The Hate U Give -Film Review

The three main children in The Hate U Give are named Starr (Amandla Stenberg), Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright).

I’ve often wondered where these seemingly less traditional names come from – particularly names where the meaning is the name and the name the meaning. As a white person, perhaps I am accustomed to Anglo names where their origins are less obvious. Names like Elizabeth (meaning my God is my oath), John (meaning Yahweh is gracious), Harry (meaning home ruler), Jessica (meaning to behold), Robert (meaning bright fame), Hannah (meaning grace) and so forth.

When I have taught students named Goodness, Charity, Wisdom, Prince and others where the meaning of the name explains itself immediately, I had presumed their parents, often African (in the case of this film African American), had torn a random selection of words from a dictionary and pulled one out of a hat. But upon watching The Hate U Give it became clear to me these names, which are often values, traits or flattering abstract nouns, are allocated with deliberation. More so than the randomness of say Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s fruit-based Apple or Kim Kardashian and Kanye’s compass-orientated North.

The children’s father Maverick ‘Mav’ Carter (Russell Hornsby) explains:

“You know not everybody got super-powers like you. Shine your light. I didn’t name you Starr by accident.

“I gave each of you power in your names. Seven – perfection, Starr – light, Sekani – joy. Use it so when you ready to talk, you talk. Don’t you ever let nobody make you quiet.”

And Starr does talk. The film talks. And we all need to talk.

Police shootings and deaths in custody have been the trigger for riots. In my living memory I recall two vividly: The first was the 2004 Redfern riots sparked by the death of Thomas Hickey. The second was upon my arrival in London when the 2011 London riots were triggered by the death of Mark Duggan.

Both years apart, yet still an ongoing issue. It’s not one I’ve experienced firsthand. I hope not to. But this film and the teen novel it is based on, by Angie Thomas, are valuable commentary on the privilege divide and the misplaced government resources that firstly lead to cases of police racism.

At times The Hate U Give seems to approach the subject with a certain superficial washed-out Hollywood glossiness. I suppose after all it is a teen drama, so can’t afford to get too gritty. Yet it raises the questions that need to be asked. It doesn’t shy away from biases on both sides, like when Starr brings home her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), leading to her father’s attempt to give him a tip, assuming the boyfriend is the cheauffer, then declaring, “That boy is white…Chris? What kind of plain-ass name is that?”

And indeed, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would it smell as ‘plain-ass’? If we call a ‘spade’ a ‘shovel’ instead of a ‘spade’, should we call a ‘Harry’ a ‘Home ruler’ and call a ‘Hannah’ a ‘Grace’? If we mix our metaphors, should we avoid name-calling to realise we’ve confused verbs and idioms?

(For the record, ‘Chris’ can be etymologised to ‘Christ’. Draw your own biblical conclusions between Starr and Chris.)

The imagery of Starr being a beacon of light is ever present as her voice cuts through the rhetoric on both sides of this race issue to lead toward a stronger future. Her given name and ‘super-power’ had been granted in hope for her generation that they can achieve where others have failed (which reminds me, I also had a student called Hope – it makes sense to me now).

 

 

Pink Trousers and Blue Dresses – Gender Neutrality

I’m covering a class for a school trip. A note has been left with the suggested order for children to line up. As I begin to call names for children to partner up, the groans begin emerging from being forced to stand in close proximity to some of their most loathsome foes. Others are more joyous and even begin holding their partner’s hand or even wrapping an arm around someone’s shoulder.

“Keep you hands to yourselves,” I snap.

It’s always a slippery slope from hand holding to canoodling behind the bike shed or a punch in the face.

It’s at this point I notice a pattern emerging in the line. It’s the old ‘girl-boy-girl-boy’ trick.

Later that week the same thing happens as the lunch staff line the children up in the lunch hall: ‘girl-boy-girl-boy’.

Sure it can be effective, depending on the generalised stereotypes available in any given classroom. But it is old-fashioned and restrictive. It plays on the idea males’ boisterous nature needs to be diluted by the sweet natured females. It assumes there will be less chatter because boys and girls for fear of catching cooties. It assumes a globally even spread of x and y chromosomes fertilising eggs (disproved by a class I taught with five boys and twenty-five girls).

Where are we reinforcing gender norms? Where are we unequal? Where can we challenge the gender status quo?

Professions

There were two male teachers in my primary school. Neither of them were ever my classroom teacher.

Three of the primary schools I’ve worked in have had only two male teachers (including myself).

Does it matter?

Not really. Each class still had a teacher, which is surely the crux of the matter. Gender shouldn’t be a concern. Yet, the same tropes continue to present themselves. Twenty years since leaving primary school as a student, there is still a “shortage” of male teachers and “role models” in primary school classrooms. People still remark, “It’s good to see a male teacher in primary school”.

But if we are fighting for gender equality, it shouldn’t matter. A teacher can teach, regardless of gender. Students can learn, regardless of who they learn from. Good pedagogy is good pedagogy.

In broader terms, some gender stereotypes are so cultural embedded into our psyche and language, we must still consciously reprogram our speech so the next generations are not conditioned to make assumptions.

‘Fireman’ must be ‘Firefighter’.

‘Policeman’ must be ‘Police Officer’.

‘Chairman’ must be ‘Chair’ or ‘Chairperson’.

And what of terms which were always gender neutral, but assumptions of gender are still made such as ‘nurse’ being a female. We must consciously say ‘he or she’ when elaborating on these ideas. Or the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.

This wonderful video, which went viral a few years ago, is evidence the stereotypes still exist with one child assuming a female doctor, female firefighter and female army officer were merely playing dress ups.

Merit Awards

Often, I have been teaching in schools where the weekly merit awards are given out in equal measure to boys and girls. Surely this is a patronising notion to both sexes, that your certificate may have been received merely to maintain the gender balance.

Some weeks two female students stand out with their achievement. Other weeks two male students stand out. Educators should apply gender blindness to awarding these accolades. Any cries from the peanut gallery that, “Only the boys/girls receive all the prizes”, should be immediately quashed by highlighting the achievements, that were made, as a gold standard for other students to reach.

Pink and Blue

It’s always good to run the litmus test of placing blue and pink craft materials at the front of a classroom to see who chooses which colour.

A teacher recently posted on Twitter that he’d worn a pink shirt to school, because a male student said, “Pink is only for girls”.

Look carefully at baby clothes and toys next time you’re shopping. Some girls’ items may be blue. But there are not many boys’ items which are pink. We are still being marketed at to impose specific colours on specific genders. And that’s in the infant department, not even considering the presence of ‘Pink Tax’ for adults.

The labelling of the third floor of Hamleys Toy Store was changed in 2011 from ‘Girls’ to ‘Arts and Crafts’. It still plays host to the traditionally female products Barbie, Hello Kitty and so forth. More so, head there today and there is enough garish pink spectrum, as you ascend to level 3, to leave you with a week-long migraine.

Old habits die hard.

Dress or Trousers

How does gender equality look in regard to uniforms? In most schools, girls can choose to wear shorts or trousers in place of skirts or dresses. But when this is taken to an extreme, there is the case currently presenting itself at an American college where girls are forced to wear “pants, capri pants or Bermuda shorts”.

Problematic on a few levels, this move has generated backlash. The main complaint from the school was the ever-decreasing length of the students’ skirts. Obviously, the administration had not seen Kylie Minogue’s music video for Spinning Around, otherwise they would know implementing compulsory shorts is hardly a solution.

Additionally, choosing trousers over dresses could be perceived as enforcing male norms upon women. Why should the trouser win out over the skirt? Why not swing in the opposite direction and much like David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, all children could wear dresses to school. The apropos argument of this book is that the dress does not impact upon the titular character’s daily routine. He continues to play football and hang out with his friends.

The smorgasbord of wardrobe options should be available for all children and adults alike. Feminism does not have to wear chinos. Some girls like wearing dresses and so do some boys. Some boys like wearing trousers and so do some girls.

Hard Labour

The comments made around the workplace about ‘strapping young lads’ and ‘strong boys’, need to stop. Medieval receptionist pop their heads into classrooms asking whether there are any male students available to lift some heavy boxes. (Heavens – I’ve been asked myself, despite many of my female colleagues making multiple trips to the gym each week, while I return to my flat to eat chips in front of the telly.)

Next time this happens send them your weediest female students. It’s just a heavy box and doing some tasks requiring grunt can be character building. We must avoid disenfranchising young women by letting men do all the furniture removal and propping up the “Me Tarzan. You Jane” division of domestic work.

There’s probably still room for chivalry, but that needn’t be overdone either.

Case in point was a singing assembly where the male music teacher asked a female teacher whether she could choose three boys to put out some chairs in the assembly hall. Unbeknown to the music teacher he was speaking to a staunch feminist who unleashed a scathing critique on his assumptions of gender and misogynistic views. Whether he was being misogynistic or chivalrous, we’ll never know. He was definitely left speechless and a Helen Reddy song was promptly added to the setlist.

Sports Teams

I’ve come to find choosing team captains in PE lessons is still rife with battles of the sexes. If I choose a female captain for one team and a male captain for the other, both teams will predominantly choose children of the same sex. It’s best to choose two female captains or two male captains. There will be a more even spread that way. And hopefully that spread will be an even spread of skill not gender.

The only person free of gender discrimination in choosing teams is the fat kid with dyspraxia who will always be chosen last.

Explicitness

Finally, an aspect of gender norms that seems to get people most hot-headed is when people feel their children are given an agenda by educators or media. They cry out, “Let children be children!”.

The gender norms are so far entrenched, people feel the need to explicitly call them out.

Boys wear blue. Girls wear pink.

Girls are nurses. Boys are doctors.

Boys are good at football. Girls are good at netball.

Girls wear dresses. Boys wear trousers.

Boys have short hair. Girls have long hair.

(Note: I subconsciously began with ‘boys’ when I wrote, ‘boys wear blue…’. I am indoctrinated).

I challenge myself to show these norms can be ignored without explicit discussion. Get girls to play football without having a gender debate. Men should wear pink without a debate. Boys can have long hair without a debate (man-buns excepted). Women can wear trousers without a debate.

Sure it is a nice message Lachlan Gillespie (Purple Wiggle) gives in this post from Emma ‘Wiggle’ Watkins…

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🌟👍🏼 YES!! 👍🏼🌟

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…but what if he’d just turned up to a concert with a yellow bow in his hair, without the sign.

We don’t need to tell our children certain things are OK. We need to show them.

Captain Marvel – Film Review

Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is the obvious superhero role model for all girls around the world. How quickly and fickly we have forgotten Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Lucy Lawless as Xena (technically not a superhero – but you get the drift) or Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.

But when it comes to successful merchandising, having a ‘first’ of something is most important: not the first female superhero, not the first female lead, not the first female Marvel superhero, but rather the first Marvel female lead superhero. It occurred to me as I watched the character Monica Rambeau, daughter of Carol Danvers’ (aka C. Marvel’s) friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), swanning around in awe of Captain Marvel that there will soon enough be the first Marvel female black superhero lead. But, why kill two birds with one stone when you can merchandise over both. Sure enough, we’ll have the first something or the other leading another Marvel universe escapade in the not too distant future as we destabilise the status quo of white male Marvel superheroes (Antman, Captain America, The Hulk, Doctor Strange, Spiderman, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Thor and so forth).

Progress is slow.

But cynicism aside, we are grateful for the eventual evolution. As with the release of Black Panther, which saw a campaign to raise money for disadvantaged children to see the film at a cinema, the release of Captain Marvel has seen Brie Larson campaigning for the #CaptainMarvelChallenge raising more than $60,000 to send young women to see the film.

Here are films changing the message being sent to young people, and additionally changing the experience. It is of course all in line with the humanitarian messages of Stan Lee and friends’ creation of the Marvel Universe.

The thinly veiled plot of refugees, in Captain Marvel, is one that is as relevant as ever. It is a universal issue that developed nations are dealing with. This film asks people to look past the media and/or political veil that paints refugees as ‘evil’ and poses the more confronting questions about whether those leading us and informing us are ‘evil’.

Captain Marvel is not just another beat in the over arching story of the Avengers films’ plots; Captain Marvel is a story for our time, a hero for our time and for the children of our time.

The Florida Project – Film Review

I love Disney as much as the next person. In fact, it verges on obsession. I’ve collected the animated films. I’ve read Walt Disney’s biography. I’ve dragged my cousin through the Disney Family Museum. I noticed Jenny’s bear in The Rescuers has a striking resemblance to Winnie the Pooh and that the tea set in Tarzan looks like the same one from Beauty and the Beast before the teapot was anthropomorphised into Mrs Potts. I’ve been to two of the Disney theme parks (granted a proper obsessive would have been to all of them – I’ve not been to the parks in Florida).

However, The Florida Project was an eye-opening, juxtaposing jolt of the disparity between the rich and poor surrounding the consumerist culture lying in the wake of the Disney parks and, for that matter, the entire company. The desperation and depravation of the young protagonists was enough to put you off your discontinued Kellogg’s Buzz Blasts cereal. The discount outlet selling knockoff Disney merchandise across from the dilapidated motel where Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live, may well motivate you to run your plush Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear through the garden shredder.

Moonee is barely school-age and is running around the motel like an anti-Disney Mowgli. Instead of being raised by wolves, she’s being raised by the fringe dwellers of the Disney World who are foul-mouths, prostitutes, drug takers, drug dealers, petty criminals and drop-kicks. It’s truly the seedy underbelly of the Disney experience and a sad reality of how far things are from the EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) concept, which Walt dreamed up for the purpose of avoiding the usual pollution and dangers of an urban city. The land allocated for EPCOT inevitably became the hedonistic sanctuary of multiple Disney theme parks and resorts.

The Florida Project is highlighting this. But it’s equally a cry for help and portrait of strong humans fighting against the adversity that is struck down upon them. Moonee’s mother is a child herself. The desperation from these characters is too real. It reflects too many children inhabiting our cities and schools. These sorts of pressures should not be put upon them. Their childhoods are being stolen. They are being judged by adults (like when other parents in the precinct refuse to let their children associate with Moonee). Where is their adult compassion? There are adults who appear to actually hate kids (proper hate – unlike the author of this ironically titled blog). The sole adult who shows protectiveness and care is the manager (Willem Dafoe) of The Magic Castle Motel. Even he reaches breaking point when he discovers Halley servicing clients in her room and nicking their park passes to hawk off in carparks. He digs deep to find empathy. They are kids after all. They should not be cast out to survive alone. We must nurture and keep them. This film should remind us, not shock us. The inevitable end potentially reminds us of the escapist value of a world such as Disney’s. It is only that the real and the fantasy worlds should not be so far apart.

Climate Strike protest – Truancy or Field Trip?

Friday saw children across the world walking out of schools to spend the day protesting their governments’ approaches to dealing with Climate Change and the impending doom awaiting us as the ice caps melt. Climate Change is real, but eyebrows have been raised over the effectiveness and appropriateness of children sacrificing a day of their education to hold a protest.

Is it their democratic right? Is it truancy? Is it making a stand? Are they puppets for their left-wing parents’ views? Should non-voters be involved in the policy making process? Are protests an effective way to affect change?

Many questions were raised. Few were answered. Let’s see what happened.

Greta Thunberg – The brains behind Climate Strike

The media have traced the climate strike back to Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg. She originally sat outside the Swedish parliament in the lead up to their parliamentary elections in October 2018, skipping school in favour of protesting against the Swedish government not reducing its carbon emissions. She wasn’t a complete nobody. Her mother is Melana Ernman is a famous Swedish opera singer and her father Svante Thunberg appeared in an episode of Skärgårdsdoktorn (Sweden’s answer to Doc Martin or perhaps Seachange). A cynical person would say nepotism and connections go a long way in helping raise somebody’s profile.

She’s been widely credited with planting the seed of an idea for the world-wide youth Climate Strike movement, which has seen a series of protests culminate in Friday’s global protest. In her TED talk she speaks directly about the notion we know what solutions are and that governments are not enacting them.

The Leaders

The response from leaders has been telling and obvious. By all accounts the truth of Climate Change, built on science and facts, is being largely ignored by the right. Meanwhile the left put their support behind the protests and calls for reform.

It’s certainly concerning that an issue that surely transcends politics has become more concerning for one side of the fence, and not the other.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to the protests in November was: “We are committed to all off these things, but I will tell you what we are also committed to – kids should go to school”.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, had the terrorist attack to deal with on Friday, but met students and said earlier in the week, “Don’t underestimate the power of your voice. I think too often we make this assessment that in order to have an impact you have to be of voting age. That is just not the case.”

French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the UN Environmental Assembly this week: “The damage that we will have to account for is immense. Immense. And now our youth wants us to hurry up. They’re saying that we’re not going fast enough. They are protesting, and rightly so. We need the anger of our young people, because it’s what’s pushing us to act faster and more forcefully.”

Donald Trump was presumably preoccupied by the Mueller report. But I think we can second-guess his opinion.

The UK Prime Minister Theresa May gave comment in February via her official spokesperson saying, “Everybody wants young people to be engaged in the issues that affect them most so that we can build a brighter future for all of us. But it is important to emphasise that disruption increases teacher’s workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for.” – Well, don’t get me started here. If she wants to win brownie points with the education system, she’ll need to meet some union demands before saccharine remarks about “carefully prepared” lessons sways opinion.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said, “I fully understand the concerns people feel. But we must also make it an opportunity. It can’t just be a fear.”

The Parents

Obviously, an event like this raises the questions about how the young protestors will get to the event. Whether they will be able to make their own way there or if they will be safe when they get there, are all concerns for parents. Wisely some parents accompanied their children to the event. Even more wisely, they took public transport, so you can’t say they are burning unnecessary fossil fuels.

Comedian and actor Kerry Godliman took her daughter:

 

Australian media personality Yumi Stynes caught the bus:

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ON OUR WAY #climatestrike #strike4climate

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Instagrammer Nataly Elbaz Björklund took some babies and friends along:

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On Friday, Erik, Andreas and I joined 1.4 million youths from around the world in protesting climate change. 2,083 protests took place in 125 countries. Our future and the future of generations to come is nearing the point of no return, we have less than 12 years to undo our mistakes, to make sure that we leave a functional planet for the next generation – to make sure that they HAVE a future. 🌎 . You are never too young or too old to act, and it is up to us to do everything in our power to help solve this crisis. Change must come, there is no wealth on a dead planet. What you do makes a difference – so raise your voice for the planet and for your children, because their lives are in your hands. . . . . . #fridaysforfuture #climatestrike #climatechange #sustainableliving #climatechangeisreal #ecoliving #ecolifestyle #youthstrike4climate #extinctionrebellion #climateaction #marchforourlives #environment #sustainablefashion #schoolstrike4climate #noplanetb #climateaction #getwoketotheplanet

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Jimmy Barnes and his wife Jane caught the train:

 

Thunberg’s mother posted a picture of the protestors in Italy:

The Schools

The Guardian let the school children guest edit their publication:

‘So today we walk out of school, we quit our college lessons, and we take to the streets to say enough is enough. Some adults say we shouldn’t be walking out of classes – that we should be “getting an education”. We think organising against an existential threat – and figuring out how to make our voices heard – is teaching us some important lessons.’

Sure, a lot can be learnt from protesting. But do it in your own time. Some people have argued the government won’t be sitting on weekends. So, do it on the school holidays. The attack on education is unfair for several reasons. Foremost that education must be seen to be delivered without bias. If teachers began espousing strong views in either direction on any number of issues, there would be outcry. Additionally, there are plenty of causes that warrant the attention of the youth and probably need protests held for their causes also. But if we allow one, we could be starting a nasty precedent for many more. I can think of at least 365 things to protest about, and that’s more than there are days in the school year.

Further there has been the accusation of lack of Climate Change content in the school curriculums. Again, there is only room for so many issues at a time, and Climate Change gets its fair share of curriculum space. It has not been ignored.

I remember school in the 1990s where we were educated widely about the ever-growing hole in the ozone layer, caused by the unnecessary use of aerosol cans. We were taught not to throw our plastic into the ocean, when Mr Burns stitches together thousands of plastic six-pack-rings to catch some sea life. We’ve known since Blinky Bill, Ferngully and The Lorax that chopping down trees is bad. We’ve had a climate change message for years. I find it unfair to put the burden of this lack of action upon schools.

Educators have worked further in integrating the awareness of Climate Change into curriculums with discussions around sustainable fashion, ethical food sources and entire parts of Geography curriculums dedicated to Climate Change.

To put things into practical terms, I’ve worked at a school where they banned children from bringing in any packed lunches with clingfilm wrapped sandwiches, foil wrapped food or disposable drink containers. How many work places have done the same?

The Numbers

It is estimated 2000 protests were held in 125 countries. It is thought more than one million protestors attended. It sounds like a big number. But then again five trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.

I hope the protestors took their packed lunches in reusable shopping bags. Just saying.

The Result

We will wake up tomorrow morning and the planet will still be careering towards inevitable annihilation. The governments will still pontificate and tweak policies to delay any action. Greta and her global warriors will continue shouting to be heard. Schools will celebrate Climate Change week in October. Everyone will turn their lights off for one hour at the end of this month for Earth Hour.

People will continue to make token gestures, protest governments and offset our carbon emissions. But all these things will be in vain, if we don’t REDUCE our emissions in the first place.

Maybe our biggest problem is we’re dealing with Climate Change in the same way we deal with our individual impending dooms. We have that extra chocolate bar even though it will give us diabetes, drink that extra beer that’s damaging our liver, smoke the cigarette that shortens the lifespan of our lungs or chow down that fried breakfast despite the bacon fat lining the insides of our arteries. For Climate Change we use a plastic bag just that once, we drink coffee from a non-recyclable cup or we burn through a tank of petrol to go on a joy ride, thinking all the while it’s just one little piece of damage.

We can’t bury our head in the sand. We must take effective action. Painting some slogans on recycled cardboard won’t save the penguins from heat stroke. I wonder how many of those protestors on Friday simply jumped on the bandwagon. How many of them are well informed? Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything is a good starting point to understand the shades of grey in this issue. There are economic forces dictating the decisions made by big companies and governments. It is not as simplistic (despite being idealistic) to reduce all emissions to zero. The flow on to our own standards of living would be affected, as we’ve become dependent on the consumerism of the capitalist society.

I hope the students who took the day off school have learnt enough to make some daily choices. Here’s five starting points:

  • Always use reusable shopping bags (if you forget one, only purchase what you can carry in your arms).
  • Only purchase loose fruit and vegetable to avoid surplus packaging.
  • Only travel by foot, bicycle and public transport (no matter how average your local public transportation is – if you can’t get somewhere, maybe you don’t need to go in the first place).
  • Cook in non-stick dishes and dishes with covers to avoid ever using foil, baking paper or cling film.
  • Buy quality and ethical clothing, avoiding fast fashion. And repair your clothes. (most of the old stuff you send to charity ends in landfill).

They made a lot of noise on Friday, but please don’t make a campaign for Climate Change an attack on education.

Kid #33 and #34 – kicking, pushing, punching and lies

The thirty-third kid I hated was a pathological liar and the thirty-fourth kid I hated was also a pathological liar.

The thirty-third child had perfected his pathological lying by being sociopathic. He once so emphatically denied having stolen another student’s Lego bricks, despite me having seem him steal them, that I chastised the other student until she cried, to see if he’d be overcome by guilt. He stood there watching the whole thing. No guilt. Just good ole’ fashioned sociopathy. No empathy in the eyes. Just empty behind the eyes. (NB – I explained to the girl later the psychological mind games I’d attempted, and she seemed ok with everything.)

The thirty-fourth child left his finger prints everywhere. Yet, he would still gormlessly claim innocence. He literally left his finger prints everywhere, on one occasion placing his finger-paint smothered hands on all variety of surfaces. One of those surfaces was his face. He had the body of a nine-year-old and the mind of a three-year-old (I can’t back this up medically. I just based it on observations). I stared at him as he stood there covered head-to-toe in paint. I was in such disbelief I sent him holus-bolus to the ‘inclusion’ room (a room ironically for students excluded from normal class). He was their problem now.

Both students were in the same class, and while the infantile artist continued acting like a baby, the sociopath evolved more and more into a bully. Almost without fail, when I would return to the playground at the end of breaktimes and lunchtimes to collect the class, I would be set upon by both children claiming that the other had started a fight with them. If I was lucky, they would be mid-slap, mid-punch or mid-kick – it was easier to identify the perpetrator that way. Then it was a case of indignant high-moral ground from the former or grumbly baby-sulks from the latter. Either way, both would deny culpability, despite how the cookie had crumbled on that occasion. Sometimes it would defy logic and science, like the time the bully-one wrote the phrase “I am dumb” in the baby-one’s journal and claimed the baby-one had written it themselves. Now even if you were in the presence of the dumbest dummy out of the dum-dums, you’d be hard pressed to find a dumb-brain dumb enough to acknowledge their dumbness. The situation didn’t make sense.

What did make sense, was both were classic cases of the apple not falling far from the decaying apple tree.

The parents of the sociopathic bully had a chip on their collective shoulder. They blew their money on Masaratis, designer children’s clothes from Harrods and Waitrose sandwiches. Unsurprisingly, they had run short on money to provide their children with a quality education and had defaulted to sending them to an undersubscribed central London government primary school. It is my opinion that schools in central London which are undersubscribed, are bad schools. There are many schools busting at the seems and over-subscribed, there is little other reason for being ten or more children short per class than the fact a school is a little bit rubbish.

My favourite line from these over-cashed under-sensed parents came from the father who once said, “I run a business with more than thirty people, so I know what it would be like to run a classroom”. Sure, I thought. Let’s just do swapsies for a day and see what happens then. If I run your business into the ground, you can stop telling me how to do my job.

The parent of the baby-child was his mother. Much of the dialogue I had was with uncles and a grandmother, as the mother spoke little English and appeared to be off with the fairies. By all accounts, the rest of the extended family were quite switched on. Many of the cousins attended the school and were lovely children who were reasonably intelligent. Something was a bit awry here. It was a sad case I’m sure. The child was being failed and allowed to maintain this persona of ‘baby’ of the family, and seemingly ‘baby’ of the school. The uncles would insist the older cousins were helping with the child’s homework, but nothing was sticking, bar a few tame expletives (e.g. ‘poobum’).

On and on the bickering, lies and fighting went between these two buffoons. The parents of the sociopath would continually make complaints and maintain their son’s innocence in every matter. The Golden Child Syndrome they were suffering from brought them much stress, misconstruing every word that was said by adult and child alike to their son. The mother appeared to genuinely believe he could do no wrong. The father would intimidate staff and children by standing over them – probably where his young ‘prodigy’ learnt his bully tactics from.

The situation became untenable when the parents began asking for spoilt-britches to be moved into the safety of the other class. In a classic case of complying by path-of-least-resistance, the management allowed the child to be moved away from baby-face. The parents had one with the sociopath of their loins being taught the valuable lesson to “run away and hide from your problems as a means of dealing with them”.

And that was that. I didn’t see him again. If I were to see him, I doubt I’d ask which designer his latest jacket was from. Nor would I ask the other child, whether his finger-painting techniques had made him a world-renowned modern artist. They’d probably just lie about it anyway.

Miffy: things I learnt from the De Stijl rabbit from Utrecht

I didn’t read many Dick Bruna books as a child, but I have vivid memories of the theme tune from the television series based on his books:

Here comes my Dick Bruna Book,

sit with me and have a look

pages full of 123

and all of it especially

made for me…

MADE FOR ME!

The simplicity of the chant was as simple as the drawings in the books. Though, I was to find out the pictures were in fact collages not drawings, when I visited the Centraal Museum in Utrecht to track down the studio where Bruna had created his work, most significantly the humble rabbit Miffy.

Miffy (or Nijntje as she is called by the Dutch) and her menagerie of friends are heavily influenced by the De Stijl movement, which was on display in numerous corners of the Centraal Museum. Ironically one of the most famous artists of the movement, Piet Mondrian – you know him from that blocky art piece with the primary colours – would have been unsatisfied by all the rounded lines for he threw his toys out the pram when the De Stijl artists moved into architecture and diagonal lines. The rounded lines of Dick Bruna’s creatures would have blown his right-angled mind.

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But it was the very shapes of Bruna’s images that skyrocketed Miffy to fame and fortune in her home of the Netherlands, Japan, and across the world. She predates Sanrio’s Hello Kitty and arguably heavily influenced the style of those characters.

I have been enamoured by the characters of Sanrio and various other chubby little characters of Japan, since I once visited Tokyo and found myself impulse purchasing a vast array of plush toys including Doraemon (a robotic cat), Anpanman (a bread-faced superhero), Totoro (a giant dust bunny) and additionally a daily dosage of doughnuts from Mr Donut, due only to the fact they were using Rilakkuma (a brown bear) in the marketing. Whatever subliminal message the big-brand giants were sending me, it was working.

My own fascination of the ‘kawaii’ (cute) characters of Japan drew me, like an anime-eyed moth to a flame, to the very top floor of Utrecht’s flagship museum to enter the studio of Bruna. The studio had been meticulously dismantled from its original home and reconstructed in the attic of the museum. The collection of little mostly-orange-spined books strikingly filled shelf upon shelf with every edition of Bruna’s books included in every language. Wide drawers in the artist’s studio are filled with offcuts from the red, blue, yellow, green and brown paper he used. There are posters of the book covers he illustrated for his father’s publishing company. But it is the rabbit that I am here to see. It is the rabbit I want answers from.

How does something as simple as this little white bunny capture the world’s imagination?

Perhaps, it’s in the eyes.

All the characters, created by Bruna, maintain eye-contact at all times. They stare from the pages of their books, permanently engaging with the reader. This is often done at the cost of practicality with characters riding bicycles, pushing wheelbarrows and cooking food without looking at where they are going or at what they are doing. But we suspend our disbelief in the safe knowledge that Miffy and her friends are very cute to look at – albeit they have no nose and their mouths are merely crosses.

I was reminded from this visit, how successful simple things can be. A global phenomenon was born from a white rabbit living in a world of primary colours, virtually torn from the De Stijl rectangles in those most famous paintings. I was reminded of the simple power of eye contact. I was reminded of the simple stories and lessons that could be learnt from characters who cooperate. I was reminded how simple the tools to success may be. Bruna did not have all the new-fangled gadgets we throw at children. He was armed with some tracing paper, black paint on a brush, a pair of scissors and a selection of about five colours.

I was reminded to keep it simple.