Tinyletter 11: Meeting you for the first time. Again.


I’ve got to the end of my first year at school.

Sorry, I mean Bert’s got to the end of his first year at school. The thing is, though, it’s been utterly straightforward for him. He couldn’t wait to get there, and has showed no hesitation from the first day onwards.

I, however, worried about it for months before it even started. I had heard things about school gate cultures; about cliques, disputes and humiliating snubs. I was pretty certain I wouldn’t fit in. I knew, also, that I would resent the demands that school made on me, having grown used to the cosseted service culture of a private nursery.

I was right about that – I’m infuriated by the endless petty, chaotic demands that school makes on my time (Bring in four jars of mixed sweets for the fair! Plant a sunflower seed! Help your child make a model of a pirate ship! Put £1.30 into an envelope and drop it personally into the office – not in your child’s schoolbag!).

On the other hand, I’ve been surprised how gentle an experience the school gates have been. Most people will nod and say hello, or else they’re absorbed in their own world. I suspect other people would be offended by this; would be seeking some greater level of engagement or friendship and would feel rejected. Not I. I already have my friends, and they’re carefully-selected. A friend whose children are at another local primary tells me that they all go on a ‘mum’s night out’ once a term. I am so very grateful that I don’t have to turn down that particular delight.

Perhaps that’s one of the ways that life is easier for me than others. I’m happy to walk quietly alongside people without wanting anything from them. I have a deep empathy for strangers’ desire to be left alone. I’m not convinced that it always gets read as empathy, but there you go. I also understand that I can’t control what other people think.

But then I probably only recognise six other parents anyway. My face-blindness is such that most faces I encounter won’t stick in my brain. There’s a small category of faces that I find so hard to process that my eyes won’t fix on them even when they’re standing in front of me; their features seem to shift around under my gaze. In most cases, familiarity eventually wins through, but this is often because I learn to remember people mechanically, through words. Height, hairstyle, eye colour, dress sense; friendship groups, voice, interests, similarly to other people. I can make a deliberate mental note of these things. It works for as long as no-one has a makeover, which happens surprisingly frequently. There’s a school gate mother who I think cut her hair short at some point, which means I can no longer make her out at all. Someone else confided in me a couple of months ago, and I haven’t been able to recognise her a second time.

These people are probably somewhere right now, complaining I’ve snubbed them. It makes me miserable to know that, and, at the same time, to know I can do nothing about it. I watched all of Bert’s classmates flood out of the classroom door today, and was certain that I couldn’t identify a single one of them in a lineup. Their faces might as well be blank. I have an anxious moment every afternoon that I won’t even spot Bert, and sometimes I have to wait for him to recognise me first. There are just so many other small, blonde boys.

I try hard to abandon my sense of shame about this. It seems like such a basic function of humanity to know the people around you. But think of it this way: I hold few playground grudges. I turn up every day, look around me, and smile at anyone who catches my eye. I might say a few words, and they’ll always be friendly. I used to think that my lack of facial recognition was a form of arrogance, that I just didn’t care enough about others to let them register in my memory. Now, I see it as a form of innocence. I’m pretty much seeing you anew every day. That’s not such a terrible thing.

See you next week,

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