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.

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.

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.

I see you’ve played ‘Knifey Spooney’ before

Last week I found myself covering a nursery class and being asked to cut their lunch up. These children would have been between two to four years of age. There was a range of fine motor skills on show, with the more dextrous students neatly piercing the fork tines into their roast chicken and gently slicing through the cooked flesh with their oxymoronic safety knives. In the middle ground there were: those who held their implements like pens, those with the knife and fork interchanging between hands, and those using a spoon as a knife.

The remaining students – let’s call them the ‘Remedial Diners’ Club’ – were salivating into their plates knowing enough table etiquette to restrain from using fingers, but too dyspraxic to fasten a grip on their cutlery to succeed in the daily task of eating lunch.

So it was, I found myself circumnavigating the dining hall performing dissections on not only roast chicken, but also potatoes, beans and various other legumes. Furiously, I muttered to myself about the disservice parents had done by not educating their children before they left the family dinner table. But then I looked up to find other adults were also cutting food for these youngsters, further compounding the problem. Not that it is often the responsibility of educators to branch out beyond the usual topics of numeracy and literacy, into realms of topics such as ‘how to eat food’; but it struck me that teaching the children what to do would save time in the long run. These children were not being equipped for the coming years of independent food consumption. I could see that students in Year One and Two were also being given the silver service treatment of pre-cut food. I half expected to see a staff member mimic how a mother bird feeds its young, chewing the canteen lunch and regurgitating it into the mouth of one of these infants.

As I stood there guiding another student’s hands into the correct holding position, I began questioning myself. When had I started to use cutlery? It was in the blurred years between living memory and those early years which are mere fragments of sights, sounds and smells of my early existence. Was my subconscious obsession with correct cutlery use a mere relic of my own particular upbringing? Was correct handling of a fork not valued in all households?

I decided to check with another friend, who I knew would happily lament the misuse of cutlery in modern society. They too were raised to eat dinner in the late 1980s, when corncob skewers held your corn, prawns were eaten with a cocktail fork and every meal was presented in a CorningWare Wildflower baking dish or casserole (look it up – you’ll recognise the flower pattern when you see it).

They too could not particularly recall the exact moment they started using cutlery correctly, so assumed it was somewhere around the age of three or four. They also highlighted a special pushing implement I had not heard of. Apparently it is called a ‘baby food pusher’, appearing to date back to at least the 1920s thus confirming my friend’s suspicion that they had an ‘old-fashioned’ upbringing.

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The pusher (see above) is used in place of a knife to teach children to push the food onto the back of their fork. That’s right! The back of the fork! Check Debrett’s Handbook of Modern Manners and you’ll discover even peas must be collected on your fork with mash potato. No shovelling allowed:

If using a knife and fork together, always keep the tines of the fork pointing downwards and push the food on to the fork. It may be necessary to use mashed potato to make peas stick to the fork but it is incorrect to turn the fork over and scoop.

Now, based on my haphazard research, the consensus seemed to be that by kindergarten age, children should be able to use cutlery. I checked with my six month old nephew, who has recently graduated from milk to solids. When I asked him whether he’d begun using cutlery his answer was incomprehensible. So, I checked with his parents who told me he was still reliant on other humans creating spoon simulations of locomotives and aircrafts to guide the food into his mouth. They also quoted a parenting book as saying that it was all ‘spoons and hands up to 12 months of age’.

This at least narrowed the field of cutlery handling to somewhere within the toddler wasteland of one to three years old. I checked in with an old work buddy who has spent many years of their professional life teaching children younger than five. They also confirmed they had “absolutely” started using cutlery by primary age. So, I knew there would be no complimentary carving of food in their classroom.

But then I checked in with an Indian friend who claimed they used their hands until they were five years old. Then they clarified it was probably three years old and offered to take me to dinner to prove it. I took them up on their offer, where we ate our curry using cutlery. Perhaps British values of cutlery-use have pressured conformity on those who have other plate-to-mouth methods. My Indian friend also pointed out how odd they found it when they first went to school and saw a girl using knife and fork to eat some roti.

Perhaps the children who were struggling with their cutlery in the dinner hall were not incompetent after all. Perhaps they were just unfamiliar and should be left to eat food the way they were used to at home; mopping up their pasta sauce with a chapatti, eating roast beef with chopsticks and peeling a banana with a runcible spoon.

Cutlery etiquette is all very confusing and leaves you in a hey diddle diddle. No wonder the dish forked off with the spoon.