When it comes to schooling (and homework), I have reached the conclusion that the less I am involved the better. This is not to say that I don’t take an active interest in my kids’ education (I do), more that I have learned that trying to assist them in scholastic endeavours can sometimes create – how should I phrase this? – certain familial tensions. I am not sure why this might be so, but I would venture any parent/carer would, at this point, nod a knowing affirmation of sympathy. And so you can explain, clarify or demonstrate and if it works you sometimes get a thank you, and if it doesn’t (invariably this will happen from time to time), then it is all your fault (obvs).
As such, I will only intervene unless I am specifically asked. Or (and I choose my words carefully, under advice from my legal team) if there is the whiff of a setback (most likely flagged by a poor school test). In the last years this might have included assistance to write an essay, some pointers with art assignments (a hangover on my part from some latent adolescent talent with the coloured pencils) and, given my job as English language double-agent, some tips about how to give a talk or presentation. As for the rest, my attitude has always been what the kids learn at school is between them and their teachers, although I have always maintained from the start of their secondary education that it is not only important to learn, but to develop a system of how to learn (for life and beyond).
So, my first question to my son when he asked for my support with his biology project was:
“Yeah, I charge 100 Euros per hour. So, what’s the plan?”
“We can just go outside and look for the leaves.”
“Yes, but where?”
“In the park.”
“But do you know what the trees and leaves look like?” (The teacher had only provided a list.)
“So, what’s your plan?”
The gist of this short conversation if you haven’t been paying attention, was that I was happy to help. But, and it was a big aber, I didn’t want to have to do most of the “thinking” (the point I alluded to earlier about kids needing to develop the systems and techniques of how to learn). Of course, it would have been just easier for me to put on my strategic cap (Soviet Sea-faring Second World War) and lay the groundwork myself (and then get back to polishing my rifle like Donnie Junior). But when it comes to parenting, precedence is both your enemy and your friend, and one should never readily trade leverage for an “easier” life.
Still, when it was first touted to me that I might have to help my younger son with his “herbarium” project, I knew it would be up my street (quite literally). Not only did I have a book documenting every plant, tree and flower species usually found in this part of the world, but I often spent a lot of time outdoors surrounded by any number candidates for Tree Beard in the Lord of the Rings. Equally, we had a garden which meant that at least three of the varieties on the designated list of might be found without even taking off my slippers. Yep, recognising them would be a doddle, I told myself, and so off I skipped in search of my lumberjack shirt.
Unfortunately, progress was impeded from the first hint of a twig. First up I didn’t know 80% of the trees in German. “What do you mean, Mr Barratt, you have never heard of a Ahorn?” I admit, part of me thought I should have known the vocabulary but then I also know that second-language word acquisition as an adult is a never-ending task, and sometimes there is just not the need to know this stuff. (Trust me, ten years after starting to speak German, I still didn’t know the word for nappy in German until just before we needed a nappy). Secondly, even though I saw myself as an individual attuned to many aspects of nature (more Paddington Bear than Bear Gryls), it quickly became apparent that of the eleven on the now translated list for the herbarium, I had to admit that I could only identify two, possibly three, at best. A Kastanian (Horse Chestnut) and only then because of the conkers; a Kiefer (Pine) because there is one about three metres from where I am currently sitting in my home office (I nearly said study); and a Birke (Birch) because we have two sizeable ones in the garden (alluded to earlier).
In short, we were temporarily stumped. Seeing that translated list was a pitiful realisation that I knew less about trees than I imagined. Of course, I had heard of an oak (I’m English, we invented oaks) but could I identify one? I could recognise the steirische Eiche (Arnold Schwarzenegger) but a real one? And I still say that in spite of seeing the oldest one in Europe in the summer in Bad Blumau (they had a sign). And what about a Plane the most commonplace tree in London? (I know this now.) I had never even heard of a Plane (German – Plantaine). And a Beech? Or a Maple Tree? Or what about a Hornbeam or a Lime? I knew I understood the words but even if I knew what they looked like, I’d still have to find them! As such the terrifying truth emerged: not only could I not see the wood for the trees, it was clear that I couldn’t even see the trees.
Evidently, we needed a plan. Fortunately, in the summer, I had read Scrum (home of agile working) by Jeff Sutherland, so I had all the project management tools at my fingertips (LIARS!). So, after translation, we put together a visual list of the leaves (thank you Google images, I take it all back). Then we downloaded the Woodland Trust App from the UK (a marvellous resource) and then hit the mean streets of the number one city with this and my nature book. And just like that, the world opened up to me in a way which I could have never imagined.
(The sitting by the fire, closing the book and looking into the camera bit)
Not being able to recognise trees was a clear reminder how people see, or in this case, don’t really see the world. We have complex brains, but they are hard-wired, to some extent, to habituation. We exist on autopilot much of the time, filtering out only the most important information around us much of which is to process immediate threats (wild animals, the approach of dangerous weather, my neighbour). And although I had “seen” trees on many, many occasions, such failure to identify all but a handful was indicative of an abject failure to be “present, patient and observant”. Of course, such failure in the number one city is most evident every time you sit behind the wheel of a car in traffic and engage with other drivers. But don’t let me curdle the moment. Instead, all I can say is that I am now a tree bore. A paid-up member of the tree-hugging collective dedicated to the nobility of nature and some of its truly regal giants. And they were right. Plane tress are everywhere …
Ps – Word on the completed project is thus far unforthcoming, but here is the list of trees (English and German): Ash (Esche), Beech (Buche). Birch (Birke), Chestnut (Kastanian), Cherry (Kirsche), Hornbeam (Hainbuche), Lime (Linde), Maple Tree (Ahorn), Oak (Eiche), Pine (Kiefer), Plane (Plantaine).
© 2020 RJ Barratt