awful lot on their plates given their age. It’s hard enough being a teenager without having a host of problems to deal with in your personal life.

I’ve come away feeling more certain than ever that the work my charity’s doing with vulnerable children and disadvantaged teenagers is vital for the future of this country’s young people. No young person is inherently a ‘bad kid,’ it’s just that some of them need extra help to navigate their way through turbulent periods in their lives and stay on the right track. Shouldn’t every young person in that situation have the right to such help?

Meeting the boys today made me think of the boys I taught in Tanzania in 2007, some of whom were about the same age then as these boys are now. I wonder what became of them and where they are now.

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Teenage dreams

I’m conscious that I may need to amend the rules of my writing challenge (but as I set them in the first place surely that’s my prerogative?), given that I wrote fiction every day a couple of weeks back and have written mainly blog posts this week. In times of change I find myself more drawn to blogging. I think it’s the teenager in me trying to document everything lest it be forgotten. But whatever the reason I’m enjoying it, so for now I’m going to carry on and hope you’ll humour me.

This morning I was up with the lark (well, comparatively so considering it’s a weekend) to prepare for the British Heart Foundation 10k race in Regent’s Park. I wasn’t worried about the distance – it being just a warm up compared to the 16 mile race I’m doing in two weekends’ time – but I was nervous about my time. Whilst I’m quite a steady long distance runner I’m no Speedy Gonzales, and I was worried I’d show myself up by finishing in over an hour.

The conditions were far from ideal; cold, foggy and muddy underfoot. Foolishly I’d left my gloves at home, and with the start of the race delayed – and my poor circulation kicking in – it soon became apparent this had been a major error.

Eventually we were off, and for the first couple of kilometres I settled into a comfortable pace. Then the course strayed from the path into thick patches of mud, and as I struggled to negotiate them I noticed that the tips of my fingers had turned an alarming shade of blue.

By the eighth kilometre I was determined to keep up the pace I’d set right to the end, but at the ninth I hit a wall and for a moment felt I couldn’t go on. Somehow I pushed through the final kilometre to the finish line, and was delighted to realise I’d finished in under 54 minutes – far exceeding my expectations.

This afternoon I (grudgingly) accompanied my boyfriend to Oxford Street to help him choose a suit for work. In Moss Bros we were served by a sweet boy who was, he told us, still at school but working in the shop every Saturday. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen, bless him, and he looked so awkward standing there, his gawky frame clothed in an ill-fitting suit. I know I sound patronising but it was so endearing the way he tried to engage me in adult conversation whilst my boyfriend was in the changing room.

On re-reading that last paragraph it occurs to me I’m already on the slippery slope to old age. Before I know it I’ll be spitting into hankies and wiping people’s faces. Come back teenage me, all is forgiven.

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Charlie

When I walked through the front door tonight I heard the funny clunk-whirring noise of the cat feeder (which my flat mate reckons is really a dog feeder, given its propensity to deposit such enormous servings of food into the dish twice daily that it could feed the entire neighbourhood’s population of felines in addition to our own precious moggy, Charlie).

Shortly after the feeder finished dispensing its gargantuan haul a familiar mew rang out from the kitchen. Right on cue, Charlie appeared in the doorway, his expectant face looking up at me, asking for I-know-not-what with his characteristically plaintive little cry. Of course I pandered to him, stroked his little tabby chin and fussed over him intently until his cries had subsided. This cat, you see, has got us wrapped entirely around his little paws – and he knows it.

From the moment Charlie came into our lives last year we were besotted. Just a tiny (but boisterous) kitten when we got him, we’ve watched him grow into the handsome (if somewhat spoiled – but we’ve nobody to blame but ourselves for his upbringing) chap he is today. Since parting ways with his manhood (my boyfriend says we have emasculated him, but what were we to do – let him fight to the death with the local tom cats? I don’t think so – he’s far too good to meet that kind of end) and venturing into the great outdoors he’s taken to the life of a domestic cat like, well, a domestic cat. He wants for nothing and is treated like a king – and why not? He is the apple of our eyes, and at the end of a long day in the office there is nothing nicer than cuddling up on the sofa – stroking cats has health benefits, don’t you know?

So anyway, back to tonight. After fussing over Charlie he followed me into my room, jumped up onto my bed and settled down onto my knee. Five minutes later he stood up, regarded me with distaste, turned on his heel and – without so much as a backward glance – left.

Here lies the crux of tonight’s post.

Before you assign me to the crazy cat lady bin, allow me to explain. My aim was never to wax lyrical about the wonders of my pet in particular (though I appreciate I’ve inadvertently done a fine job of that), but rather to extol the virtues of all cats when compared to dogs. Don’t get me wrong, dogs are amazing in their own floppy, cutesy, poochy way. It’s hard not to melt when they look up at you with those big brown eyes, tongue lolling to one side of their mouth as they attempt to coerce you into venturing outside for a freezing walk in the park.

But, crucially, the one thing cats have which dogs just don’t is independence – by the bucket load. Whereas dogs can’t be left for too long by themselves without turning into emotional wrecks, cats just come and go as they please. Whereas dogs love their owners unconditionally and would selflessly (or stupidly) throw themselves in the path of an oncoming truck to save their owners’ lives, cats would just as likely turn the other cheek and walk on by.

When a cat invests time in its owner they feel pathetically grateful, and rightly so – there are a million and one other things kitty could be doing besides deigning to be manhandled by a human. Dogs, on the other hand, can never get enough attention. They are like hyperactive children with attention deficit disorder. Why have a pet that invokes such feelings of guilt? Why not have a pet that’s content whether you’re there or not, just so long as there’s food and water and a nice comfy sofa to sleep on?

Perhaps I’m painting a bad picture of cats with this post. I’m sure they do love their owners unconditionally underneath it all, but what I love about them is their surliness, their unpredictability and staunch refusal to do what is asked of them. They will love you, but they’ll do it on their own terms. And I don’t know why, but I just find that pretty cool.

Something tells me I won’t feel the same if I ever have teenagers…

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Our little Prince!