Tag Archives: education

Use Your Words. Please.

It feels almost frivolous to write blog posts about my rarefied life in a world where people are being bombed out of existence and passenger jets are being shot out of the sky and genocides are quietly, systematically going on in various corners of the world and a virulent disease of horrific proportions is cutting a swathe through the people of West Africa. In fact, it doesn’t just feel frivolous: it sort of is.

But, as I so often have to ask myself, what else can I do?

Words, whether written or spoken, are among the most powerful weapons at our disposal. We can use them to rabble-rouse or to comfort; to propagandise or to tell the truth. We can use them calmly, or we can use them in the heat of anger. Sometimes, the same words can mean entirely different things, if said in two different tones of voice. Sometimes, too, writing words down can strip them of nuance and lead to misunderstanding. Two different people can have two entirely different, even contradictory, interpretations of the same written or spoken text, which means that words, our greatest treasure, can also be our biggest liability. Information is as vital a tool in our world as medicine or infrastructure or politics – nations and peoples can rise and fall depending on what words are in their holy books or on the lips of their leaders, and on how the people who hear or read these words understand what they are being told.

So, then, as a person who lives and breathes for words, perhaps I am not as helpless as I feel.

Of course, my sphere is very small, but I can choose what words to fill it with. The words I use go on to have a life without and beyond me, which means I must choose them carefully. My words are my only means of explaining myself to the world, and they will be my only legacy. I can hope that they will be understood as I intended them to be, but I know I have no control over that – once a word has left your pen, or your mouth, or your keyboard, and reached the eyes or ears of another, it is no longer yours. You are responsible for it, but it no longer belongs to you.

Photo Credit: Saint Huck via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Saint Huck via Compfight cc

I wish that world leaders could think about words this way. I wish those calling for war could consider that, in their need to ‘win’, they are throwing their own people on a pyre, and I wish they could be made to care that they are destroying lives and blighting the future. What good is it to stand triumphant over a smoking, blasted landscape? I wish those responsible for leading the world’s faithful could be more considered in the words they use, and the labels they choose to apply to others, and the interpretations they make of holy texts and scriptures. I wish people – those people with the loudest voices, and the largest platforms, and the greatest amount of words at their disposal – would use them more carefully, respecting their power, and being mindful of the consequences. Skewing the thinking of a people is not simply a game, or a way to win influence – it is dangerous, and something which can easily flare out of control, and it is wrong. It is also the easiest thing in the world to do, if one has the words and there are ears willing to hear.

I wish people would value doing right over being right. I wish they’d sacrifice the pleasure of shouting the loudest or the longest, or having the final word in an argument, or feeling like the one whose words are law, for the good of those who cannot speak.

This is why I am passionate about education and literacy. I believe people should be given the tools to distinguish between what they are being told, and the truth. I believe nobody should be forced to become reliant upon one source for the information they need to live their lives in peace. I believe people should be given the tools to make up their own minds, to come to balanced conclusions, to enter into rational discussion, and to understand that even though different peoples may speak different languages, the words are all the same.

All anyone wants is to live in peace, in relative prosperity, and to feel that they are safe. All anyone wants is to send their children out to play in the morning without fearing that they will never come home. All anyone wants is to have the dignity of a livelihood that is unthreatened by shells or tanks or rocket fire, or illness or militias or crushing rule. We have created a world where those who do not believe the same words that we do are ‘wrong’, whether those words relate to a god, or a political system, or an economic structure, or a history that may not have happened exactly as we have always been told. We have taken the greatest tool we have for bringing us together and turned it into the most efficient way of keeping us apart; if we’d had a blueprint for making everything wrong, we couldn’t have done a better job of it.

Words are powerful. My words, and yours. It is never too late to start using them.

World Book Day!

Thank the gods and little fishes – it’s World Book Day 2014!

Image: mumsnet.com

Image: mumsnet.com

What a marvellous idea, don’t you think? A day devoted entirely to the celebration, promotion and enjoyment of reading and books and stories. A day when children can go to school dressed as their favourite storybook character and the whole day is storytime (well – not really. But you know what I mean.) A day when children like me (or – er. Children like I was, when I was a child. Shut up!) come into their own and get to revel in their book-nerdiness. A day, in short, when I wish I could be little again so I could go to school and enjoy the day properly. It’s not so much fun when you’re dressing up by yourself. And when you’re a grown-up.

Anyway.

Partaaay! Image: ovenbakedtradition.com

Partaaay!
Image: ovenbakedtradition.com

Part of the sheer brilliance of World Book Day is the fact that every child is given a book token to the value of €1.50 – which will, hopefully, be spent in local bookshops! – and, every year, a book is written specially for the celebration. This year, in Ireland, that book is Mary Arrigan’s ‘The Milo Adventures’, which looks like a fantastic read. The token can actually be exchanged for one of eight books which are specially priced for the day, or as part payment for a more expensive book, and – either way – it’s a wonderful gift to every young reader in the country. Amazingly, though, according to the World Book Day website, three out of ten children in Ireland don’t own a book, and that makes me sad. Every child should have access to books. Every child should be encouraged to read, and think, and dream, and write their own stories. Every child should be supported in their desire to engage with books. World Book Day is such a wonderful way to start that process, and I wish it had been around when I was little.

Not that I could have been any book-ier. But I would have loved it, all the same.

Ireland is a great country in which to be a young reader. We have the amazing CBI, or Children’s Books Ireland, which ceaselessly advocates for children’s books and quality writing for youngsters, and we have the office of Laureate na n-Óg whose job it is to promote and encourage children’s books, all the way up from picture books for the earliest readers to wonderful tales for teens (and ‘teens at heart’.) As a country, Ireland is famed for the quality of its literature and for the cultural value placed upon stories and storytelling, and we are blessed with an abundance of storytellers, for all ages. I love that the entire month of March is dedicated to the promotion of books and reading, focusing on today’s celebration (thanks to the Booksellers’ Association), and as a writer, reader and former bookseller I am extremely excited at the thought that, all over the country, people will be sitting down to read today – perhaps people who don’t ordinarily read – and I really hope that they’ll catch the story bug. Nothing has given me more joy in life than my love for words, and I’m excited at the idea that today – perhaps right now – a child somewhere is feeling that joy, the buzzing happiness that comes with being caught up in a story, the total immersion in a world of their own imagining.

Exciting! Image: iowatribob.com

Exciting!
Image: iowatribob.com

Opening up a mind to the endless possibilities of story gives access to landscapes which go on forever, skies as wide as imagination, worlds upon worlds full of dreams. It truly is, as far as I’m concerned, the best and most important part of a child’s education. If a child is encouraged to read, they’re encouraged to think, and if they’re encouraged to think they’ll be curious, and if they’re curious they’ll learn. If they learn, they’ll bring beauty and joy to their world as they grow, and they’ll pass on that broad-based love of life and words and ideas to the generations that come after them. There is a story for every child, and a child for every story – and it’s up to us as adults to bring the two together.

Oh, World Book Day! How I love you.

Go and read a book today. Go on. Particularly if you don’t normally make the time to read. Treat yourself today in honour of World Book Day and, if there’s a young person in your life, please do treat them, too. Read to them, if that’s appropriate. Show them how much you love the words, and help them to love ’em too.

In my humble opinion, there’s no bigger favour you can do for a younger person, and no greater gift you can give.

Image: everhear.com

Image: everhear.com

 

It’s the Little Things

Lots of things in life bother me. I’m one of those people where ‘the river runs close to the surface,’ if you know what I mean; I am emotional, and sometimes I find myself shedding a tear where other people would go unmoved. If I’m honest, I like this aspect of my personality, though I know it upsets my loved ones at times. I like the fact that I feel things deeply, even though it’s painful; it makes me feel connected to myself, and to others.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

At the weekend, I was standing at traffic lights waiting for a chance to cross the road in safety. Facing me, coming in the opposite direction, was a set of young parents and their two boys, probably aged about seven and five. I’m not a parent, but I’m more than aware of how boisterous and energetic children of this age can be, and these two little boys were no different from the average kid. One of them started pressing the ‘Walk’ button repeatedly, as children do, and the other was prancing about from foot to foot, singing a little song to himself. Just as I was thinking what cute children they were, I witnessed a show of anger from the parents that left me reeling. The children were shoved and shouted at, and the boy with his hand on the ‘Walk’ button had it forcibly removed. The singing child was yelled at and told to shut up. As they started to cross the road, one boy dawdled, his attention caught by something in one of the idling cars, and his father grabbed him and shoved him across the road with what I felt was unnecessary force, shouting at him all the way. In no point was the child in danger – the green ‘walk’ signal was lit, and the cars were not moving. The physicality was extreme and unwarranted, I thought. I glared at the man, and said, very clearly, ‘there’s no need for that!’ as we passed one another on the road – he ignored me, of course. I hardly expected anything else. I’m fully prepared to accept that my actions may not have been appropriate; it’s not for me to say how anyone else raises their children, and I know that. Having said that, I watched the two little boys as they reached the far side of the road; from being the curious, singing little things they’d been at the beginning of this scenario, now they were both crying and angry. The whole family was furious with one another, and it radiated from them like steam from boiling water.

I walked home feeling so sad at what I’d seen. It stayed on my heart all day, weighing it down.

There’s a poem called ‘Children Learn What they Live,’ which played on my mind for most of the rest of the weekend. It begins: ‘If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn; if a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight; if a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.’ I’ve often read this poem and it has always been clear to me how perceptive and true it is. It makes me wonder how a parent thinks treating their child with aggression can lead to anything but pain, or how they think that a child is going to grow up as a happy, contented and secure adult if they’ve felt bullied and belittled all their lives.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the family I saw was abusive, or anything like that. Every family has its bad moments, and perhaps I simply happened to be there at the wrong time for this particular family. I’m also not saying that children shouldn’t be corrected when they misbehave; teaching a child how to negotiate the world with respect for themselves and others is a vital part of parenting, and discipline is part of that. For the record, I don’t believe in physical discipline of children, but I know opinions differ on that. I feel, too, that correcting a child’s misbehaviour with appropriate discipline is different from using them as punchbags for an adult’s own feelings of anger or upset or frustration; the latter is inexcusable.

Of course I would love to see a world where no child would ever know aggression, whether it’s verbal or physical, but we’re all aware of how realistic that dream is.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

I have a huge amount of sympathy for parents who, under pressure from every corner, find raising their children difficult; it’s not easy to find the money and the time and the energy to parent energetic, never-sleeping, inquisitive little people. There are going to be times when tempers boil over and anger reaches flashing point and things are said which will be regretted later – but it’s really important to express this regret, and ‘mend the fences’, and reassure the child that they are still, and always, loved. Love is such a little thing – such a short word, and so often bandied about – but at the same time it’s the single most important thing a parent can give their child. I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most important thing one person can give another.

I would love to see a situation where every child was afforded an education, the chance to learn how to read and write fluently and confidently, and the knowledge that – no matter what – they are loved. Imagine the generation of happy, compassionate and intelligent people we would raise.

Imagine the difference it would make to the world.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com

 

 

 

 

An Important Day

So, in case you’ve missed it (or you haven’t used Google yet and checked out their doodle), it’s International Women’s Day today. Happy IWD!

Image: swc-cfc-gc.ca

Image: swc-cfc-gc.ca

In a lot of ways I wish this day wasn’t necessary. I’m not naïve enough, however, to think that it’s not still needed by women all over the world. I am lucky (and I know exactly how lucky I am) to have the luxury of a life where I am cherished and loved, and where I live each day free from terror. I don’t have to worry about violence, either from a family member or a government agency or any other institution; I don’t have to worry about overt (or covert) sexism or discrimination. Having said that, Ireland isn’t a utopia in terms of its treatment of women, by any means. There are women in my own country who struggle with issues like this on a daily basis. Some of these women don’t even realise that another option exists, because they are denied that knowledge. There are women living in poverty, and trying to raise their children with very little. There are women living with abusers, there are women who are trained to see themselves as being nothing more than workhorses, and sexism is still alive and well (though, perhaps, more skilfully hidden).

However, I know that Ireland, particularly in comparison with some other countries, is a pretty good place to live. Nobody has any money any more, of course, but we all manage to rub along reasonably well. Despite that, I’m very glad and grateful to live here, and I appreciate the way I was raised, the education I had, and the encouragement I was given to strive and achieve. I’m also grateful for the fact that I lived most of my life in blissful ignorance that girls and boys were any different, or that boys, apparently, were able to do certain things that girls were not. My parents raised my brother and I with exactly the same opportunities and love, and made it very clear that we were equals, both in their eyes and in plain, common fact. I’m not sure they’re even aware of how huge a service they gave both their children; imbuing us with this sense of ‘we are equally important, equally loved, equally capable’ has benefited both of us. It gave my brother the respect for women that he exhibits to this day, and it gave me the sense that I was valued and important. My parents taught me that I mattered, and I wish more parents would give their daughters this sort of love.

We weren’t raised in a rich household – my parents both worked (even though my mother scheduled her hours around our schoolday, so she was always at home when we finished classes for the day), and my brother and I both worked at weekends from the age of fifteen or so, to earn what we needed and (as it turned out) to save for university. Our parents didn’t have the chance to access the same levels of education that my brother and I did, and they are immensely proud that both my brother and I earned graduate university degrees. We couldn’t have done that without their support and encouragement. I may never have developed my inner, burning need to learn without my parents, who raised me without telling me there were any limits on what I could do because I was a girl. My parents did raise me with traditional values – including the importance of keeping a home, caring for children, respecting myself – but I’m grateful to them for that education, too. I’m grateful to them because they didn’t just teach me those things, and then consider me ‘educated’. Despite the fact that they had their misgivings about me going away to university, they recognised the need in me to learn, and they supported my choices. From an early age they read to me and encouraged my schoolwork; as I grew up, they listened attentively as I told them all about my university work. Finally, they sat misty-eyed and proudly clapping as I received my doctoral scroll. They were proud of me all that time.

I know not every woman in the world gets this sort of background. I wish they did. If they did, I have a feeling a lot of the world’s problems could be excised at a stroke. I also wish more men in the world could be raised as my brother was, and that there were more men in the world like my brother right now. If events like International Women’s Day could show parents the value of raising their children with love, respect and tenderness, encouraging their dreams and celebrating their successes, regardless of the child’s gender, then I’m all for it. Perhaps that’s why I wish there was no need for International Women’s Day, though – it’s a shame we can’t just have ‘International Achievement Day’, celebrating everyone’s achievements equally. As much as I am in favour of encouraging young women, I hate the thought that we might be guilty of encouraging our daughters at the expense of our sons.

We are all important. We are all equal. We all matter.

Image: lotusinspirations.blogspot.com

Image: lotusinspirations.blogspot.com