My cat is old.
Her breathing catches and rasps when she sleeps. I watch her shudder and tremble in her dreams; chasing some dissolving memory.
My cat is old and she is deaf; she has a thyroid condition that leaves her continually hungry. We stopped the expensive medication because it made her very sick- usually over my vinyl or under our bed.
At 5am every morning my deaf cat calls out to be fed. The house wakes but holds out until some gullible fool feeds her. At 6 the caterwauling wakes us again. I am left worn and weary. But, she has been our pet for 16 years. She predates our children and commands a narrative within our lives that when reviewed is entwined into our history.
I mostly hate my cat and she hates me. It is a mutual contract and we are now both very comfortable within it, ignoring each other and going about our self absorbed little lives.
And then the bag of bones jumps onto my lap and falls asleep, her purring more a drunken snore than a cute, watery eyed, cat lullaby. She pushes her skinny head into my chest and subconsciously I stroke her beneath her chin – instinctively knowing that anywhere else would mean a sudden, bloodied clawed frenzy.
I have come to the conclusion that my relationship with my cat is pretty much the same as my relationship with being a headteacher.
After 17 years; one year more than living with Pebbles (the cat), I am comfortable with who I am in my relationship with being the school leader. I have little to prove, but I am hungry to do right by my school. I am comfortable with the good and the ugly… comfortable hating my school as much as I am loving it, or wanting it to love me and knowing I’m going to be disappointed.
I need to be honest about my relationship with my school as much as I am with my cat. One day very soon my cat will die. In the same way that one day I will mean nothing to my school. When my cat dies the warm, drunken snores on my chest will mean a million times more than the rude awakenings to be fed. I feel the same towards my school… what am I doing today that might mean something tomorrow? Is feeding my school as good as stroking its chin? Surely, food is about survival and intimate moments are a luxury? Or, am I just desperately holding out for something beyond my understanding?
If I was to die tomorrow my cat would not miss a single predicable heartbeat within her routine. Schools are a little like old cats. They do their thing regardless of what you would like to think. Leaders come and go like fish flavoured sachets – they might linger for a while but eventually all that matters is the next one. Schools are elastic and they warp and shift to accommodate the now… it is usually people who struggle in the moment. Most leaders just need to understand that feeding a school is basic but knowing how to keep it truly happy is far more complex.
So, living in the moment and stroking the chin might be the best thing school leaders do. Feeding a school is pretty easy as long as you have the resources. Stroking its chin when it might very well take your arm off, trying to make it happy when it seems to hate you – these may be the real skills needed by a good school leader.