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.

Delusions of Potential Grandeur

We’re often affirming children’s aspirations rightly or wrongly. The danger being that if all children’s dreams were realised, the world would be littered with popstars, football players and fire fighters – perhaps also ballet dancers.

We are told we can achieve anything, if we put our mind to it. We are told nothing of nepotism, hard luck or trauma. Inversely, perhaps these are the things we are supposed to put our mind to overcoming.

I have a distinct memory of sitting at the poolside as a young teenager, the steaming chlorinated water incubating in my nostrils. An eight-year-old member of the swim club was banging on and on about how his mother had told him he would be the ‘next Ian Thorpe’. This bumpkin only trained half of the week – hardly Olympic standard. How we laughed and laughed at his naïve optimism. Hopefully our cynical adolescent sneering didn’t damage him too much. Hopefully he pulled a (Taylor) Swifty and hashtagged ‘haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate’ before shaking it off all the way to a gold medallion at the State swimming championships. But let’s be honest, he wasn’t going to be an Olympic swimmer.

Then there have been the various chumps I’ve taught who play soccer/football. They run around on the bitumen surfaced playgrounds of inner London, unwittingly wearing down the studs on their football boots designed for grass surfaces. They spend their evenings glued to the controller of their console getting a computer-rendered Ronaldo to score virtual goals, and somehow under the misunderstanding that these fine-motor skills they’ve developed with their chubby digits will migrate down their spine into their feet. None of them spend time on a real (i.e. grass) pitch, nor are they part of any football club, even within school. Some of my students have, honest to God, thought they would be headhunted from the playground by talent scout passing by the school gate on their way to the supermarket. Most recently one of the dafter students in class, would blather on at length about his guaranteed position in the Premier League. He was aged 11. My teaching assistant at the time saw fit to revel in ridiculing his lack of ability at every turn. Highly unprofessional, I’m sure. But the child’s delusions of grandeur (and his father’s for that matter – a gentleman who saw fit to fuel his son’s narcissism) were unlikely to lead to him pulling a Swifty to hashtag ‘players gonna play, play, play, play, play’ and shake it off into a real life FIFA tournament.

Every child in their mirror clutching their hairbrush and belting their lungs out, under the  misapprehension a record deal will befall them because Simon Cowell will overhear them humming the theme tune to Home and Away in the gluten-free aisle of Woolworths.

Every child, gazing into their webcam, providing inane commentary of their walkthrough of Fortnite, screen-capturing every moment of combat blow-by-blow in the lofty hope their YouTube channel will be met by a landslide of views and likes that amount to billions of dollars in cryptocurrency.

Every child rehearsing their Oscar acceptance speech in the mirror, because Olivia Colman told them “any girl who’s practising her speech on the telly, you never know!”

Celebrities, magazines, musicians, stage-parents, motivational posters; they are all responsible for the hyperbole that leads children to believe they can achieve anything. So, what would happen if we spread a message of mediocrity alongside satisfaction?

I belatedly went to watch puppet musical Avenue Q, at the Wimbledon Theatre, and was struck by the truth talking of the song ‘For Now’, containing the lyrics: “You’re going to have to make some compromises for now. But only for now…”

While Avenue Q’s sentiment is the antithesis to the life-affirming messages of Sesame Street, could a song like ‘For Now’ set more realistic expectations? Would we be more satisfied or merely complacent? What is the difference between ambition and delusion?

Ultimately the question dangles above many of us like the sword of Damocles ready to slice our childhood into adult size chunks: When do we give up on our childhood dreams?

Perhaps it would be best to never give up. It is certainly a bad plan to stagnate. Bilbo Baggins taught us that when he thought, “Go back?… No not at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”

It’s easy to preach tenacity to children to obtain what they want – to instil self-belief. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to do the same. To push through to the next level. Keep the goal in sight.

I sometimes find myself in a loop of listening to Diana Ross telling Big Bird to believe in himself. Perhaps the messages of Sesame Street are more apt for us to follow than the easy cynicism of the jaded characters in Avenue Q. Perhaps we must return to our childhood for advice on our living our adulthood. Diana Ross singing Believe in Yourself is certainly more powerful than any self-talk cassette tape: “What seems right to them, quite often might be wrong for you. So make sure you try to climb before you get too scared you’ll fall.”

Or perhaps it’s a balance of expectations.

No answers here.

Training Teachers to Kill – Film Review

People argue the teacher is having to adapt and become counsellor, surrogate parent, nutritionist, advisor, baby-sitter and so forth. Now add to the mix security officer – or at least that’s the way Ohio county sheriff (and loyal Trump supporter) Richard K Jones would have it in Channel 4’s documentary Teachers Training To Kill.

In the wake of a shooting in one of the local schools, Sheriff Jones decides it would be best to provide gun training for teachers and arm a number of staff members in each of the schools. Thankfully, by the end of the documentary there is only one school which takes up the scheme of arming teaching staff with guns. Regrettably, that’s one school too many.

In the process many schools run training sessions for their staff at local shooting ranges and simulate school shootings to prepare teachers.

For the majority of the profession, teachers have sat through dull training sessions at work finding out about the latest curriculum developments. Team building sessions have perhaps been spent doing trust exercises or coming up with school values made from acronym-ising the school name. But running a shooting session at the gun club seems an extreme step for jazzing up a professional development session. Surely, they could have just got a glitter cannon for the guest speaker or put the budget towards a few extra curried-egg sandwiches.

There are many concerning aspects to this situation and gun use in general. I will just touch upon one aspect in this very complex issue.

I want to focus on the thought process of staff who agree to carrying guns around the school. I find it hard enough to swallow being given an extra yard duty shift, let alone if I were asked to start wearing a gun under my jacket.

Has the brainwashing of the state become so strong that people wouldn’t even question the conflicting ethics of protecting children, by carrying a gun to massacre other children?

The staff who were filmed taking part in the staff training days, appeared to be treating the whole thing with the same light-heartedness most of us take to a work social at the bowls club.

They were being trained to be killers and seemed ok with that. How does one go from being an idealist who wants to teach youngsters Pythagoras’ theorem to a vigilante who is prepared to shoot down the very same students?

It’s just not in the job description. I would have become a security guard, armed soldier or police officer if I thought I wanted a career that may require me to shoot someone dead. I just don’t have it in me. I get squeamish doing rat dissections.

It’s rare that I find myself floored by someone’s logic. Usually I can do the old, “Well, I suppose if I was in their situation, I’d maybe do (insert x, y and z)”.

But to think that I might spend my working day photocopying, sharpening pencils and marking books, yet every once in a while, I may need to shoot down a child point blank, I would not be able to do that. I don’t know who these people are who think that they can. And I doubt that they will be able to.

The main thing I took away, from watching this documentary, was that I am thankful I do not work in a part of the world where this happens.

Night School – Film Review

Tiffany Haddish’s character is a high school teacher earning an extra buck running the night school classes for grown-ups trying to pass their leaving exams. Kevin Hart, one of her adult students, storms in on her at one point, when she is in the middle of giving additional help to a struggling young student.

It is not an uncommon situation to find the giving teacher providing additional support, homework or counsel to a young child. Sure, teachers can clock on and clock off when the bell tolls, but many don’t. They are thinking about their young proteges most of the time.

That’s not to say Haddish is playing a self-sacrificing  character like Hilary Swank in Freedom Boys. She’s not that type of teacher. In fact, despite the broader slapstick elements of Night School, Haddish embodies a more balanced approach with a matter-of-fact approach to education. She’s not overly invested. If she sees a problem, she fixes it. When Hart’s character thinks she’s emotionally invested, she cuts him down a few pegs and tells him to get over himself.

She sees teaching as a job, and she does a good job. She goes beyond the call of duty, where there is a need, but she doesn’t let it tangle up with her personal life.

If we could all take a piece of pedagogical style from this film, we’d have injected a well needed counter-weight to the molly-coddling sentiment of some of the currently fashionable teaching trends, without of course losing our humanity.

Kid #32 – Guitar Virtuoso

The thirty-second kid I hated thought he could play the guitar.

Thought he was a real-life juvenile Jimi Hendrix, a snotty-nosed Slava Grigoryan, a tiny Tommy Emmanuel.

‘Thought’ was the operative word. ‘Play’ was a lofty dream of what he wanted to do with the guitar. ‘Owned’ was a more apt description of his relationship with the guitar.

The thirty-third kid owned a guitar.

He owned it in the sense that a person experiencing a midlife crisis owns a guitar, because they listened to too many Santana songs so thought they’d give it a good old-fashioned go themselves. They watch a few YouTube videos, pay half their live-savings towards private lessons and, when they get to the advanced stages of Deep Purple’s insidious Smoke on the Water guitar riff (the Chopsticks of the guitar), give up to instead frame the instrument for hanging in the pool room, while pursuing a macramé course.

The difficulty with this child was the YouTube videos he had watched were of Piano Cat, he had only paid £2 to be taught in a group of twenty children and, most problematically, he hadn’t given up. He just kept coming back. Every time we had guitar club, there he would be flapping his sticky flapjack-crumb-covered fingers on the fret board, massacring the chords to Michael Row the Boat Ashore.

Now, to put the ‘guitar club’ into perspective, the British education system has in the past many years hatched a half-cocked hairbrained scheme to have extra-curricular clubs outside of school hours. Clubs are usually hosted by staff working overtime, who are being compensated with time in lieu, a fistful of coins or a pat on the back. Meanwhile, the school can smugly show off to parents, top up the petty cash tin and earn a little tick in a box from the inspectors.

The reality for parents is their child will be baby sat for a cheaper rate than the normal after-school childcare services or the cost of a nanny.

In the case of this child, it was probably just to keep him out of the house for an extra hour. He was extremely hyperactive and the additional time away from home was most likely sweet relief for his folks. His parents were always very adamant that he held a deep passion for guitar, but then he also attended Lego club, cooking club, football club and origami club. Maybe he was an all-rounder.

“He just loves guitar club,” his mother would gush.

“He waits all week for guitar club.”

“He’s always practising at home.”

“He wants to be able to play like his uncle.”

Not to cast aspersions, but the way this student treated his guitar left one to think his uncle was some type of Antonia Banderas character toting a guitar-case loaded with weaponry. The child was prone to tantrums and aggressions. In contrast to my own upbringing where I was told to wash my hands before handling musical instruments, this child would have used the six-stringed song-maker as a dinner plate, given the opportunity.

We’d barely get through the first chord of Twinkle Twinkle and he’d be setting upon one of the children a few years younger. One lesson, we barely got to the end of the SpongeBob SquarePants Theme song, because of the disruption he caused. He’d be giving funny looks to the kids, speaking over the top of others and running in and out of the room. He was a complete nuisance and when you’ve got a room full of novice guitarists under the age of ten, the last thing you need is any distraction. Then when he’d finally settle, we’d still be waylaid by a plectrum falling into another child’s guitar or a string falling out of tune on the bright pink guitar one girl had purchased from Poundland – this is what she claimed, despite my scepticism that you’d even manufacture one tuning peg for less than five pounds. A group setting was not the place for guitar lessons, and it was not the place for this menace.

The school itself was not doing itself any favours. The headteacher at the time appeared confused as to the concept of reward and consequence. On one occasion after throwing a temper tantrum in class, we wandered past the headteacher’s office to see this belligerent pest eating ice-cream. On another occasion, after throwing a shoe at a student, we walked past to find said child being asked his opinion on the proposed plans for a proposed new half-million-dollar playground. It was at that point I figured we could forgo the weekly £2 club fee by getting rid of him altogether – the school was clearly saving money on consultancy fees so wouldn’t miss a couple of pounds.

I politely suggested to the mother that guitar wasn’t for this child. She seemed surprised. She mentioned something about how he was practicing a lot with uncle. I wondered quietly to myself whether she’d confused the guitar with the guns, because they both started with the letter ‘G’. Either way it seemed he was going nowhere. So instead he remained. My sanity did not. Neither did several of the other children who became fed up and left.

It seemed a case of ‘he who plays discordantly the loudest shall be heard’. And upon reflection, the purpose of much rock ‘n’ roll music is to manically release stress by banging membranophones, shouting into a microphone and slapping your hand across some nylon strings. It was probably good relief for this child to have an outlet.

I found my relief on the bus home listening to James Taylor.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween – Film Review

The scariest part of this film was spit balls.

“People respect us around here,” states Sam (Caleel Harris) as a saliva drenched portion of paper smacks into his face.

The projectile has been shot by the head jock and his cronies, who are now sniggering to themselves while referring affectionately to Sam and his offsider Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) as the ‘Junk Bros’.

“Spit Wads! What are you, nine?” retorts Sam.

And he raises a pertinent question. What is an appropriate age to begin using these phlegmy missiles?

I’m sitting in the darkened cinema surrounded by eight, nine, ten and eleven-year-old students, who luckily do not have the ingenuity or skills to engineer a ben into a missile launcher. But nothing turns my stomach like spit balls – or ‘wads’ as the American appears to phrase it in Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. Let’s be honest, they weren’t great as a child. I recall some of our classrooms having high ceilings, which allowed for a large target space above the whiteboards in each room. There was always some layer of encrusted paper framing the top of the board in an avant-garde papier-mache design.

As with all fads, there were long periods of time where nerd or vulnerable teacher would be free from onslaught in the creation of these paper-pulp pastiches. But when the trend was at large, you’d be living on a knife’s edge (probably the same edge of the knife used to dismantle the biro being used for the gun barrel).

Despite Sam implying it is a juvenile activity best suited for children in the single digit age bracket, students as old as seventeen have been known to assemble artillery from the art-supplies graveyard in pursuit of oppressing the weaker of the schoolyard species.

So, although this film features razor-toothed gummy bears, pick-axe-wielding garden gnomes, a jack-o-lantern-headed humanoid and the menacing ventriloquist doll Slappy, there is nothing that raises the hair on my back more than the inclusion of the loaded spit wad shooter. I’m glad to have avoided falling victim to its wrath.

How to talk to boys (about haircuts and girls)

“You’re going to have all the girls at school chasing after you tomorrow.”

This was the problematic remark made by a mother about her son’s haircut, when I was waiting for my own hairs to be cut earlier this week.

It is one of many tropes uttered without thought as to the wider implications of the relationship we have between the sexes and that which we have with ourselves.

In one foul swoop the mother has reduced her son’s interaction with women to that of a satin bowerbird collecting blue bottle tops for his nest. She sets up for him some sort of Georgie-Porgie, pudding and pie scenario where he’ll have a sex-crazed flock of girls swooning after his lusciously lopped locks. There’s a solid notion that he is somehow a reverse Samson whose newly cut hair will provide prowess to attract women.

Let’s start with the mother’s own relationship with men and how this statement may reflect her outlook on the male species. She obviously likes a well-manicured crop of hair on male heads, as she happily sat providing commentary for the duration of both her sons’ haircuts, and then her husband’s. Is it too much of an extrapolation to assume that the main thing attracting her to her own husband was his haircut? Probably (and hopefully) not. Yet she made the above throw-away remark, which would insinuate that this was the main thing – not his personality or intellect. It puts her in a position of appearing superficial if we are to assume haircuts are the main attraction she has to men.

Secondly, let’s think about the boy. It doesn’t do positive things for his self esteem to be told that he’s defining feature of attraction is the follicles on his noggin. There’s much dialogue surrounding the default position of complimenting young girls on their appearance, when adults can’t think of any other ways of engaging. To flip an old adage on its newly shaven head, ‘even if you only have nice things to say, you should on some occasions still say nothing at all’.

Phrases such as “what a pretty set of shoes”, or “what a lovely bow”, or “what a sweet smile you have” are no longer welcome, as they put primary value on appearance. Similarly, boys should be built to value their positive traits and abilities. The boy has made no contribution to the growing of his hair, nor the cutting of his hair. So why make him value it as a strong feature. That’s not to take away from the need to have pride in appearance and professionalism that a neat hairdo brings. But this should be for the purpose of his own pride of self and not for the enticement of the female species.

Finally, and most damagingly, the mother’s remark devalues women. The boy will be left with the impression that one of the main interests of girls is hair. She didn’t say “some girls”. She didn’t say “maybe a girl”. She didn’t say “a few girls”. She said “all” the girls. That’s right. All of the female students at the school will be chasing after him tomorrow. (Without considering the fact that it would be vastly intimidating to be chased by a lynch mob of people enamoured by the way your hair was sculpted) it is not a sensible notion, to give an impressionable young man, that women are so vacuous as to only be concerned with a man’s appearance from the eyebrow’s up.

An innocuous comment can hold clues to a deeper set of values. And in this case I think some reflection is needed – not to mention that perhaps Harry Haircut may want “all” the boys at school to notice his haircut. His mother didn’t think of that either.