On gratitude…

Not many people will know the name Patsy Wolstenholme but to a fourteen year old me she’ll always be a scary dragon whom I feared and disliked in equal measure. To Patsy, I was always the child that needed correcting, the one whose upbringing hadn’t prepared her for life within the traditions and expectations of a middle class world of golf. I dreaded seeing Patsy, the smiling assassin, who very rarely opened her mouth without chastising at least one of us. Tuck your shirt in, take that jumper from around your waist, stand up properly, sit up properly, not that knife, napkin on your knee, have your parents not taught you anything? I don’t know what you’re allowed to do at home but we don’t do that here. 

Sometimes I close my eyes and can see her stood there, a look of sheer disapproval on her face, no taller than 4′ 11 but a force to be reckoned with. One to be feared and whose instructions were to be followed to the letter. Since my parents had taught me to respect my elders, I resentfully took on board her caustic words of wisdom and adapted my behaviours accordingly. Patsy was one of a number of adults who were charged with our care and development. Most adopted an approach more akin to Margaret Thatcher than Mary Poppins. We were entrenched in rules: conduct, etiquette and of course the game itself. So much to learn and abide by, some useful and some ridiculous (in my adolescent opinion), but all had to be followed.

Contrast this with my home life. I grew up on a council estate with a mum who worked three jobs and a dad who couldn’t work any. We were poor by comparison to most and I was the free school meal poster girl. Any opportunities (including golf) were provided by my kind aunt and uncle. They acted as my benefactors when my parents couldn’t. I am eternally grateful for the kindness and love shown to me by my extended (and immediate) family. I’m also thankful for the lessons that I learned from my parents. Mum modelled the importance of working hard and taking pride in whatever you do, she taught me to be driven and committed, to be resilient and accept whatever comes your way. She never did this through explicit instruction, just through constant, continual modelling. She continues to teach me lessons about kindness and stoicism on a daily basis just by being a role model. Dad taught me about perseverance and showing kindness to strangers – a little bit of love goes a long way. There was no rule book in our house, there were unwritten rules which I learned through my family’s practised behaviours and the occasional correctional whack from my dad but no ten commandments. We rarely ate at the table and although my clothes were always clean, I didn’t wear them with the care my mother would want me to. I hadn’t learned to speak and listen appropriately because I’d never had to think about waiting my turn. These aspects of my character would have remained unchallenged and would not have been corrected had it not been for Patsy and her pals. Arguably, my parents prepared me for a life that they had lived, a life which they knew, they valued education and encouraged me to work hard. However, they couldn’t prepare me for were the subtleties required to achieve social mobility. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. 

I didn’t agree with the Patsy attitude to correction and I’m pretty sure neither did my parents although they would never criticise or question it. Nor did Patsy ever explicitly express her disdain for my working class roots. There was an acceptance that both approaches had a part to play in my development. On reflection, I benefitted from the formal, harsh words as much as I did from the modelling of my parents (as well as all the other people who nurtured me along the way). I didn’t need to be explicitly taught to show gratitude but there are plenty of other things I did need to be taught which my parents didn’t have the capacity to do. They didn’t take issue with others filling the gaps, they recognised their limitations and understood that in order for me to be able to get on in life I would need variety. 

Martin Seligman investigates the concept of gratitude in his book Flourish. He introduces it as something which can be  beneficial both to its provider and its recipient. He suggests activities to develop a sense of thankfulness in oneself, these include writing a letter of appreciation to someone who has had a significant impact on your life and completing a gratitude journal. Simply practising these pursuits will develop habits which are eventually learned and become autonomous behaviours. Happily, habits which result in positive outcomes for everyone. 

To believe that gratitude comes instinctively to us all is quite a naive and dangerous position to take. One wouldn’t expect to play the piano without some instruction or modeling yet we often assume that children (and adults) possess qualities such as kindness, humility and gratitude innately. To criticise the teaching of such attributes, in my opinion, shows a lack of insight into the needs of others and can damage an individual’s social mobility through a misguided desire for compassion. Often these are views held by the liberal middle classes, those fortunate and educated enough to experience a comfortable lifestyle as well as a degree of social mobility which suits their needs and political ideals. This issue makes me feel the way I did over Brexit. Everyone I surrounded myself with were remainers, all of the media I read suggested that we would remain. When the fateful day came, Brexit broke the heart of many, including mine and the majority of my liberal left friends. We simply hadn’t considered that there was another perspective which was either uneducated or selfish or that of people who simply didn’t care. In assuming that everyone was informed and understood the implications of a Brexit vote we were hubristic in our beliefs. To presume that everyone has the same understanding of gratitude and such like is equally as naive. 

As teachers, we have a duty to plug the gaps, whether they be knowledge based, developmental, social or emotional. And, as we acknowledge that when teaching our subjects, there should be no prescribed methodology, it’s equally the case that there are many different approaches to teaching the social and emotional skills we desire in well-rounded individuals. Whilst the Patsy slant would not be my desired vehicle for the delivery of softer attributes, I recognise the importance of the lessons she taught me and how my opportunities in life were increased by the knowledge she gave me. I also learned a great deal from the way my parents accepted the corrections of people like Patsy, they taught me to listen to criticism and take whatever lesson you could find in it. Their humility and ability to recognise their limitations taught me never to assume I had all the answers. 

The reality is that Patsy was a kind and caring woman who was guiding a group of teenagers in the best way she knew how. Her expectations were high and her words were cruel at times but I’m thankful for the outcomes of her actions, the gaps she filled and the lessons I learned.