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.

Kid #29 – Mommie Dearest

The twenty-ninth kid I hated had a name that sounded like an alcoholic beverage spelt backwards.

She was the real ‘Regina George’ of the playground. Nine years old and a real piece of work. It was scary enough encountering her as a teacher. I daren’t like to think how the other students in my class dealt with her hysteria.

Worse than the student herself, was her mother. The apple had not simply fallen close to the tree, but appeared to have been cloned.

My first encounter with the mother was as I brought the children into the playground on my first day of teaching that class, and had the pleasure of being sworn at, a walking stick waved in my face and a fair amount of shouting – not ‘raised voice’ but shouting. Apparently, another student was in tears because I’d told them to stand in line quietly. The child I was being accosted about, didn’t even belong to this raging lady.

Mostly due to shock, I can’t remember the rest of the encounter. But I most likely did my silent ignoring, head-shaking, frowning and general retreating-behaviour that happens when I’m faced with confrontation. There was no polite smiling and nodding. I let her be on her merry way, thinking to myself that if this was how she defended someone else’s child, I didn’t want to be in the crossfire when she defended her own daughter.

It turned out that crossfire could not come too soon. Her daughter would intimidate other students, steal their stationery, swear at them when no one was looking, pinch them, punch them and spread malicious lies. She was a class A ‘b’-word. However, she was equally cunning and could never be pinned for any wrong doing. She had become so expert at her subversive tirade on other students and her pathological lying that her coating of Teflon was beginning to form an entire suit of armour. Additionally, when her mother arrived to discuss any misgivings the school had about her daughter, she would begin ranting again, waving her pretend walking stick and inevitably leave a receptionist or manager in tears.

Now perhaps I empathised too much with Janis Ian and friends in Mean Girls, or perhaps I had been watching too many detective programs at the time (namely Wildside, which is an Australian series set in the gritty underbelly of Sydney’s suburbs and often sees rogue detective Tony Martin – the actor, not the comedian – slamming down his hand on interrogation tables); but I found myself making it my mission to catch this monster out.

The usual method was to accept any accusations the other children made. I’d take their side 99 per cent of the time to see if she’d crack. But she held tight, accepting no blame. This approach would lead to another complaint by the mother.

Sometimes I’d go with the more nurturing approach of sitting quietly and talking about the right thing to do, in an attempt, to check whether her conscience would kick in. It did not. Instead it further affirmed our suspicions of her sociopathic tendencies. Also, this approach would lead to another complaint by the mother.

And finally, the crème-del-a-crème was when beyond doubt she had caused another ruckus amongst her friends by gossip-mongering and – this is where my behaviour management style became a bit too much bad cop bad cop – I knelt down to be at eye-level and repeatedly asked “Did you call such-n-such a such-n-such?”

She didn’t crack.

The insistent repeating-of-the-question technique had worked in the televisual law enforcement programs when the detective was trying to get a confession from the ring leader of an international drug cartel. Why had it not cracked the nine-year-old?

And again, this approach led to another complaint by the mother and a meeting with the father, mother and daughter.

I would later find out that this pattern of complaint had repeated itself every year. Other staff would give me long lists of colleagues who had momentarily caught the ire, of these parents and their offspring, for months or a year at a time.

“Oh, you’re teaching that class,” they’d say. “Look out for that girl’s mother.”

“Oh, thanks for the heads-up,” I’d say. “It’s too late.”

It can’t quite be captured with words the level to which she and her mother terrorised the other staff and students. But the mere utterance of her name would normally trigger a fleeting spasm in the eyeball of whoever heard the name mentioned.

After that final meeting and a precarious understanding was met, the mother became almost polite, when collecting her child in the afternoons. The strained attempt at being decent was perhaps more unsettling than the reckless abuse she was more used to wielding. Nevertheless, all our careers felt less at risk of being destroyed on the whim of one of her outrageous accusations.

There was of course the complaint that I’d tried to strangle another student.

“Now, I know this wasn’t my daughter,” said the heinous mother, “but my daughter did see you pull on the backpack of another girl and almost choke her around the neck.”

More than likely that other girl had barged onto a bus, knocking over a senior citizen, and I’d reacted by loosely grabbing the top of her backpack as she continued to lunge forward self-inflicting her own asphyxiation.

Either way, I nodded politely, she made her complaint, I noticed she wasn’t using her walking stick anymore and then she wandered off into the distance for another day. At least now she was complaining about my mistreatment of other people’s children again, and not her own demonic offspring. We’d come full circle.

I headed back to the staffroom where we put our feet up on the desks, knocked back a strong cup of coffee, crossed another suspect off our watchlist and laughed heartily about how tough life on the beat was.

Or did that happen in an episode of The Bill? I can’t recall.

Kid #24 – Hyperactivity

The twenty-fourth kid I hated had ADHD.

Having been brought up in a generation where ADHD was sniffed at as a cure-all for misbehaviour, I still have apprehensive cynicism when I first meet such children. Yet this child would be the child to blow numerous misconceptions I had about the condition out of the water.

To begin, he certainly had attention deficits. You would be working with him individually on a task, where he’d be acting engaged and enthused. But turn your head for a moment to give attention elsewhere, and he’d have caused mischief to another unsuspecting member of the room.

He was also hyperactive. He was always dancing (except for one occasion when he was supposed to be dancing, and then refused). The rest of the class were lined in regiment ready to commence the day and he’d be James Brown shoe shuffling, krumping or moonwalking his way up and down the line.

When he had finally been commanded to a stationary position his knee would be twitching in anticipation of his next jazz split.

But worst of all was when his ADHD manifested itself as anger. He could be triggered into full blown tantrums or attacks with very little provocation. This of course incited his peers to find various ways of chiding him into unbridled hysteria. As in adult life, psychological warfare is less frowned upon than hand-to-hand combat. So the kiddely-winks took the opportunity to create situations of paranoia which would eventual lead the child to an outburst of violence.

The fact he’d hit someone in the head was easily proven, but the jeering, teasing and subversive undermining of his character was always hard to pin point. So, inevitably he was the one who’d find himself standing in isolation outside the staff room during lunchtimes.

The general lack of acceptance led him, on a number of occasions, to create rather contrived stories. He was forever banging on about his mother’s promise to take him on a trip to Jamaica. He also claimed one of his Jamaican cousins had arranged a romantic liaison for him with a nice young girl via Skype.

On one occasion he brought to class a series of handwritten notes from the ‘girlfriend’, arising much suspicion considering it was supposed to be an online relationship. Also, most of the notes were only a couple of sentences, meaning it would have been a lengthy exchange of messages if they had indeed been posted back and forward between the UK and the Caribbean using the British postal system.

There was also a level of censorship required with this child. Most of his peers were still under the impression that babies came from cabbage patches, storks or Amazon’s home delivery service. But the ADHD kid spent a lot of time hanging around older cousins and had clearly been informed about the birds and bees, and a few species in-between.

It took me a while to pick the glint in his eye when he was heading down the path of one of his more inappropriate tales – tales that would be rated PG in comparison to his Skype dalliance. One such tale involved him wandering down a beach and spotting a group of people lain near the water. He told the story with such flare and embellishment, including details of seagulls, sandcastles and pelicans, I was caught unawares when he concluded with his punchline: “And then I saw that one of the girls wasn’t wearing a top and I could see her boobies!”

The conclusion was met with raucous laughter from the class, again fuelling his delicate ego and curing his low self-esteem.

The adults around him must have been reasonably doubtful and untrusting of him; myself included – not undue to stories such as the one previously mentioned. He always needed to prove himself in cold hard fact. Perhaps it was a self-aware case of ‘the boy who cried wolf’.

One particular weekend, after a long absence by his father, the young lad spent a day with his father in Leicester Square visiting M & M World and the cinema. He returned to school the following Monday with his ticket stubs from Wreck-It Ralph (an apt choice of film, due to his own tendencies towards destruction). It was one of the saddest things I’ve seen. Normally telling people you’ve seen a movie and verifying a few plot points suffices in convincing them you have indeed viewed the film. Yet here was a child so desperate to prove the existence of a promise his father had delivered on, that he brought in a couple of torn ticket stubs.

Or perhaps he had stolen them from a bin outside Odeon.

He was an insecure sweet heart at the best of times and an infuriatingly stubborn child at others. It was his stubborn misbehaviour that led to him being banned from performing in the Easter play, being banned from making homemade bread with the class, and causing the football coach to have a meltdown and resign.

His inability to process thoughts, his relentless fidgeting and social ineptness are now my benchmark for ADHD. He convinced me there is a need to deal with such children in a different manner to those without the condition.

I even choked up a little bit on his last day, at the thought of him being left out in the ruthless world of high school where he’d probably be thrown to the dogs for his abrasiveness. A world where ADHD is a dirty word and you’re expected to do what you’re told when you’re told.

But if I ever met him again somewhere in the Caribbean, I doubt I’d shout him a Pina Colada.

Tale of Tales – Film Review

It’s that age old story; woman (Salma Hayek) can’t get pregnant, she and her husband (John C Reilly) get a visit from a magical old man, magical old man tells them to retrieve the heart of a magical underwater dragon and eat it raw.

It’s the sort of thing that makes In vitro fertilisation look like a swim in the lake. In this case it was a swim in the lake, but it was a more difficult swim in the lake because the king had to slaughter the dragon so his wife could eat the heart.

It’s enjoyable how this film taps into the human condition and vulnerabilities, despite its fanciful fairytale setting. Most specifically the story above deals with all the complexities surrounding the desire for parenthood.

Where modern stories would see a barren character head to the fertility clinic, Tale of Tales heads to the magical dragon. Perhaps this is a story as old as time. Both Into the Woods and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, are based on fairy tales dealing with parents who can’t produce offspring.

The themes of youth and childrearing don’t end there. Hayek’s albino son leaves her abandoned in a maze at one point – a mean trick to play on anyone’s mother; another king (Toby Jones) becomes more obsessed doting on his pet flea than his teenage daughter (Bebe Cave); and an old woman (Hayley Carmichael) convinces a witch to turn her into an younger and extremely pretty version of herself (Stacey Martin).

Adults wanting kids to love, kids wanting adults to love them, and adults wanting to be kids so adults love them. It’s a complex playing out of an inherent want for acceptance and purpose.

The film transcends its fairy tale environment to spin some of the oldest fairy tales, in the world (they are from The Pentamerone), into a cinematic masterpiece of fantasy that trumps similar fare like Stardust, Ella Enchanted and dare I say it The Princess Bride.

Kid #22 – The naughtiest child ever

The twenty second-kid I hated was the worst child I’d ever taught.

Or at least that’s what I told him, or rather death-whispered it in his ear as I dismissed him.

It probably wasn’t even true. I’d taught worse (Kid number two, for instance was a lot worse).

Kid number 22 was a very naughty boy. I only taught him for one day, but his behaviour stood out as so delinquent there was little left to do than give him a piece of my mind. He was a product of his home, yet also the school he attended.

When I arrived in the morning to cover his Year Three class, I was told by the deputy, “Don’t worry too much about getting anything done. Just baby-sit them for the day and their normal teacher will be able to sort anything out tomorrow”.

This was an ominous sign. I felt an urge to excuse myself and return to bed, sacrificing that day’s pay. Instead, I went against my better judgement and began setting up the classroom.

As the morning bell rang the cacophonous stampede of size 7-12 leather Clarks could be heard galloping up the stairwell and spilling into the upstairs corridor. I braced myself against the door-jam of the classroom, ready to politely (but firmly) greet each child.

Then the whooping started.

“Yes, it’s a supply teacher!”; “Awesome, Mrs Smithsworthy isn’t in today!”; “We’re not going to do any work today!”

How did these kids even know what a ‘supply teacher’ is? Most kids under the age of 13 are too self-consumed to see past their left elbow. They’re caught up in their own little world. Sometimes, I’d be halfway through a day’s work, before certain kids would realise I wasn’t their normal teacher.

Perhaps the deputy had spoken with them in the playground and told them the same thing he told me.

And there was kid number 22. His face was permanently scarred with a mischievous slash psychopathic grin, ready to cause chaos; a delinquent at the age of seven. He had one of those haircuts where everything is shaved short except for the mullet fringe at the back. Not that a haircut is reason to judge what a personality will be like, but sometimes a personality is a reason to judge what a haircut will be like.

The child was full of expletives, immediately escalating himself to a morning break detention. The rest of the class wasn’t far behind, paying such little attention to the lesson that I had to drop Maths for the day to spend time going through the ‘Golden Rules’ chart on the pin-up board.

It was at this point I became more infuriated. It seemed the children had a comprehensive knowledge of what the classroom expectations were, but had consciously chosen to flaunt them. Normally, I find younger children have misunderstandings of appropriate behaviour, whereas teenagers know the limits and choose to exceed them.

This Year Three class were acting like teenagers. They knew I was a cover teacher so had chosen to throw the ‘Golden Rules’ out the window along with a couple of pencils and one boy’s exercise book.

I’d not seen such collective self-awareness in young children for a long time, if ever. We finished re-vising the rules and how to behave normally, before ascending to the third floor of the building for a music lesson. The music specialist took this lesson, so I returned to the sanctuary of the now peaceful classroom.

A senior staff member popped her head in to see how things were going. I lied and said it was fine, hoping to myself that the time continuum would collapse on itself and it’d suddenly become 3.30pm.

She also asked where the teaching assistant was. I said I had seen a lady in the room earlier in the day. But she hadn’t said much.

The teaching assistant who was supposed to have been with these naughty children had seemingly gone AWOL. She too must have been told by the deputy that the day would be a right off; and I imagine she retreated to the photocopying room to regain whatever sanity she had lost dealing with these kids over the preceding months.

The peace was short-lived as four boys returned to the room prematurely. The twenty-second kid had been incessantly banging his drum, after being told to stop by the music teacher. His goons had joined in the fun by laughing evil laughs and egging him on.

Now they were my problem again. I made them write lines, which due to their illiteracy became one single line i.e. one line between the four of them.

Lunch came and went. The afternoon was marred by the Maths lesson we hadn’t completed in the morning and the kid, I had come to hate, threw his toys out the pram when I asked him to count to ten with some number blocks. The blocks were tossed from the metaphoric pram to the corner of the room, while he was guided to the opposite corner to sit in ‘time-out’.

This of course was short lived, because the sugar from the Walkers cheese and onion chips he’d eaten at lunch had clearly kicked in and caused him to have another burst of adrenaline. He began literally bouncing off walls and running into things.

It is children like this that make a good case for bringing back the dunce hat. Then at least there’d be something to weigh the child down with, so they’d find it harder to leave ‘time-out’.

The day finally ended and I escorted the children to the playground for pickup. Though, it was more like they escorted themselves out, as we had all had more than enough by then.

The naughty child was now hitting another child or sibling.

Then suddenly he spotted his parents walking in with his kick scooter.

So before he ran off to them, I bent down and whispered in his ear, “You are the worst [dramatic pause] child I have ever taught. And if I teach here again, I hope you improve your behaviour young man”.

I never did teach there again thank goodness, and the kid simply rode off into the distance, running over a little girl’s toe in the process.

Maybe the boy had a condition. Maybe I was harsh to whisper in his ear just to satisfy myself I’d gained some juvenile revenge. Really, someone within the school should have started addressing the breadth of misbehaviour. There was no need for that much naughtiness.

For me it was another day another dollar. And I never returned.

Perhaps things are better there now and the boy has been diagnosed with some form of deficit disorder.

But if I ever met him again, I doubt I’d join him on the halfpipe with my scooter.