So… it looks as though my blog post about Ken Robinson’s “Gillian” story is picking up pace again… and I have been receiving a number of mails in my in-box.

By the way – I love connecting!  And – as time-consuming as replying to everyone has been… it is something that makes me feel connected – and a part of something bigger than myself (and I like that feeling).

I’m going to tell you the story of how my mother saved my sanity.

This story is specifically for every parent who has written to me… and especially parents of creative-creature kids… or children who are different... or children who just don’t fit-in-to-the-Box.  For those of you who have already caught a glimpse of my story – “How Heather got her HAT’ness back”… you already know how I struggled – as a child – in a School System that tried to squeeze me into a One-Size-Fits-All-Box.

I hated school.  I was bored, I was frustrated… and I never felt understood or accepted.

Back in the 80’s… (or, at least in small-town South Africa)… there weren’t many alternatives to “Normal School”.   I certainly never knew any homeschooled kids… and things like “unschooling” would have been viewed as completely foreign – only for the true nutters.

So – needless to say – as much as I hated it… as much as it damaged me… as much as I withered and diminished and felt that there was something wrong with me as much as I yearned for the day when “School” could finally be OVER…  in school I remained.

These days – there are far more options.

The internet – alone – has opened up a vast new and interesting world.  Millions of parents are now choosing to educate their children at home (in ways as diverse and unique as there are diverse and unique children).  There are also all kinds of alternative schools… art schools, dance schools, Sudbury schools, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, unschooling-schools (and so much more).  There’s also online learning… tutors… mentors… bridging courses…. online universities… hackschooling… and so on…

(Visit the Alternative Education Resource Organisation – AERO – if you want to explore the wonderful world of alternatives to “Normal School”).

My point, however, is this…

In spite of the many alternatives… there are still a number of parents who – for whatever reason – feel as though their options are really limited… and feel that they don’t have a choice except to keep their child in the school they’re currently in.

These parents get NO judgement from me. 

My Mom (bless her)… felt the same way.  She believed that the only choice she had was to keep me in school.   And I don’t judge her for that.  She was doing the best with what she had at the time.

However – (and here’s the part where I finally begin my post)… my mother played a HUGE role in maintaining my sanity during those horrible school years.  My father played a significant role too – but more in a background-support kind of way.  Mom was the DO’er.

Because – in spite of the drudgery and awfulness of school… I would always return home to a beautiful, creative sanctuary… where all my ME’ness was celebrated and encouraged.  And I truly believe that my rich home-life… was the thing that not only saved my sanity (during the times when life was the most dark)… but my upbringing, home-life and unconditional support from my parents were all things that played an enormous role in pulling me back towards my true self.

Here’s how my mom created a home-life and a sanctuary that was just perfect for my HAT’ness:

1.  ART

Right from the beginning of my life… our home was stuffed with art supplies.  My mother didn’t believe in colouring-in books… and believed that art was all about creative expression.  As a result… I always had access to arts & crafts supplies.  Whether paints, paper, brushes, beads, glue, seeds, scraps of material – you name it… I could make art whenever I chose.

One of the earliest photos of me creating art. I love this photo. It's very "Hattish"...

One of the earliest photos of me creating art. I love this photo. It’s very “Hattish”…

For a couple of years, Mom ran a Play-Group from our home. I loved it! - and I especially loved it when it was time to draw! (I'm the one on the far right)...

For a couple of years, Mom ran a Play-Group from our home. I loved it! – and I especially loved it when it was time to draw! (I’m the one on the far right)…

This is another Play-Group photo... all of us kids painting and creating (notice the deliberate absence of colouring-in books)... (I'm on the left).

This is another Play-Group photo… all of us kids painting and creating (notice the deliberate absence of colouring-in books)… (I’m on the left).

Later... when we left Cape Town and moved inland to what was then called the Transvaal... we lived near my Great-Aunt Wendy (who was a professional artist). Aunty Wendy also played an enormous role in my development as an artist (she'd also do random fun things... ie: the mermaid board)... and, as a teenager, I loved attending her art classes.

Later… when we left Cape Town and moved inland to what was then called the Transvaal… we lived near my Great-Aunt Wendy (who was a professional artist). Aunty Wendy also played an enormous role in my development as an artist (she’d also do random fun things… ie: the mermaid board)… and, as a teenager, I loved attending her art classes.

2.  MUSIC

When I was about 4 years old, my mother realised that I had a natural ear for music.  At the time, she was babysitting a piano for a friend (who was travelling abroad for a year)… and I would toddle up to the piano, and plonk out things like twinkle-twinkle-little-star… without needing to be taught.  As soon as Mom realised that I had a gift for music… she found ways to nurture and encourage that gift.  My first piano arrived as a birthday present for my 8th birthday.  It’s not an exaggeration to say I spent hours and hours and days and days in front of that instrument.  I loved my piano!

Later, as a teenager, the piano was replaced with a very nice Technics keyboard and a set of drums.  I called the keyboard “Ludwig”.  Later I learned to play guitar as well.  And harmonica.

Mom initially sent me off to many music lessons… (unfortunately – to all the wrong kinds of teachers… like Mrs Hartnady who would smack my fingers with a ruler whenever I played a wrong note).  Ever-perceptive Mom… quickly realised… that although I loved composing songs… and playing by ear… and singing – she noticed that strict, structured piano lessons were making me despondent and miserable… and were starting to make music feel more like “schoolwork”… than something that flowed naturally from a place of authentic passion.

So – she stopped the music-lessons (but told me that if I wanted formal training again – she’d be willing to re-enrol me)… and with that freedom – my love-of-music flourished (and flourishes still).   I ended up teaching myself how to play both the piano – and the guitar (with no help, thank-you very much, from mean Mrs Hartnady!!)…

Music was also a Patterson-Family… “thing”.

My Dad has always had a great singing voice (although he really sucks at remembering the lyrics to any song)… and we’d invite uncles, aunts and cousins around for regular Family Sing-a-Longs.  We’d type out (and photostat) song sheets… I would play the piano, my sister would play the guitar… my mom would play the harmonica… the relatives (including Dad) would be handed various, random percussion instruments… the dogs would howl… and we’d all sing merrily for hours on end.

For a creative-creature like me?  This kind of thing was sheer bliss!

3.  DANCE & THEATRE

I will admit.  I don’t have the natural gifts for dancing and acting (as I do for music and art).  I’m not a very good dancer – and I’m definitely not skilled in the acting department – but – as a Creative Creature… and especially when I was a child – I LOVED to act and dance – nonetheless!  And Mom always made sure there was ample opportunity for me to get involved in theatre productions.

Here are all the places where I had the opportunity to sing, dance and perform:

  • We did plays for family members.  We didn’t need any special set-up… just a healthy dose of creativity, some dress-up clothes, some music on the tape-recorder, a choreographed skit – and some willing adults to watch (and, of course, applaud)
  • When I expressed an interest in ballet (which seems to be some kind of little-girl-rite-of-passage) – Mom facilitated the process.  I think I did ballet for a year.  I knew it wasn’t really for me – but I loved the year-end ballet concert… and the costumes… and my pink satin ballet slippers with ankle ribbons! 🙂
  • Mom has always been very-very involved with charity work and community upliftment.   As kids, we were regularly given the opportunity to perform and sing at old age homes, orphanages, homeless shelters and hospitals.
  • Church plays and skits (many of which my mother wrote and directed).
  • Mom hooked me up with a children’s theatre group (Protea Choral Society) when I was 9… and was deeply involved in about 12 musicals.  I absolutely loved the excitement of theatre!  I loved the costumes… the rehearsals… the make-up… the music… the back-stage excitement… it was like being transported to a whole other world – where I was surrounded by like-minded kids… kids who were ALSO creative… kids who loved to sing, dance and perform as much as *I* did.  I never felt abnormal there.  I never felt stupid… or broken.  It was like balm to my soul.
One of our many skits - performed for the family (I'm on the left).

One of our many skits – performed for the family (I’m on the left).

All ready for ballet class...

All ready for ballet class…

I was 12 years old. The play was called "Mini Pops"... and I was Boy George, singing Karma Chameleon (with a *REAL* band).... :-)

I was 12 years old. The play was called “Mini Pops”… and I was Boy George, singing Karma Chameleon (with a *REAL* band)…. 🙂

4.  CREATIVE FAMILY TRADITIONS

Mom was a whiz at making a creative occasion out of – ANYTHING!  We had an Easter Family Tradition… where – instead of just buying lots of factory-made Easter eggs…. we created our own, unique “Easter Features” out of chocolates and sweets.  Here’s a photo:

"Easter Features" (I'm the one on the left... with the very politically-incorrect and somewhat cringe-worthy Easter Feature)...

“Easter Features” (I’m the one on the left… with the very politically-incorrect and somewhat cringe-worthy Easter Feature)…

Other creative family traditions involved themed birthday parties.  I don’t think Mom even knew how to throw a normal birthday party.  There was ALWAYS a theme… ALWAYS dress-up of some sort… and always loads and loads of games and fun to be had.  Here’s some photos:

My tramp-themed birthday party... (again - probably would be viewed as rather insensitive these days - but as a 9-year-old, I LOVED dressing in rags, getting filthy and smoking fake sweet cigarettes)...

My tramp-themed birthday party… (again – probably would be viewed as rather insensitive these days – but as a 9-year-old, I LOVED dressing in rags, getting filthy and smoking fake sweet cigarettes)…

Dress up!  (My Mom made both outfits).

Dress up! (My Mom made both outfits).

My 18th birthday party had a Hawaiian theme. My mom did an incredible job with that party (and sewed the outfits that my sister and I are both wearing)...

My 18th birthday party had a Hawaiian theme. My mom did an incredible job with that party (and sewed the outfits that my sister and I are both wearing)…

5.  READING, WRITING & STORY-TELLING

I grew up in a home of book-lovers.  We had an enormous bookshelf in our bedroom – groaning with books… and both my sister and I loved to read.  As a kid… I think I read everything written by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl (many of his poems – I can still recite)… Judy Blume, and many others.  My mom read us bedtime stories for many years.  From a young age, I wanted to write my own stories.  My Mom had written a few children’s stories – and I had illustrated them.

We had an old typewriter and I’d spend hours writing stories and poems (many of which I still have).

My love of reading, writing and storytelling had nothing to do with what I learned and experienced at school.

I loved reading and writing because of my mother.  Not because of school.

6.  UNRESTRICTED, UNSUPERVISED PLAY

I was super-privileged to grow up in a world where I was allowed the freedom to play, explore and learn.

We lived on a smallholding on the outskirts of town, and I spent many, many hours… (without any supervising adults whatsoever)… doing some of the following:

  • Climbing trees and building tree-houses.
  • Having rotten-apricot fights.
  • Building forts (sometimes underground).
  • Searching for hidden ‘treasure’.
  • Racing my BMX bike with the boys from the neighbourhood.
  • Riding my horse.
  • Fishing dead, bloated rats out of the septic tank, lining them up on the driveway… and popping them with bricks.
  • Swimming (lots and lots of swimming).
  • Jumping on the trampoline.
  • Playing in mud.
  • Skinny-dipping in slimy, natural dams.
  • Setting traps for imaginary foe (in fact, there were loads and loads of imaginary games)
  • Opportunities to go camping… boating… fishing… and to (within the restraints of a budget) explore *outside* of our home and town as much as possible.

Here’s some photos:

One of the many games that my sister and I invented...

One of the many games that my sister and I invented…

Rotten apricot fights! (I'm the one in the middle)...

Rotten apricot fights! (I’m the one in the middle)…

Our tree house in the apricot tree (where we spent many hours brewing up potions ala "George's Marvellous Medicine")

Our tree house in the apricot tree (where we spent many hours brewing up potions ala “George’s Marvellous Medicine”)

One of many family camping trips...

One of many family camping trips…

paddling

Canoeing with my sister on a river near Morgan’s Bay in the Eastern Cape…

In a Nutshell…

If you are a parent of a creative child who is withering within the System of Schooling… there is still a LOT you can do to nurture their uniqueness and encourage them to BE who they’re meant to be.  There are many ways (without breaking the bank) that you can make sure that your home is a creative-haven… and a place where they feel safe, accepted, unconstrained and utterly free to be themselves.

  • If they are dancers make sure they have access to music and a space to dance and move (and even better – if you could get them involved in dance lessons… a dance club… or any community activity that involves movement – perhaps even theatre groups… whatever!)
  • If they are artists or crafters stock your home with creative resources, art materials, paper, paints, fabric, beads… all kinds of goodies that they can freely use to create things and make art.  Find out about any art competitions, initiatives or exhibitions that they might like to get involved in.  If they’re really good at what they create – encourage them to open an Etsy store.
  • If they are musical figure out ways to get them around musical instruments where they can experiment as much as they want.  If you have a budding pianist (but don’t have a piano in your home – or can’t afford to buy one)… arrange for them to spend time on the piano at the local church or community centre.   You can buy second-hand instruments online that aren’t too expensive.  Musical people need access to music… and – even better – other musical people!  If you know of people in your community who are musicians or who play in a band… consider arranging for your child to sit in on practices and just *absorb* the music and the learning that takes place there.
  • If they are singers encourage them to sing.  Encourage them to sing along with their favourite songs.  Ask them to show you how high they can sing… or how low they can sing.  There are all sorts of backing trax available online (easily downloadable) – for budding singers who want to belt out their favourite songs to the sounds of a full band or orchestra.  Maybe there’s a choir or singing group that they can get involved in?  Or maybe they want to do their own special concerts with backing-trax… and a choreographed dance… and publish it on youtube?
  • If they love to cook or bake… allow them access to the kitchen.  Let them experiment with new recipes.  Include them (when you’re baking or cooking).  Let them spend time with grannies and friends who love cooking as much as they do!  Let the elders mentor them and show them the best tips and tricks.  Make sure they have all the recipe books and baking supplies that you need – and don’t be stingy with the ingredients.  Try to view their food-experiments as an investment (into their education and passion) – rather than a “waste”.
  • If they’re a fashion designer... make sure they’re supplied with lots of art materials (to sketch their designs).  Maybe send them to a beginners’ sewing course… or perhaps there’s a person in your family or community who is fabulous with sewing and is willing to spend a few hours teaching your child?  Budding fashion designers love fabric scraps… buttons… beads… cotton… (and – of course – a sewing machine).

Whatever your child’s creative gift… encourage them.  Try not to invest all your time and money into *fixing* their weaknesses or deficits… but rather focus on – and invest in – their strengths and natural gifts.

(And do the same for yourself too!)

🙂