September third, 1990

Eight years ago this week I was writing about Roman fires as part of my PhD write up with a glass of red wine at my side, leftover from cooking my dinner earlier that evening, when an event I witnessed became a catalyst for something that I can only call a milestone in my life and fate wanted me to forever recall that very moment. Tonight I am sharing my photographs and digital art on social media as well as writing this piece, things I could only have dreamt that I could do, or that people would understand or follow them. However, it is none of these I am actually going to write on, instead it is something prompted by seeing children (re)start school after their summer break, which has reminded of the third of September 1990 when I changed schools, and the miserable seven years I had there.

As a child we are told repeatedly that our school days would be the happiest of our life, which made me question throughout my early childhood and into teenage years how miserable must life be as an adult if these are meant to be happy times! Perhaps in the more recent past they were more innocent times than then or even now to be a child, and those carefree days were led to be so happy as did not have the stresses and strains that adults experienced. I only need to look at pictures of my young nieces to worry about how sexualised the youngest is at five years old and posing like a woman four to five times here age in a bikini on a beach. The little carefree girl I played with last autumn seems a million miles from this wannabe model, a child stuck in an adult world, which in turn makes me wonder what world her and her sister will be part of as this ever changing world grows fifty shades greyer by the day.

Back in 1990 dressed almost head to toe in green (yes even my underwear had to be green) I entered a classroom with the stares of my fellow pupils and invisible sounds telling me it was not the place for me…perhaps the near accident the year before should have told me to listen to my instincts and run, but alas there was nowhere and nobody to turn to. I can still recall my classes that day, which included drama and German – giggling to myself at learning that Varter was German for father, which to my 11 ¾ year old ears sounded like farter and very appropriate for my dad! The school was different in how my old one had operated, but ultimately left me just as miserable as its predecessor with bullies and time on my own. My teachers however for the most part were excellent, and as someone that likes to learn thrived under ones like my Latin teacher that encouraged everyone no matter how good or bad you were. Her methods are ones I use myself whenever teaching or supporting someone, and still wish in part I had studied Latin at St Andrew’s University as I considered back in 1996 in tribute to her, but my PhD did involve the Romans so in a way I have done.

The impact of those year years left scars that even now I can feel throughout my body, but they are beginning to heal with the passing of time combined with good friendships that help me to see how naive and stupid the bullies were. I have achieved more than even I thought was possible when I packed my clarinet away and left them behind at the Usher Hall with a smile and the largest sigh of relief that had ever been heard in its corridors. This was just after being pushed off the platform while singing our school song and national anthem to say to me even in our final moments as pupils they did not accept me as one of their own. Ironically, I officially left a month before but had come back to play my clarinet at the request of the head of music, to which I had agreed as long as did not need to follow uniform restrictions to rehearsals! Even now I do not wish any of them ill or bad times, but as someone that knows karma eventually comes a knocking, it will do what needs to be done. My name in full is still one I struggle to own as tainted with the echoes of their laughter, but grown to prefer my shorter form as shows those that really know me to use it.

Going forward the echoes and laughter will eventually go as let the last scar heal, I promised myself I would not pick them. So what will the next eight years bring, twenty seven is far to hard to imagine…well as Coldplay sang – “You can take a picture of something you see. In the future where will I be? You can climb a ladder up to the sun. Or write a song nobody has sung. Or do something that’s never been done” – I intended to do them all and more as this woman can. What I have learnt is that there will always be some that judge and make assumptions, or make our lives hell as their own is not very good, but they do not know the real us and the best action is to show them we do not care to how far we have come.

© Fi S. J. Brown

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A little something for World Health Day

By the age of 7 I knew there were tears in not just my eyes but my tummy too. I was sad from school and things that even now feel like razor blades self harm if dwell on them. I did not understand what they meant.

By the age of 14 I knew these tears meant I was depressed but had no outlet for them. Turned away if talked to family and a school guidance teacher that did not understand the wounds bullies leave behind.

By the age of 21 I knew I was an outsider looking in on the world and felt I did not belong. The music that helped so much in my teens now felt like they sang of a life I would never know and forbidden entry to.

By the age of 28 I knew therapy was a must and began to admit openly I had depression. A scary label but it would not define me as a person and would not let the stigma scar me as memories had before it.

By the age of 35 I knew the image inside my head was wrong, I was not an unloveable ogre or Martian that observed earthly activities. Depression still lingered but it was never going to make me take my own life.

I am approaching 39 with optimism. The tears in my tummy are still there but no longer sting as they did. The ogre is vanquished forever to be replaced by a rag doll, made from parts of my story and sewn in love.

Today is World Health Day, which this year focuses on depression. It does not mean someone is crazy and should be locked up. Nor does it mean walking on eggshells around them. Talking is good, listen never judge.

© Fi S. J. Brown

Prisoner F

Sticks and stones they threw in words and laughter bruising my skin,
Painting all in shades of purple, blue and red that nobody could see.
Hurting feet with a blade to answer why as rivers fell from my eyes,
Feeling trapped like prisoner all in green on life sentence at row M.

Outcast as nobody dare make friendship with the one with my name,
Only a fool would try but soon learnt to toe the unwritten party line.
Writing SOS notes in Latin hoping someone would hear my cries,
But would never take a final bow as wouldn’t give that final pleasure.

As stage was set for the final act I was pushed out and shown my place,
Forever on the sidelines not upfront with those I journeyed long with.
About to be released into the world with freedom as served my time,
For a bespoke crime that had been created for me by my fellow inmates.

They say that time can heal the pain but can never heal my scars,
Forgiving and forgetting actions now memories only takes me so far.
But I have no place for hateful thoughts or plotting my revenge,
They are but footnotes in a journey that they’ll know or understand.

© Fi S. J. Brown

World Book Day 2016

Today is World Book Day. My immediate thoughts are taken back over twenty years to my high school biology classroom with Mr Dickson as I learnt the subject for my standard grades. He told my class that the longest book some people will read other than our exam paper would be a catalogue that came through the door selling clothes to household goods. It simply took my breath away that some could ever read so little in their lifetime. Coming back to the present I find myself wondering how many now would not read anything more than Facebook posts to Tweets, which brings a few tears to my eyes.
 
However, given the average reading age of the UK population is 9 years – that is, they have achieved the reading ability normally expected of a 9 year old, should I really be so surprised? I discovered recently that The Guardian newspaper has a reading age of 14 and the Sun has a reading age of 8. As someone who reads a lot each day, websites to academic journals to books (fiction and non-fiction) I realise part of me takes for granted this skill and the academic study I did. I first started to learn age four and my eldest niece is beginning to master it, which is beautiful to see. Unlike writing, which I could not do on starting school and still so tiny that many ask for a magnifying glass!
 
Books are ways to get lost in adventures or learn how to do new things, sharing one with a child with funny voices is something enjoyable and laughing out loud on the bus when caught should be smiled upon. However, I am aware some find this difficult due to dyslexia, I cannot imagine how difficult it can be in a world that focuses much on the written word, especially that upon the screen. Nevertheless, books should not be confined to the classroom or bedtime, but instead of mobile phones stuck in our hands with our faces and hands glued to them replace them with a novel, play, poetry, or kindle. Ask friends for suggestions and get caught reading something other than your Facebook news feed, as may find unlike when at school you may enjoy doing it.
 
© Fi S. J. Brown

Labels

Yesterday I went to a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by Joe Sellman-Leava entitled ‘Labels’, which told of Joe growing up in rural south west England in the 1990s, the questions and comments about his dual heritage, and also examined the way we use words, the line between curiosity and fear, and the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric.

It got me thinking of the topic of labels, which I often tell people when they try put them on me that they belong on foods not human beings. We put labels in theory to group us together, but in fact they put distances between us as see someone that does not have the same label as us as different or we use them as a way to stigmatise someone for being different. When no two humans are ever truly unique, including identical twins, why do labels continue to give labels such power?

Joe told us how his surname is unique to five people, his parents/siblings/himself and the story of how it came to be. It made consider how relatively common my own surname is the UK, one name shared among 1000s of people on this small island alone, and in some ways I felt jealous for a moment of Joe’s uniqueness but at the same time how grateful there would not be the racist comments, hate and impressions his parents encountered with my own surname.

It also made me reflect on to my first name, which I hate. Why do I hate it, as it is a very strong word to use for one’s own name? Quite simply it goes back to my teenage years when I was badly bullied, any new pupil starting at my secondary or high school were told “nobody is friends with Fiona“. The stigma and pain of that cut me like a thousand blades ripping into my skin and still bearing the scars almost twenty years later. My family nickname was Oni, which my eldest brother always added “moanie” too, because I questioned things and did not want to be forced to do certain things that he or other people wanted me to do. So I use Fi, which is the name all my closest friends use and feels right when I hear or see them use.

My middle names I do not like either. Sarah is after my great aunt of the same name, in many ways my surrogate grandmother and not an easy woman to like, which my father would agree upon as told me a few years back it was only added as he registered me as it would “keep the old bat happy“! My other middle is Jane after Sarah’s sister, my actual grandmother, that died when my mother was but a toddler and so have no idea who this woman was. However, as a name it jars on my ears, as my mother would shout – “Lady Jane“, whenever she felt I had done anything to ire her as a child.

My nationality – Anglo-Scot, not Scottish or English or even British; my father was from North West England and my mother South West Scotland, thereby making me a “half-breed” (as I have been called in the past). I have never felt I could claim to be Scots or English as feel a mix of both but perhaps more culturally I identify with England than Scotland. for I am certainly no Braveheart or SNP supporter (no I don’t vote Conservative/Labour/UKIP before your mind wanders).

My father would reinforce my Englishness when any major sports events were on television, when the UK played as different nations, and tell me I should be supporting England as I was English. Both my brothers, unlike me, speak and read Scots; if I hear it spoken I have been known to ask for subtitles as don’t always follow what is being said. When I meet people from my home city I get told after saying yes I grew up here, “oh well, you don’t sound local“! Yes I have moved around the UK and lived briefly in Italy but found that remark curious and led me to ponder “well where do I sound like I’m from“?!

When applying for jobs, the so called “Equal opportunities form” many companies ask for along with an application form wants information on us relating to gender to race, religion, sexuality and disability, all of which for me are labels that we use to box people in and expect them to be a certain way before we even meet them. Do these forms really make things equal or as excuses not employ certain people, and even so they can meet some secret criteria in certain areas?

Thinking of the question of race, I often find companies try split White into White Scottish and White English not White British or simply White, I suddenly find myself questioning how the River Tweed can mark such a difference on an island that they need to have two distinct labels and which one or neither am I? I have close friends that would be identified as being of mixed race, my mother once remarked one was “half something“, to which I responded “English like me” before leaving her to wallow in the mire she’d created. I do not see race but the person I am talking to and their personality.

Thinking of race made me remember a supermarket chain, which now no longer existing in the UK, many of my friends said of their branch in Aberdeen how diverse the staff were c.f. another no longer existing chain that they were so white they were transparent! When a friend worked for the second company she found they did have a few (‘token’) non-white people working behind the scenes as were almost ashamed to have them seen and/or served by the public! Was this a reflection of late 1990s/early 2000s Britain, or was it company policy at that time?

Another question on the forms is religious belief. To me belief is a very personal thing, and because of certain events to stories in the media certain religions are seen a certain way. If someone is a Muslim, it leads to an automatic label of terrorist by many, without trying to see the media is painting a false picture of many peaceful people like you or I but identify their beliefs in this way. To me it should not matter if you worship an afro haired Martian to a man who died on a cross, as long as you do not use it as a way to excuse behaviour that hurts or exclude others.

Then there is the question of sexual orientation, this almost always gives me a heavy sigh to read, does it matter to my work who I choose as my partner in my personal life if does not impact upon on my working life? As someone that has no sexual desire, i.e. asexual, to be asked if I’m heterosexual, gay, bisexual or prefer not to say is awkward and feel I can never give a truthful answer as I am attracted to neither gender and do not identify myself in such a way. Due to our beliefs above we can use them as an excuse or reason to dislike someone due to how they perceive some that is perhaps gay or bisexual to be without getting to know them, the same way some may with their religious beliefs.

The question though I am most scared to answer is on disability, do I consider myself disabled? No I do not. However, I have been diagnosed with depression, fibromyalgia, and dyspraxia, any of them could be seen as a disability but to me they are part of the colours that make me, well me. I have been called names and labelled all sorts relating to all of these, but it is perhaps my dyspraxia that I had the worst bullying and abuse as people do not understand or know of it. Mental health I have had people find my honesty on my battles helps them be more open rather than wear their diagnosis with pain or a jumper to keep them warm as defines them now rather than let their personality not the label show.

I may continue to dislike labels, particularly when used as a way to define me that I am not. I often fall between two so how is one or either truly a reflection of me as an individual? Is it not time we saw beyond a label and saw the person? I believe by listening to those that experience different aspects of life helps us understand and grow as people. So put down The Sun, Daily Mail or The Guardian, The Times, and explore the world for ourselves not through dirty spectacles. Finally, if in Edinburgh do go to Joe’s show as it certainly is powerful stuff and thought provoking work.

© Fi S. J. Brown

The number 11

Everyday I travel by bus, people young and old, filled with their stories to tell. Each one deserves to be heard, as to not stop and listen may mean never meeting that new partner or friend, to give hope to a strange that feels that nobody cares about them, or maybe a favourite teacher who’s teaching years past lay the foundations of today.

Sat beside me is a little girl of around seven. Her hair is blonde like Cinderella, and falls all over her face like a waterfall. It is her pink shoes that draw my eyes as have a name all over them, not a designer one I recognise. I discover Rachel herself did the writing. From then on she became Princess Rachel of the pink sandals.

Behind us are two older ladies talking of all the South Edinburgh gossip they know. Did Elizabeth know that Simon’s wife just gave birth to twins, no Margaret did not but she had heard the sad news that Nancy had died. They both remark on what a lovely lady Nancy was and recall one time at the Assembly Rooms they all went dancing.

It is now tourist season, so at the very front are the tourists sitting with at least two maps of the city centre that do not show where they are now. Frantically checking with guide books and mobile phones, where they are and where do they get off they cry! As if by magic five strangers ask them at once can they help and where are they going.

A group of three school boys sit to my right. Each eagerly showing off their knowledge of football, which seems far greater than any pundits’ script I have ever heard on television. One knowing that it was some Ukrainian, with an unpronounceable name, had now scored twenty four times this season for some obscure sounding Spanish team.

A girl with the fake tan, yes the older ladies noticed her too, talking loudly on her phone to her friend Stacey that she is on the bus now. It is not just the fake tan and shouting making the ladies tut, but her fake eyelashes and nails, and less clothing on than most of us wear at bed times. I can only say for me she is brave to do so in this climate.

Three seats down are two men singing, it would not be an Edinburgh bus journey without a drunk or two. Like all storytellers of days now long gone, they sing their sad laments, including the wife of one who ran off with their mate and taking the kids with her, and another wishing they were both still young in body as well as in their hearts and minds.

There is a lady of around my age who I meet eyes with as I go to ring the bell to depart. The empath in me reads her face like it is screaming out in hidden tears and pain. I send her a smile, to give her hope, and send light to shine wherever darkness or pain is hurting so. Sadly, I get an unwanted grimace not a smile back. Still cannot help everyone.

Now it is time for me to depart from what is but a snapshot of life in this city and it’s people. A journey filled with stories, people and events that will never be repeated the same way again; this is a bus not a time machine. Their stories may get repeated in years to come or forgotten in the mists of time, but that moment was shared by each of us.

© Fi S. J. Brown

The Childcare Paradox

Why is it that a woman who chooses to stay at home to bring up her child it is seen as a “waste of time” instead of having a job, where the child is left in the care of others? “You’re throwing away your potential” cry some, how is wanting the best for a child throwing anything away, surely we are by being there when our child needs us most, being a true mother and not just the woman who gave birth to them. A child’s relationship with each parent is different and unique to that child, surely the influences of both matter?

We praise our teachers as they do so much and are often overstretched by doing increasingly more than teach, which should be the role of parent but is blamed on bad parenting for them having to do so. It’s almost like we cannot win, whatever we choose. A parent of either gender can act as teacher, nurse, counsellor, disciplinarian, storyteller, chef, etc. on one day alone, but does not get the same recognition or respect from others as chooses this as their vocation rather than a slave for money to others.

If we educate our children at home instead of mainstream schools there is also a stigma that some how they are failing to learn important life skills that being at school brings. Yet as life is all about learning new things and age is not a barrier to learning, why not use the world around us as a classroom rather than box in a child physically, mentally and emotionally. A child’s curiosity should be encouraged as much as their creativity, to develop who they are as individuals not what is interpreted they need to learn.

Is the family unit being destroyed like so many other things, another part of the ever crumbling cookie. We are told each generation is getting smarter, faster, better, when the reality is we’re getting stupider, slower, and sicker than our elders. The lack of respect some of the younger and older generation show each other is worrying too. Older people have the experience, knowledge and wisdom, the youth as want it all now and cannot wait for tomorrow, with the new adventures it will bring. 

© Fi S. J. Brown

Seeds of knowledge

Every seed has its built-in tree. A gardener does not put the tree into the seed, for it is their job to nurture the seed and help the tree bloom to it’s highest potential. In the same way, a teacher should not think of a pupil as an empty bucket to fill to a set level with information. A teacher needs to observe the pupil, spotting their unique potential, helping them in a way that the dormant potential can emerge and succeed in the world. So as the teacher grows older, they look out on their gardens, every flower and tree is a reminder of every pupil they ever taught. 

© Fi S. J. Brown

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