Saturday, 1 October 2011

Educating Essex episode 2: Saving them from themselves

'...and he says, 'The ARISTOCRATS!''
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,"
Oscar Wilde.

Has there ever been a more prescient warning about the vicious, vicarious delight that our Brave New World furnishes for some in the cloak of anonymity afforded by the internet? Wilde played Cassandra to this week's Thursday-clobbering edu-media Leviathan when he talked about the veneer of custom and manners that chains our urges, the pinch of shame that prevents us from returning to a Hobbesian state of nature.

This week, the nominal focus was bullying, but of course it could have easily have been about cruelty, or envy, or a million other angles on the human condition. That's why fixed-camera documentaries still have an enormous appeal for us; there are few things more fascinating than our own reflections, and reality programming affords us a fairground mirror into the lives of others. How often do we stare at people playing out their personal soap-operas, only to look away when their gaze is returned and we turn from observer to participant? In many ways, reality TV has made voyeurs of us all, and I refer you again to Wilde's quote at the head of this piece.

Brilliant second show: the program makers have collaborated with Passmores to create something nearly unfilmable; the experience every teacher knows of dealing with a pastoral problem, the Sisyphean trudge through interviews, paperwork, phone calls and corridors in order to resolve some fracture in the social discourse of two of your charges. And best of all, the fish eye lens allows us a God's-eye view on the narrative, like some kind of municipal omniscience.

Gabby, the Head Girl, is living in her personal circle of Dante's Hell; on one hand she's articulate, mature, dedicated, driven, intelligent and focussed. If you're anything like me, you're immediately playing Fantasy School Register (I can't abide football) and composing an imaginary class, and Gabby is sitting pretty much on every seat. Students like her present a particular joy for committed teachers- the pleasure of playing to the top of your game academically, because such pupils need that and more if they're going to flourish at their personal level. On the other hand, because she's intelligent, nice etc, she's become a lightning rod for some unwanted attention in the form of texts, ranging from odd to creepy to intimidating.

The response of the school to this bullying was, I have to confess, breathtakingly efficient and proportionate. The easiest thing in the world would have been for some pastoral gonk to shrug and say, 'Kids, eh? See if they stop doing it.' But no, Vic Goddard, the Head, portrayed the Platonic ideal of the benevolent monarch. Senior management are often called upon to intervene in broad brush strokes with the running of a school; but sometimes it's urgent that that they put everything else aside and turn their telescopes into microscopes, which they did here. It was edifying: the Head, the Head of House, the ubiquitous Mr Drew, all jumping into pastoral roles, and best of all, keeping in contact with each other, with the family, and most importantly with poor Gabby herself.

How depressingly routine such things are. Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase 'the banality of evil' to describe how the great crimes of history weren't carried out by psychopaths and monsters, but perfectly normal people convinced that what they were doing was right, or at least acceptable. And so it proves here.Chloe and Grace, two sisters not unknown to the victim, had decided to have some sport at Gabby's expense. The manner of their capture was about as banal as it gets: Chloe- no Moriarty, surely- sent a subsequent text to her victim with the comment, 'Are you all right? Chloe x' You're nicked! Tell that girl to avoid a life of crime; only super villains leave clues to their identities at the scene of the crime, and even then it usually isn't just 'Dear Cops, it was me. Love,  Bob Penguin.'

'Would you like to know where your pen is?'
Dante would have had to invent a new, sub-Judasian level of Hell for the one that waited for the two girls- their MUM worked at the SCHOOL. Sam's countenance was waxing wroth, yea. Personally I would have been bricking it in the manner of a Lego factory. Yet even under her gaze, there were still surprising sunspots of defiance and self-justification- 'It was her that wrote it....it was just a joke...I don't care.....' The usual.

We are all, I think, experts in these games; the self-justification. The retrospective absolution that ensures that few things we ever do are wrong, and that most things others do are right. There's an effect I've observed in almost every walk of life, which I call the righteousness of relativism. It's what you experience when you're driving along behind a motorist who stubbornly refuses to speed up, and you think, 'This is appalling- they're crawling along!'. But is someone comes up behind us, they are, without question, speeding maniacs. Which oddly enough, is exactly how they see us in identical situations. It's the same effect on busy pavements, when a group of people are arguing about volume levels on a telly, and indeed every other arena of human behaviour I can think of. Very rarely do we pause and say, ' I chose poorly.' Very often we say, 'I chose as I had to,' or sometimes, 'The bitch needed taking down a peg or two; pass me your phone. Let justice be done.'

Dr Jeckyll's hypothesis about human nature was that all men were possessed of dual natures: the diabolic and the holy. His experiments were a chemical attempt to distil one from another, and decant the sediment of sin from the quintessence of angelism. He found to his cost that the relationship between our darker and lighter sides cannot be so easily set aside, and what Stevenson demonstrated so ably in literature, Educating Essex does by the artifice of documentary.

Witness Sam, the maverick year 11 who drags his enormous logs on both shoulders around like a sullen, misanthropic pariah. Our first encounters with him (and probably the intention of the producers) is to see him as an enormous counter-culture emo-bully (ah, how far we've come, that the marginalised, introverted inheritors of the Romantics' legacy can also inherit the knuckle dusters of their former oppressors. The jailed become jailers). And indeed, he doesn't disappoint to begin with: the nihilism, the lies (*chucks pen* 'I don't have a pen!') the man-child observation that Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang is one of his favourite movies. Stay clear, people.

Except Dean, his amiable classmate apparently has a death-wish, because one of his favourite hobbies is hugging people. Not just anyone, but the girlfriend of our hero Sam. 'I'm a hugging kind of guy!' he tells us. Yes, with a death wish, mate. Go hug the girls that don't have enormous anti-social boyfriends, and live.

'Ugh! A beastly comprehensive!'
Sam doesn't disappoint again. 'Fatty-Bum-Bum,' he mutters as Dean walks past. There's a confrontation on the stairs. Calls are made. Families rush in. What was a low-level dispute gets a free upgrade from economy to First-Class, and then into the pilot's cabin, all in the space of what appears to be a few hours. But he's not a bully: 'I'm not a bully,' he says. 'I don't go out of my way to start fights.' Then he adds, 'Any more.' Group hug.

Mr Drew makes a very apposite observation: before social networks and mobile phones, such disputes would have simmered at spitting distance. Some would have got hotter, and some would have cooled off. But, as with Gabby's harassment, an unkind word, a dead-eyed cuss, gets carved in the stone of the internet, and lasts longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls (which incidentally, are also online as of this week...). The mask of anonymity afforded by the phone allows us to speak to each other without recognition; the convenience of the phone allows us to communicate every thought, however desperate and thoughtless, into immediate utterance. One school I taught at had a policy of no phones at all, for just those reasons; families were routinely summoned every day to settle classroom scraps, dirty looks and imagined insults. Oh, the humanity.

Once again, the school team has to be applauded for the seriousness and the speed with which they dealt with the dispute; families in, phone calls made, pupils pulled from lessons before words turned to actions and somebody got a sore face (which I suspect would have been Dean in the first instance. Probably the second too). There was a considerable controversy on 't'internet over the eventual result: Mr Drew pulled the Man In Black into his office and told him that his last word was he had no alternative but to exclude him for a week (which, we were told, was one of Sam's solemn vows he'd made to his mum). Sam's reaction was touching: he did care; he did give a shit about school, and every institution wrapped around it. He wasn't a loner; he was just alone, tall and awkward, out of step with many of his peers and feeling it. But he wasn't alone- he had his girl, his family, and the consideration of the staff who cared so much about him that they were prepared to spend half a day trying not to exclude him.

We can argue (and I could) that it is a mistake to say you're excluding someone and then go back on it so publicly, because it suggests that the boundaries are more flexible than you'd like. While that may be suitable for some schools where the students are broadly biddable, if you tried that in a rough school they'd tear you a fresh cloaca. Perhaps done in private, the effects of such inconstancy are minimal, but the all-seeing-eye of telly is unforgiving, and I can understand the teachers who watched this and cried foul.

At the same time, there has to be room for interpretation; Mr Drew could see that the exclusion was a game-ender for Sam, and decided to use the mere threat of it as the sanction and behaviour modifier. So perhaps he could have merely threatened it, instead of dropping it in as a done deal, and then saying, 'Aw, not really,' when Sam's shaggy head bowed? It's easy to dissect a situation from your sofa, watching it on catch-up and thinking about how things should have gone. Perhaps, as fellow teachers we can understand, and appreciate that, in this instance, the outcome seemed positive.

Very positive in fact; we were left with closing scenes of Gabby and her tormentors sitting like Dagenham Destiny's Child. Sam and Dean were practically waltzing together on Strictly Come Dancing.  I think we all learned something. Perhaps Dean had learned not to hug other people's girlfriends? It was like the closing scene of a sitcom; everyone hugged, everyone went through a journey, everyone was friends again. Drew correctly recognised that these weren't adults; in many ways they were still children, and they didn't respond to situations as you would hope the fully mature could: they fought; they squabbled; they cussed, and their enmities were- to them- Olympian; the Earth shook with thunder when they fought. From the outside, they looked as petty and transient as two children fighting over a rattle.

We are all the protagonists in our self-penned melodramas; more, we are the heroes. Nothing is more important than our narratives, and nothing is more sacred than our need to be at the centre of them. Maturity is, I suspect, the process of realising that other peoples' stories matter too. These two stories were far, far, from the worst kind of bullying that I and many others have seen in schools- stories of such cruelty and relentless, miserable vice that you close your eyes to think of the pointless misery of it all. Some of the stories, like Gabby's, show that some of it is clear-cut; nastiness getting out of hand, fuelled by a hundred reasons related to ego. And sometimes, like war, we find that the sides are not so clear. God help the teacher.
Remember, Thor, you make the curriculum.

Other highlights:

Sam: 'I'll put her on her arse.' A catch phrase is born, at least in my virtual staffroom.

Sam: 'I can't do [detention on] Wednesday, I've got counselling.'
Note on Mr Drew's office wall: 'REMEMBER VIC, YOU MAKE THE WEATHER' Apparently Mr Goddard is Thor. No wonder the school's outstanding. We'd ALL behave if the Head was the God of violence, drinking and thunder. I have literally no idea what this note means, but it terrifies me.

Roll. On. Next. Week.

5 comments:

  1. Well done Tom, another great piece!

    The 'weather' note paraphrases this quote from Dr. Haim Ginott, an Israeli teacher and psychologist:

    "“I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

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  2. Good piece. I am left baffled by what the sister would have done. She was inordinately powerful and threatening. Hope she gets a spin-off, if only to satisfy my curiosity.

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  3. @ Andrew

    Thank 'ee *tips cap*. And thanks for the illumination- it makes sense now. I still preferred the Thor thing though.

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  4. @ Matthew

    I on't think they get spin-offs. Look what happened to Joey. Mind you, Holby City ended up ok. And Frasier.

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