Many years ago, well 17 years and seven months, pretty much to the day to be more precise, hubby and I took the boys to Disneyland Paris. It was the February half-term and my eldest was turning 6. Although money was a bit tight, we booked a hotel on site. The boys’ faces lit up when they saw Tigger entered the lobby of the hotel. It’s one of the magical things about childhood, the ability to see past a person dressed up, and imagine them to be this wondrous character from their videos or books.
My youngest was three and non-verbal at the time. He coyly walked behind Tigger; with his face full of nervousness, shyness and awe, he gently held Tigger’s tale with the delicateness you would use it Tigger’s tail was made of gossamer. He was shooed away by Tigger’s minder. This puzzled me since it was quite clear that had Tigger moved, Tigger would have been completely unaware that his tail was being held at all. I don’t know what effect it had on my son’s thinking at the time, but I knew the magical experience was broken, he let go of the tail like a hot potato. I quickly distracted him and we moved on. It was sad that Tigger’s minder could not differentiate between my son’s delicate touch from that of a marauding pirate.
The trip to Disney made at the lovely memories. We were browsing the gift shop and I fleetingly took my eyes off my youngest son. I instinctively knew that he hadn’t left the shop, I would have seen him in my peripheral vision, but he was gone. We searched the shop, we searched outside the doorway; he wasn’t there. I went back to where we were standing and looked down. My son had walked onto the bottom shelf and bedded down with the Pooh bears; he was all snuggled up. I didn’t berate him, I took a photo! It remains one of my most treasured pictures, one of those ones that would melt any mother’s heart, even if I say so myself. I’m not usually given over to such sentimentality, but this was Disney and this was the magic of childhood.
While it was my eldest’s birthday, I realise that I am relaying stories my youngest. On the morning of my eldest’s birthday, we took both boys to breakfast. We had paid out for a ‘character breakfast’, it was not cheap, but what price can you put on a birthday treat? My boys had been bought up to try a little bit of the options presented when at a buffet, and go back for more if they like something. I hate waste, and I really hate to see abandoned plates full of food. Just because you can freely help yourself, it doesn’t mean that you should. At six, my eldest was perfectly capable of selecting his own foods, and carrying his plate that table without fear of spillage. My youngest however, was still in the inbetween stage, so I collected breakfast for him. I spied the scrambled egg, and picked up about two teaspoonfuls. This went on the plate alongside a sausage, a rasher of bacon and some baked beans. Pluto wandered over, and my boys’ eyes opened wide. Pluto picked on my youngest and collected up a small amount of the egg onto a teaspoon, and popped it into my son’s mouth. My son had obliged by opening his mouth wide. Unfortunately, what Pluto didn’t know, was that my son hates the texture of egg. I had only put a tiny amount on his plate in the hope that he would change his mind. He hadn’t, the beaming smile on my son’s face turned into hilarity on everybody else’s when he spat the egg out onto the table. Pluto was having a hard job containing himself. He bent double, his shoulders going up and down!
What I find confusing is the idea that my son, when viewed through the lens of others’, would be painted as wayward, the product of bad parenting. His coy lack of eye contact with Tigger is a sign of weakness, something that will ensure that he will always miss out on ‘the’ job. This trait must be ‘removed’. Because he viewed the soft toys in the gift store through the lens of a small child, spoilt for choice, living the ‘dream’, he did not think to respond when his name was called. He must, therefore, be a defiant child, a child running wild. Should I go into egg-gate too? I think you get my drift.
We view others through the lens that we create. If we view women as weak, in need of protection of males, we project an image that all females are in danger. If we refer to boys, in general, as bandanna-wearing, baseball-capped thugs, our imagery wanders to the football hooligans who take over bars and restaurants, ruining the experiences of the ‘good’ people. It makes no difference whether ‘the event’ was a single person, the use of language is evocative, inciting prejudices. Coupling the image of thuggery with the need to protect ‘poor, and vulnerable women’, we create fear and inferiority. But where did that fear come from? In the case of a recent TV interview, it came from a man, a Head teacher, who also painted ‘men’ in the role of expert. His men were professionals, his women were weak. The conversation was not only there to incite fear, it also served to put down women in general. I was reminded of the war poem that I previously cited within one of my blog posts which went along the lines of: they came for […], but I was not […], so I didn’t speak out. Then they came for […], but I was not […], so I didn’t speak out. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.
I am very fearful of this kind of talk, the picking off of the most vulnerable tends to eventually lead to you. Who will be left to speak for you when everyone else has gone?
The way we interact is a major focus of psycho-social research. It is known that if we have low expectations of our students, our students may not make the progress that they would make if we viewed them as being capable of going on to university. It is called the Pygmalion effect, but we must first alter our own lenses in order to view others in terms of ability. When we see a ‘type’ of person or behaviour as a threat, we become blinded to their ability. A child who is unable to make eye contact is not a threat to the teacher, after all is a blind person a threat? The deaf were, at one point, considered a threat because of their sign language. Blinded by fear, their hands got tied to their chairs so they could not ‘covertly’ communicate. I was once told by my GP that I was ambitious for my son. It had never crossed my mind to ‘be’ ambitious, my role as mother was to nurture with the same gentle touch as my son used when touching Tigger’s tail. I’ve cupped my boys’ talents like I would a chrysalis, awaiting for them to grow wings and fly. Does that make me weak because I didn’t force the chrysalis to transform more quickly? Was I a weak woman, being held to ransom by her male children? No, because I made reasonable adjustments. I didn’t need a law to tell me I must, I did so because my lens is generally one of a humanist.
The Equality Act 2010 makes it clear that we all must make reasonable adjustments, and most people will fall into one of the protected categories, whether gender, age, religion etc. Blanket policies cannot be applied, for example, it would be unlawful for a company like McDonald’s to insist that all members of staff wear a baseball cap. This is not the same as saying that certain groups of people should be exempt from wearing head coverings. It would be perfectly reasonable for McDonald’s to say that all members of staff must have the hair covered, the discrimination lies in the type of covering. A Sikh, for example, should be able to wear a turban and a Muslim woman, the hijab. This does not, in any way, undermine McDonald’s. It is no different within school, we can have strict policies on behaviour, but it does not undermine the school to make reasonable adjustments in order to apply the rule fairly across all types of learner. We expect reasonable adjustments to be made to the school uniform for religious reasons. Similarly, adjustments should be made to the uniform for reasons of disability, it does not undermine the school rules. All schools must comply with reasonable adjustments duties, which stem from the Equality Act. A blanket policy that disproportionately targets a specific group of learners is more than likely to be unlawful.
The strengths and weaknesses of a school lies with the perceptions of its senior leadership team and governing body, not in its pupils. It is the lens in which they view themselves, their teachers and their learners which will create success or failure. If I viewed my son’s actions on that trip to Disney as being those of the child who was out of control, potentially violent even, I would have been a bad mother.