The kid turns 11

I asked the kid what he wanted for his birthday, and he said “one of those video slideshows you make for everyone else.” He was referring to the videos I’ve made over the years to celebrate the milestones of other people – 21st’s, weddings , farewells…  I hardly felt as though turning 11 qualified, but I knew that wasn’t the point.  He just wanted to know that his birthday was as significant as all those other people’s.

So over the next few weeks I set about paying attention to his favourite music, because as everybody who’s ever been moved by a slideshow knows, it’s all about the music.  The lyrics tell the story as much as the images, it sets a mood and connects the viewer to the underlying sentiments.  The music should be emotive, deep, and reflect the characteristics of the person it’s dedicated to.

But you know what song the kid loves at the moment?  The song he was emphatic about when asked “what’s your favourite song?”


Gentleman, by Psy.  

As in, the grating Korean star responsible for unleashing “gangnam style” on the masses.

As in, the coma-inducing song whose lyrics are at best devoid of meaning, at worst offensive (i.e. when you understand them).

As in, the song with a beat so paralysingly annoying it’s liable to be adopted as a tool of torture.

As in, the song by the guy singlehandedly trying to bring back MC Hammer pants

As in, the song with a music video that features a guy catching his fart and throwing it in the face of the woman next to him

There was just no way, NO WAY, I could turn that song into anything sentimental.  Or could I?


Dear Teacher, I don’t care about my kid’s grades.

Dear Teacher,

Hi there. Glad to meet you.

I wanted to take a couple of minutes to let you know that I don’t care about grades, targets, inputs, outputs, data, graphs, averages, national standards or any other fashionable way of measuring my kid’s so-called achievement. I especially don’t care about these things if it means producing such paperwork is sapping your inspiration and leaving you tired and stressed in the classroom.

I want you to have sufficient time to plan lessons that are relevant to the class and the students in front of you today. I have confidence in your ability to recognise when a particular style or method isn’t working, and to adapt the lesson accordingly. Every kid is different, we all know that. I also know that the rigid policy pushing you to prioritise the particular method or theory that is popular today, is not the same method that was popular yesterday.

I know that you have a wealth of experience working with children and I value that experience for the nuanced, unique and practical wisdom it has given you. Use it. I want you to be adventurous and spontaneous in the classroom, even if it means… no, especially if it means doing things outside the square. When you discover, for example, that one of your student’s parents knows someone who can come and talk about their first hand experience of the topic you’re studying – a standing MP, a refugee, a former Olympian, I want you to have the flexibility, flair and above all management support, to totally re-work the term calendar to fit that opportunity in.

I want you to lead as much by instinct for what you can see is working right in front of you, as by your training. You will come to know your students well during the year; what is likely to interest and motivate them. Do that. I want you to teach my kid how to learn, not solely what to learn. Moreover, I want you to inspire him as a lifelong learner, not to turn him off by studying topics or reading books that you yourself find boring.

I want you to be part of the reason my kid goes to school in the morning with a spring in his step. It’s a cliche to say that teachers should be inspirational, but what’s so wrong with the cliche?

When kids play up and frustrate the hell out of you, or lack respect for your authority, I want you to know that I trust your judgment on the best way to deal with it. I’ve got your back. I want you to be firm – but fair. On the other hand, when a kid is acting out and you can see through his/her behaviour for what it really is, I want you to be generous enough to keep on trying and never give up on that kid.

I want you to be paid well. Your remuneration should reflect the value that we place as a society on education – which is to say there is no more important job (except perhaps mine!) The hard work, patience and dedication teaching demands needs to be given proper recognition.

By the same token, I want to know that you’re not there just for the holidays, or because you thought teaching would be a convenient profession, or because it was the cheapest and quickest degree on offer at university and only required a C+ average for admittance. I want to know that you were selected from among the best of the best. I want to know you’re not going to turn up to school merely to tick boxes and tow the line, but because you love the job and believe in what you do.

If you’re worried about my kid, you can speak to me directly. No need to wait for the end of the term, have a quick word with me at the end of the day. If I could be doing more to support you in the classroom, tell me. On the other hand, if I come to school and say my kid didn’t do the homework last night because we went for a bike ride, or to hang out with the grandparents, or we stayed up late reading a book together, I want you to say “cool.”

And in the end of year reports, you should know that I’m less interested in how my kid did in the tests than I am in what you think of him as an individual, what sort of learner he is, how he relates to you and to his peers. I know that after all those long monotonous hours of marking is done, that’s all that really matters.

Because in 25 years time when I’m rummaging through my boxes of old memorabilia, it’s not the numbers in the column I’ll look at, but the words that you wrote,


A Parent.

***As we draw to the end of another school year and look forward to the next, this post is dedicated to all the hard working teachers out there writing reports and marking exams. It’s inspired by my experience of a teacher who embodied the very essence of this letter and more, as you can see in this tribute video made by his students at the end of the year.. Thank you, teachers, for all that you do.

Happy Birthweek To Me or “Film Festival Marathon”

This week Abu Dhabi celebrated its 6th International Film Festival. I see this annual event as a personal challenge: Some people run marathons. Some people Bungee Jump. Some people inexplicably tie the knot in mass weddings. But for me, my irrational compulsion is back to back to back Arthouse movies.

Fortunately, my birthday happens to fall smack bang in the middle of this fantastic event. This means that I can attend 3 movies a day if I like and no-one is allowed to raise an eyebrow. Meals are optional during this week. Matinee sessions followed by early evening screenings followed by meet the director question/answer sessions take priority over menial things such as buying the groceries.

“Where’s Mum?” says one child to another.
“At the movies” replies the other.
“Again?” chimes in a third.
“Don’t you mean Still!” says the eldest, with the sarcasm and authority that comes with being 2 inches taller than the rest

Protesting husbands can be silenced with a look that says

“It’s my Birthweek man, suck it up.”

And let me tell you just how worth it the journey has been. I’ve seen what a Military Dictatorship looks like through the eyes of an adolescent boy. I’ve gripped my seat in fear as Somali pirates took the crew of a ship hostage off the coast of Africa. I’ve shared a mother’s anguish as her son sought to escape the misery of their refugee camp existence. I’ve witnessed Pakistani women receive life-changing face reconstructions after their husbands threw acid over them, and I’ve balled my eyes out when an old man was reunited with his lost grandson in a remote Australian village. I’ve been educated on issues as wide-ranging as the drug war in the U.S., the decline of Augustus Pinochet, how to live green in Riyardh (riding a tricycle?!!) and the plight of charity work in the UAE. And I’ve been lucky enough to meet the creators of these amazing films and to hear first hand what it was that inspired them.

But now, as my long, sometimes tearful yet mind-expanding week draws to an end, I look back on the marathon (and numbness-of-butt) that was 12 films in 5 days, and share my pick of them. Here’s 7 great films not to be missed, as well as one to be avoided at all costs.

Clandestine Childhood

This is a film about a young boy, Juan, whose parents are part of resistance forces fighting against Argentina’s military dictatorship in the late 70s/early 80s, a war that would become known as the “Dirty War”. You may have heard of the Mothers of Plaza del Mayo who have for three decades demanded justice for their lost sons and daughters, the “disappeared” as they are known. Clandestine Childhood is told from the perspective of a young boy of 11, raised with an alternate identity, complicit in his parents subversive activities with a stubborn pride and a deep affection for them both. All the same he is unable to resist the lure of a simple life, a “normal” life; a childhood with birthday parties and school camps, and first love. So it’s romantic. And with all its arguing and profanity it’s also so very Argentine. But the real beauty and originality is in the use of mixed media (graphic art) to convey scenes of violence in a manner that gives an authenticity to the Juan’s experience and really rattles your cage. [Worth noting that this film is an Oscar contender this year]

Favourite bit:
Impossible to choose… beautiful representation of the love between mother and son (especially when they were lying under a tree talking about “how you know when you know”); Uncle Beto and “why a woman is like a chocolate covered peanut and how to devour her”; the depiction of first love between Juan and María

Laughed when:
Horacio goes head to head with Uncle Beto on the “point of it all” culminating in a truly magnificent insult-slinging match of the kind that makes Argentines famous.

Cried During:
The scene in the kitchen between mother and daughter. One paralysed by fear, the other willing to risk her life and the lives of her children for her beliefs.

Impressed by:
The use of comic book graphics to display the violent scenes

To meet the director, to learn the story is largely autobiographical, and his mother remains one of the “disappeared”.

Made me think: About how lucky we are in New Zealand, the freedom we take for granted. Freedom that, just three decades ago, people were prepared to lose their lives fighting for.

Saving Face

A few years ago a British-Pakistani doctor became famous when he performed plastic surgery on a beautiful (seriously beautiful) young woman who had suffered a horrendous acid attack to her face. Doctor Mohammad Jawad was hailed as a miracle worker in a documentary the girl made about her journey“>[My Beautiful Face]. Through this work, he learned of the women in his homeland suffering every day from similar atttacks at the hands of their husbands. One thing led to another. Then, a few months later a film director approached him after hearing a BBC interview about the free surgeries he was performing in Pakistan. The two linked up and over the following 8 months produced this incredible documentary which last year won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Favourite bit:
When Zakia’s husband was convicted.

Cried when:
Rukshana said “My daughter is through there [points to the door, blocked by bricks] but they won’t let me see her”

Laughed uncomfortably when:
In the middle of the surgery he said to the medical staff assisting him “I don’t understand it, you guys can build a nuclear weapon but you can’t pass me a bloody scalpel”. And also “let’s give you some big bazookers man” (talking on phone to client about her forthcoming boob job).

To learn that there are on average 100 acid attacks reported per year [that’s only the reported cases], and up until last year (possibly thanks to this film) men who committed these offences were usually not charged.

Satellite Boy

Pete lives with his Grandfather in a remote region of Western Australia. It’s a going-nowhere sort of place but it’s home and Pete loves it. His Grandfather tries to teach him the ‘old ways’ but Pete knows better. He’s going to open a restaurant with his Mum, just as soon as she comes back from the city. But his dreams are threatened when a mining company moves in and serves an eviction notice. Pete decides to plea his case to the developers in the city and takes up with his best mate to make the three day trek across the desert to mining headquarters. Without sufficient food or water, the journey quickly becomes life-threatening and Pete needs to draw on all the lessons of survival his Grandfather ever taught him.

Best bit/cried when:
Jagamarra says: “You came back to me. You’re mine”

In fact, for me this was the most poignant moment of the entire film festival. I cried all my tears for all my movies in this single scene.

Haven’t got time to review the following films but check out the trailers and be sure to catch them if you can!!

When I Saw You

This film was incredible, but the real highlight was listening to the director’s talk afterwards. Oh, and here’s me with the star of the film!

A Hijacking

The House I Live In

But whatever you do… don’t see

Ruby Sparks

(From the producers of Juno) Seriously America, is this the best you’ve got?