Thursday, 29 March 2012

Memories of Denise

I've read lots of tributes to Denise over the last few days, maybe the world doesn't really need another one, but as all of the ones I've read have been from people who knew her through the business network that she was such a huge part of - 4N - I thought why not have one celebrating another side of her life. The home ed side.

These are just my memories; I know other people will have many, many more! Do feel free to share them in the comments section if you’d like to :)

I think I've known Denise for about 7 years, she quickly became involved in local HE politics in North Yorkshire after pulling her son out of school. I know that I liked her immediately - didn't everyone?! She was clearly someone who wasn't going to take any crap, but she had this great diplomatic (yet with a subtle hint of sarcasm) quality about her which was a great combination when dealing with the LA.

She was known on the internet as Wobblymoo back then. On yahoo groups email names were often what you remembered about someone, as you would see the email address more often than you saw the person’s actual name. More often than not you would introduce yourself to someone when meeting *in real life* for the first time, by using your email address, so when you are looking for Wobblymoo at a meeting with the LA it’s going to make you grin ;-)

She was, infamously, the first (maybe only) person to get tea and cakes at Betty's Tea Rooms in Harrogate (rather posh and pricey for the non locals) bought for her out of the LA HE budget.

Over the years we ran the local HE yahoo group together, and worked to make N Yorks a better, place for HEers in terms of treatment by the LA. An objective that we thought we'd largely achieved, but which, when we realised we’d been played to a certain extent, saw us both supporting each other and others in erm... non compliance I suppose you’d call it ;-)

Denise was always incredibly helpful and welcoming, and in order to help more new HEers find their way she set up a North Yorks HE website, which even the LA directed people to!

When the Badman report came up, Denise was invited by the LA HE advisor to come and talk to Badman about her experiences of HE, as N Yorks by that point had come to be seen as an example of *best practice* with regard relations with home educators. I know that following on from her discussion with Badman she felt quietly confident of a good outcome. She told me that he had seemed to be quite reasonable, and appeared to understand what she had said to him about how important HE was as an option, and how it was particularly important for those struggling with school to have an alternative. Knowing that Denise was not the kind of person to bullshit, and that she was a good reader of people, I tried very hard to believe that she would be right, inspite of the evidence to the contrary.

I was invited to run a workshop on HE at a conference in Leeds about informal education which took place in May 2009. I asked Denise if she would come along with me, as I was nervous about going alone, and I knew that it would be much more fun with her as my side kick! We got to sit in on some very interesting talks in the morning, but chatting to another delegate at lunch time was a far more interesting affair! To be honest what we heard threw us both a bit, Denise more so I think, given her hope that Badman was a fair and reasonable man, and that these would be qualities that would show through in his report. To cut a long story short, what we heard was the most contentious aspects of the contents of the Badman Report, which wasn’t due out for another few weeks. The delegate in question had been at a conference at which Badman had presented his report - at a time when the HE *community* was still very much hoping to be able to influence the outcome. It was pretty explosive stuff, and the delegate obviously realised that she had let the cat out of the bag (she seemed to have been under the impression that the report had already been released) and very quickly stopped talking to us, leaving Denise and I somewhat shell shocked. We both decided that the best option would be to assume the other delegate had been mistaken, but to check out the conference details when we got back home.

Lunch finished there was time to have a quick look at who was booked into our workshop that afternoon, and we were both a little nervous to see that we had a couple of people from connexions booked in. Cue much chewing of fingernails!
In the run up to the conference we'd chatted about how it should go, but we were both seat of your pants kind of people when it came to this kind of thing, so we winged it, though having said that, we did get hold of a copy of a short film that some HEers had made, which we planned to use as a general introduction before taking questions. We'd arranged to have a projector set up in the room so that we could play the film on the big screen, but this was as far as our organisation for the event had gone.

We made our way up to our room, (we may or may not have become slightly lost, I couldn’t possibly comment! ) and were immediately struck by the lack of a projector. We rummaged around but there definitely wasn’t one, so we panicked slightly before getting the giggles and sitting down to wait for our audience. At some point we realised we were in the wrong room! Cue more giggles, and a mad dash to find the right room before our audience arrived! We found our room, complete with projector. Yay! Except that on this occasion Denise’s geek skills failed. She tried numerous ways to do whatever technical wizardry was required but all to no avail, and the workshop attendees were starting to arrive. We exchanged some panicked looks, but there was nothing left to do but to go with our original winging it plan. Denise was awesome. She charmed everyone and was her usual helpful self, answering questions and cleverly explaining things in a way that enabled people to understand a different point of view. It wasn’t a huge workshop, we weren’t the most popular subject on the list, indeed as I understand it a lot of the delegates didn’t really understand why home educators were even attending, but by the end of our workshop, and by the end of the closing discussion with all the conference attendees, we’d made some great contacts, and had opened some minds.

Back at our respective homes we got to work sleuthing (who knew that she would later become Detective Denise?!) on the internet, and discovered that the delegate who had let the report cat out of the bag was quite high profile in the dark world of the Badman, and so was unlikely to have been mistaken. Emails were written to the government asking for clarification. Eventually the report was released and it was everything we had feared and more. I know I have read people say that one of Denise’s qualities was never having a bad word to say about anyone, but she definitely had some bad words to say about the Badman! I suspect that was because she was a bit cross with herself for having got him wrong, but I think that just shows that she was the kind of person to look for the best in people, whoever they might be.
She was angry, and she posted a comment on the HE Facebook group expressing her fear that if the contents of the report became law, then a child would die, and Badman would have blood on his hands as a result.

Sometime later I had the dubious pleasure of telling Denise that her comment was amongst a small selection of *things on the internet* that the government was using to stop answering home educators freedom of information requests. Utterly ridiculous, but that was the level of stupidity that we were up against with Ed Balls and his cronies at the DCSF.

Denise worked incredibly hard to help defeat the Badman Report, and whilst we didn’t always agree on aspects of how to go about this, she always had my trust. The thing with Denise was that unlike some of the other people who were involved in some of the things many of us didn’t agree with, she had integrity, and that that aspect of her character was questioned by some did hurt her.

At the Informal Education conference we’d attended in May, we’d expressed interest in being involved in the setting up of a federation of informal educators that would include home educators, and some months later were approached to help do just that. It took quite a bit of back and forth and organisation before the first meeting was set up, but we eventually got together up in Darlington with some great people from the world of informal education. We had a riot of a time (of course we were also terribly productive!) and in an email to the lady who took this photo I said “I can’t believe you managed to get a photo of us where we weren’t falling about laughing”. It was very hard to be in a room with Denise and not laugh. (I hope R & M don't object to me putting this photo up)

Sadly Denise later decided that she didn’t have time to dedicate to building the federation, she was instead putting her energy and attention into her new business venture, Detective Denise. Having talked to her about her job I can’t say that I blame her! It sounded like an incredible thing to do for a living, and how cool is it to get paid for donning a wig and getting all Cagney and Lacey?

I had cause to call on Denise’s detective skills when I was trying to track down the estate of an author whose permission I needed for a project I was working on. She was super quick at getting a result, but more than that her integrity shone through as she made sure to look after not only my interests as her client, but also the interests of the other party who she had no monetary involvement with. I know she was very hot on the ethical aspects of her job, and she was, I believe, something of a leader in terms of getting her industry to behave in a decent and law abiding manner.
Back to Home Ed one last time; Denise was a great advocate of autonomous HE, and when her eldest son decided to give school a try she jokingly worried about having to deal with curriculum stuff as she prepared to take him for a look round the school. It gave her a great deal of pleasure a little while after he’d started school and was doing exceptionally well, that the teachers were confounded by how N could excel in science having never had a *structured lesson* in the subject! I also remember the pride with which she told me about some of R’s encounters with so called experts, and she was of course super proud of daughter K too.

On a more personal note talking to Denise over the years helped me through more than one difficult period of my life. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer and we decided not to follow the conventional path to recovery, Denise’s own history with cancer reassured me that we were doing the right thing. I will never forget her telling me that she firmly believed that if she’d done what the doctors told her she’d never have lived as long as she did.

I can’t really describe how Denise did it, she wasn’t obviously supportive (she wasn’t unsupportive, I just can’t quite explain what I mean) she never told you what to do, but she managed to convey what you needed to hear in such a way that it stays with you and sustains you when you need it, where other people’s opinions often don’t.

In the last couple of months when my life was upside down, at a time when she was terribly ill, she just amazed me with her attitude to life. She encouraged me to follow my dreams and, when it all gets a bit much, she is there in my head as a gentle nudge not to be so pathetic and to just get out there and live.

I’m so sad that I didn’t get the opportunity to give her the grand tour of Miranda (our campervan) as I’d promised her I would. I wish I had realised that I didn’t have as much time as I thought I did to do that, but that was Denise for you. She’d outlived her initial prognosis by leaps and bounds and somehow she seemed to me to be invincible (I’d been very worried about her back in Jan/Feb but her attitude made me think I was being ridiculously pessimistic and so I snapped myself out of it and went back to thinking she was invincible). She wasn’t the sort of person to wallow in self pity; always downplaying her troubles and always so much more interested in helping other people; even when she’d had a bad day she’d be looking forward to the good one that was just around the corner. I will never ever not be awe inspired by her courage, her joie de vivre, and I will treasure my memories of her always.

Love you Denise – hope you’ve got a sick bucket handy where ever you are ;-) I promise to smile on Monday xxxx