Happy birthday, Toby: Now you are 11

Congratulations, Toby. It was your 11th birthday on Tuesday, so (a little belatedly) here’s my annual letter to you.

Looking back, what a year it has been! We have spent the majority of the last 12 months living with varying levels of Covid restrictions. Normality has vanished. Everything is different. And yet, things have remained the same in a remarkable number of ways – not least when it comes to you.

In marking your tenth birthday last year, I made eight observations that built a picture of what makes you uniquely you. 12 months later, all of these still apply. Your personality still flips between sunny and surly at the toss of a coin. (God help us when you become a fully-fledged teenager.) You happily create things with your hands, whether it is baking or building. Your love of owls remains undiminished.

You’re introverted and thoughtful. Yet again, you’ve made your own birthday cake – a Black Forest gateau – of which you’re rightly proud.

In many ways, this past year has been one of consolidation and steady progression. But that’s not to say there haven’t been some big changes, and that there aren’t more to come.

One giant step

Aside from the pandemic, one big event loomed over much of the year: preparing for your grammar school entrance exams in November.

You worked towards this all year, and looking back it was quite a rollercoaster ride. You’re of a similar level to your older brother but he is more self-motivating. The challenge for you has always been about application rather than ability, of fulfilling your potential. From week to week, your commitment and progress ebbed and flowed. It was always going to be a close-run thing and for long spells it looked like you were going to fall short. Over the summer, we could see you starting to insulate yourself against the possibility of failure: preparing your excuses, talking up our local school instead.

But then a funny thing happened. In those final few weeks, you found your mojo and stepped up of your own accord. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so focussed on anything that wasn’t Top Gear, fantasy football or geographical trivia.

And it worked. On the day, you were as nervous as I’ve ever seen you. But you emerged three hours later smiling, and when your results came back a month later, your score exceeded even the top end of our expectations. Barring a bizarre statistical oddity, you will be formally offered a place in March, and you’ll be off to the same school as Isaac.

The biggest step is still to come. How will you cope with swimming in deeper waters? Sink or swim? Who knows, but I’m willing to bet that the simple act of following in your brother’s footsteps will spur you on.

The sum of small changes

On other fronts, it may have been a year of steady progress and incremental changes, but the net result is still significant.

I took a close look at you over the weekend and realised that you’ve stopped looking like a boy and started resembling a young man. The physical differences are largely small and subtle, but they all add up.

Of course, you’ve grown up in other ways too – and much of this has been a logical extension of existing aspects of your character.

Your thoughtfulness has come to the fore in a home-schooling environment. When your school was told to study remotely for the final week of last term, you invested a huge amount of effort to create a lesson plan for Kara. And as remote learning has continued on into this term, you often study together as a pair in the living room, and you’ve been a willing extra pair of hands to help her with projects.

You’ve always been the child who has been most interested in building your knowledge of the world around you. So it wasn’t a big surprise when you started joining our lockdown Zoom quizzes. You’ve often provided more answers than many of the adults – you’ll be a valuable asset to any pub quiz team – and contributed some inventive rounds of your own. Your love of games, puzzles and TV quizzes such as Only Connect, Richard Osman’s House of Games and The Chase isn’t something we’re ever going to complain about.


People always comment on how much you look like me. It’s true. We share similar facial features. We have the same body shape. And personality-wise you very much take after me too.

That certainly makes it easier for me to understand and empathise with you. We think alike, and I can see the world through your eyes in a way your mother sometimes struggles with.

But it’s a double-edged sword too. I know I can be too quick to come down hard on you. That’s particularly the case when I see you exhibiting negative behaviours that I recognise and don’t like in myself. At times like these, I see in you a reflection of my younger self making exactly the same mistakes. I’m getting angry at that version of me as much as I am at you. Sorry about that.

Having said that, I’d like to think our similarities are more of a benefit than a hindrance. Hopefully, for all my flaws, you see me as a positive role model who you want to learn from, emulate and one day surpass. (But not too soon!) And maybe I can help you avoid some of the same mistakes I’ve made in life and steer you towards the things that have worked.

You’re an amazing kid and I can’t wait to see what your future holds. Let’s make your 12th year even better than your 11th.



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