Slaying monsters with the sword of discourse
Aromatherapy and Indian head massage looks inviting, but this is already fully booked. So I opt for a course which promises to help me improve communication with those who find it hard to make themselves understood.
The trainer is sympathetic but firm: a problem in communication is our problem. She reminds us about the rules of confidentiality so we can feel free to examine our own bad practices. We are given the Post-it notes, and asked to write down something we do which annoys other people, when we do it, and how we feel.
I look round the room and wish there were more men in the group. They are generally better at resisting demands to "fess-up". They usually don't believe they have any communication problems, but if pressed, oblige by writing "I kick the cat". They are asked who is annoyed by this? "The cat."
What are the circumstances that lead up to this behaviour? "My team loses."
How do you feel about that? "Better."
Women, on the other hand, are good at self-recrimination. They say things like: "I shout at my children" (who leave three weeks' dirty washing under the bed). "I fail to visit my elderly parents every weekend" (even though they are living like lords a hundred miles away and I have a pile of marking). I want to write "Please beat me" on my Post-it note, but I don't want to be seen as a trouble-maker, so instead I write "Too compliant".
At the end of the day, I take away an image of the trainer re-enacting a scene with a difficult student. How vividly she portrayed this horrid youth, how we sympathised with the staff, and how guilty we felt when we discovered what his problem was. "We create our own monsters", the trainer reminded us.
Next day, I head out to a local estate which has a bit of a reputation. My purpose is to call in at the primary school to set up a family learning course. It's almost "home time" and mums are waiting around the gate with their toddlers. They're a formidable-looking bunch. Some remove cigarettes to shout more effectively at their errant offspring. Younger children are slumped in pushchairs, the remains of lunch smeared around their faces.
Some of these mums will be at my family learning class, and my heart sinks.
Morning comes and six mums turn up. They eye me nervously, and I them, before we troop off to watch their five-year-olds being taught literacy. The teacher is reading from a big class reader. "What do you notice about these words?" she asks. "Alliteration" pipes up a little tot, and as the mums turn to each other, there is an almost audible click as their jaws drop.
Afterwards, we have a good discussion about what children are taught now; in fact we have a good discussion about a lot of things and spend the rest of the session in a productive workshop. As I head for home, I think of the instructions to ancient map makers who were uncertain of the terrain: "In the gaps, write 'here be monsters'". I've slain a few of my own this week.
Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer