When I was seven I had a maths book at school that included ‘fun’ little investigations. For one such task I had to record the eye colour of the pupils in my class and then make a bar chart. I had never before done such a task and quickly got caught up in two serious problems.
The first problem was that eye colour didn’t seem to fit their categories. If someone had greeny/grey eyes then should they go under ‘green’ or ‘grey’? Now I can see that as a positive learning experience about the reality of people – people don’t fit categories well and when we try to categorise people it usually involves some distortion of the truth. But at seven this was a major worry.
The second was the fact that I had never tried to get information from a large group of people before so I just started randomly recording colours without noting down who I had asked. This quickly became impossible as I wasn’t sure who I’d asked and who I hadn’t. Now this too was a valuable learning experience, as anyone who has attempted to take accurate tea and coffee orders for a large group will tell you. But it added to the mess in my notebook and the general confusion in my mind.
I do remember the confusion, but the overwhelming emotion that colours my memory of this maths investigation is panic. The kind of sick panic that keeps re-surfacing in your mind when you are trying not to think about your worry. I can remember sleepless nights and the inevitable note from my mum to explain to my teacher that I was ‘a bit worried’ about my maths. And then the horrible moment of having to stand by her desk while she inspected my book and all the messy evidence of my failed attempts.
Getting things wrong was not a common experience for me at primary school. I have one or two other memories of similar situations, but no more than that. You see, I was ‘clever’ and ‘good’, which in school terms meant that I found most of what I was asked to do obvious and that I did as I was told – to the point of obsession. I could write a whole separate piece on what ‘good’ meant and the fear that bubbled inside me for years, fear of accidentally breaking some rule I didn’t know about. But the ‘clever’ bit was just as powerful, and possibly more so, as it persisted throughout my years in formal education.
I can remember the hot tide of blush sweeping up my face when I was faced with a blank look from my RE teacher in answer to this exchange.
“Now, who knows what a missionary is?”
My hand goes up – as usual.
“It’s a person who is paid to go to foreign countries and kill people.”
Well, I’d been listening to my big brother’s records and had asked him about the song “Oliver’s Army”, by Elvis Costello. So he’d given me a nice simple explanation all about mercenaries…
I was about eight when that one happened, but I can remember one even younger – when I was in reception, aged five. I had to write some sentences and for some reason, that day, I couldn’t get the letters to go small. I can remember looking at my book and willing the letters to get smaller as I wrote them. But, that day, they just wouldn’t. I went to queue up at the teacher’s desk and waited, the same sick feeling rising in my throat.
“Annalie, dear me, now what a mess this is. What would your mother think if she saw this at parent’s evening next week?”
I couldn’t imagine that my mum would care, my mum would be hugging me if she was here, I wouldn’t have this sick feeling.
“Now, we’ll stick this piece of paper over the messy writing and you can go and do it again.”
And the worst, the worst part of this memory is that the same thing happened. I looked at my hand, I willed the writing to be smaller, and the letters kept coming out big, round, blobby. I had to go out to play knowing that the teacher was disappointed in me.
Now I can’t believe that anything so small, so silly is lodged there in my memory. I can’t help but wonder if the teachers involved had the tiniest inkling of what their words, their looks, felt like to me.
It is often assumed that it is not the ‘clever’ kids who suffer in school. I wouldn’t want to claim that I had a worse time than the children who couldn’t read or write, who never knew the answer, who were told off every day. But it has taken me years to realise that being labelled ‘clever’ was not healthy for me. The acute anxiety I felt until I was eight or nine was like carrying a weight around. I can remember the overwhelming joy of Friday walks home from school. At home I was just me.
Even if I became more confident later on I still felt the pressure not to make mistakes, to know the answer, to live up to the teacher’s expectations. By secondary school I was in a stream of ‘clever’ kids. People in the ‘x band’ did Latin, got hours of home work and were constantly reminded that we were the ones who were expected to get good ‘o’ levels and so on. I got increasingly bolshy, but that was often a cover for the persistent fear that I would ‘let someone down’ by revealing all the things I didn’t know.
When I started my first Saturday job I was diligent, as expected, and I could get those ladybird books sorted into alphabetical order quicker than you could say ‘knife’. But it took me years, literally years, of shop work to be confident in my interactions with customers and colleagues. I’d answer the phone before I’d even picked up a pen, and in my panic fail to take in anything that the caller was saying. I didn’t realise for a long time that you could say, outright, that you didn’t know the answer to a question but that you would find out. I’d stand there, filled with shame because I couldn’t remember if we took Berlitz travel guides and I knew I had been told. It took me a while to realise that the customers just wanted me to be helpful, not give them perfect answers!
I think that it is only really in the years since I have become a parent that I have let go the anxiety of being a ‘clever girl’. I now care very little what people think of me. I know what I know and I can do what I can do. When I don’t know I just ask – it’s so simple!
What makes me hopeful is that my children don’t seem to have much anxiety about how ‘clever’ they are. They don’t judge their friends by ‘cleverness’ either. Both children have friends who can’t read yet and it means little to them. In school it took Pearlie about a term to get firmly settled into a peer group of other little ‘clever’ girls – all in the same group for literacy and numeracy. In the world of home ed she just accepts that people have different skills, talents, interests and desires.
It has to be healthier for children not to be constantly ranking themselves and others. It has to be healthier for children to feel safe to ask questions, to make mistakes. In school life gets made into a race and I think it is a race that everyone loses, even the ‘winners’.
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