It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Exactly a month ago, I was contemplating a return to school after 7 weeks of holiday. After spending the previous year’s Summer break moving house, this year we had basically “chilled” – a couple of days we barely made it out of our pajamas, others we went out and about: to favourite places, and places new. Caught up with friends. Watched movies. Discovered “Raspberry Crown” pastries and new-style luxury donuts.

All wonderful things.

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For most of this time, I decided not to “wish my life away”, instead focusing on the here and now, and opportunity to spend time with my kids, but, come 19th January, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that “This is It”.

In the words of my former violin teacher Bogdan’s favourite joke: “Tea break’s over, back on your heads”.

And so, off to school we went. Checked the kids into Vacation Care. Fronted up to the School Auditorium where the Staff Chapel Band was finishing rehearsal. Hung back as the place slowly began to fill with largely familiar faces. Watched silently as staff greeted each other, smiling, renewing acquaintances and catching up their news. I stood quietly, to one side, feeling a little like the kid who is picked last for the sports team – scanning for a friendly face. Unconsciously looking for “my people”. Instead, my eyes settled on a couple of individuals with whom things have not always been “smooth sailing”. My heart sank.

What further sunk in was that “My Team” was no more.

Despite weeks, months even, of planning for this day, of trying to reassure myself that everything would be OK, that I was prepared for “the new reality,” I was hit by the realisation that it really wasn’t going to be easy. I felt like picking up my proverbial bat and ball and going home. Then suddenly a familiar face approached. A friendly, open person who embraced me and ushered me to sit with her. Who exchanged a few words about each of our 10-year-old boys’ mutual cricket-tragicness. I didn’t follow my instincts and back out the door. I stayed for the opening staff session, praying a silent “Thank-you” to this staff member who had touched me by sharing her commonality as a Mum.

I was determined to “get it right”. A lot hinged on establishing positive working relationships with my new boss in particular, and also getting to know 5 new staff members in our expanded Music Department. I was impressed, early on, when the new boss called a meeting or two of all the Instrumental Staff and tutors – at one point having us all in the same room at the same time, a feat which I don’t think had been achieved in the previous 7 years – when there were many fewer of us.

She talked “Team”, of everyone having a place. Barriers were coming down and people were starting to pull together. I attempted to keep my “big mouth” shut, remembering that it was “New Year, New Broom”. I was resolute in my desire not to be like a stereotypical irritating old biddy, often found at churches who my husband refers to as “Gatekeepers” – who says “but we always do it this way – we’ve done it this way for the last 50 years”. I was impressed with what I saw, and relaxed somewhat.

Maybe this would work after all. Perhaps my fears were unfounded.

Over the next week or so, though, I was not so sure. Being the only staff member with continuity from last year to this, naturally everyone asked me how to do this or that, where to find things and so on. And I was so self-conscious about not wanting to step on anyone’s toes, or stray into the territory of others, I was conflicted about how much to assist, whereas this time last year I would have walked the new guys through every step of the first few week’s start-up without a second thought.

With so much to do and so little time, there were moments of tension and frustration, heightened by the fact that I felt, to an extent, that there was “re-invention of the wheel” going on around me, and much being left undone, largely because nobody [aside from me] knew exactly what needed to be done, nor what the priorities were.

This I could understand, the myriad of new staff scrambling to get up to speed, and all on a sharp learning curve, but what rankled with me was I DID know and I DO know but I wasn’t asked.Person feels appeciated

This made me feel undervalued and that I wasn’t trusted by the new regime. A number of times – in my head or, on occasion, vocally – I spoke out: “All you had to do was ask”. Finally, things came to a head on Friday 29th January, when an “executive decision” was made without reference to me, about an issue I cared about, which I felt to have been pre-emptive.

I was seething, and shot back an email expressing disappointment, and giving “chapter and verse” about how I felt the situation should have been played. A further email exchange followed, during which I guess I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory. By the time 7.30pm rolled around, I was frustrated beyond belief, mainly with myself.

Things had escalated quickly. We were 9 days in. I had not taught one single student, but yet all my good intentions were in tatters.

I didn’t sleep well that night.

Saturday morning, I got up early, preoccupied with the fact that, within all this, I felt I had not been a very good mentor or guide to my new colleagues. In holding back and, to my mind, treading on eggshells, I had not been as informative as I could have been. I also had a sinking feeling that I had “cooked my goose” and may well be “out of there” come Monday. So I spent a couple of hours flicking emails to the new staff – sharing procedures, forms and tips. So at least, I reasoned, if I was sacked on Monday I could leave feeling I had at least equipped my replacements.

Later that Saturday morning, I needed to go to school to take Miss 13 to a rehearsal. Due to rain, a tradie vehicle blocking an exit, and poor sight-lines, I managed to back my car smack-bang into a yellow bollard. I got out to look what the hell I had done, and was picking bits of my tail-lights up off the roadway as some of my own students, also arriving for the rehearsal, looked on.

Great. Just great.

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My serenity of the holidays only two weeks before was now completely shot to pieces. All my worries and anxieties and fears came tumbling around my heels.  I sought the advice of a trusted friend whose ears I battered with every she-said-she-said of the scenario, until my friend gently pointed out that after a few hours of patient listening, my verbiage started to become “White Noise”.

I was sleeping poorly, I was anxious, I was stressing…not a good combination. At this point I figured I had nothing to lose, so set out with a new agenda – to properly settle in and look after my new colleagues in earnest, so at least when I was no longer there (which I saw as a real possibility) they, at least, would have a fighting chance of getting a toehold, and furthering the work of the department, so dear to me, that I had assisted in spending many years building up.

Partly due to this new focus, I felt happier. Tension had been slightly released, too, by the scheduling of a meeting with my new boss, to attempt to sort out differences, which I felt a “necessary evil”, while wondering how it had come to that, so early in the piece.

I was, however, no longer sure of my ground, of how I fitted in. I looked back on a proposal I had written in September 2015, laying out my concerns about the new structure, vacuums in authority and knowledge, and fears I had, that this might prove unworkable in a day-to-day context. And how I was concerned that lack of clarity in roles, responsibilities and boundaries would lay open the potential for misunderstandings and conflict.

I felt I had been positively prophetic.

By the end of the week, though, I was exhausted. I had just worked too hard to try to juggle too many balls in the air. I was stressed. I was hyper. I didn’t know which way to turn. The car accident had thrown and depressed me. (Not to mention the looming $1500 repair bill). I wasn’t sure what I wanted any more. And without putting too fine a point on it, the prescribed tranquillisers and sleeping draughts I was taking to help keep me sane weren’t helping my demeanour and ability to keep up appearances and smile through work days, when I felt like anything but.

I was pretty well hitting Rock Bottom. And I was kicking myself. So much thought, planning, preparation, agonising, “talking through”, good intentions, hard work…. all seemingly wasted.

I had tried and failed.

And I just didn’t care anymore. This was pretty well the “Worst of Times”.

Then some of those “Serendipity” things just kicked themselves in. Our invited babysitter for Friday 5th February (a retired friend from church) asked if she could bring a friend – who turned out to be a lady who was very kind to us when our children were small, and the two had often babysat as a team. This second lady had moved away interstate, but was visiting, and they came together. Just like old times. It just seemed “Right” to leave them with our kids.

Then, the occasion we were going out to, which had been booked some time before, was a rare “Date Night”. Instead of either my husband or I on some work-related business, we were actually going out together for leisure – quite a rarity. We had discovered that the ‘80’s girl band “Bananarama” were appearing nearby at the Twin Towns Services Club in Tweed Heads.

So I put on my “posh frock” and off we went.

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At first, I just sat during the (excellent) support act. The volume was loud and the speakers were pointed in my direction, as they always seem to be at these things. I was sitting, my thoughts wandering, dwelling on my various woes, and silently crying.

stress music

How had it come to this?

But then, after a bit, I realised I wasn’t achieving anything, and decided to get my act together and just listen in to the music. The concert just got better and better with the Bananarama girls essentially parodying their younger selves, reaching a climax when they had a number of audience members up with them on stage to dance to “Venus”. Despite myself, I had relaxed and allowed myself to enjoy the night.

I had turned a private corner.

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Monday morning was the “Conflict Resolution” meeting. It was difficult, but ultimately necessary and cathartic. I took the opportunity to express my feelings and points of view.  Forgiveness was offered and accepted, fences were mended and hatchets were buried. Since then, communication, consultation and the general atmosphere has markedly improved. A new dawn – thankfully.

Then, later that week, more of “the Best of Times” – with the visit, from Europe, of my younger sister and her 5-year-old daughter, after a gap of 4 years. We attempted, over a few days, to give them a taste of Queensland, and it was lovely to have two parts of my family under the one roof, and see first-hand my sister’s development and growth as a Mum.  She has a beautiful little girl who is a credit to her.

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And then the “Piece de résistance” ….

I had put together a school excursion to see the “Australian Youth Orchestra”, who were performing locally (a rarity). At first, I had not intended to go, in deference to my sister’s visit, but, when speaking to the AYO office and letting slip we were both alumni , they insisted on offering us tickets from their allocation so we ended up attending after all.

Two things were significant for me about this – firstly, that I had not experienced the vitality and exhilaration of AYO’s playing for many years, and it transported me back to my youth.

Secondly, I met up with the AYO’s CEO, who I grew up with (we had the same childhood violin teacher) and who was part of a close circle of friends when we were Uni students. I had not seen him for 25 years, but those years melted away in a moment.

Somehow, I found myself reflecting to him that I had struggled with National Music Camp, that I had found it overwhelming, and felt I had failed in not coping with the intensive 2-week January summer schools I had attended as a teenager. To my amazement, he (the current CEO!) agreed that aspects were tough back in the day, and he hadn’t always enjoyed it either.

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National Music Camp, The King’s School Parramatta, 1987. Schumann Piano Quintet.

 

Later that night (during the wonderful music) I reflected on this, and found it strangely freeing.  I realised I had not properly embraced my personal musical history, as my love of being included in wonderful experiences such as NMC and AYO had been mixed with my feeling of failure in these same spheres. That, to some extent, I had not kept up contact with many of my old friends because of this.  That many of my friends had gone on to have glittering musical careers, while, to an extent, I had settled for second best.

But did this mean I really was second best? Was I now “just” a teacher and “just” a Pastor’s wife?

As I marvelled at the piano soloist’s incredible rendition of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Concerto, the realisation hit me.

THIS is my world. I belong here.

My work at the school is not done. In all the personal and professional turmoil, I had almost lost sight of my vision and goal there – to give my students a taste of this AYO-style magic.

And, you know, I’m not necessarily “Second Hand Rose”.

Maybe I am prickly sometimes, but there might still be a whiff of some pleasant fragrance remaining.

If I stand still long enough.

Rose

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
English novelist (1812 – 1870)

 

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