Tackling the myth of the miracle child
It seems New Zealand’s short of several thousand teachers. I spent 15 happy years teaching, but I won’t go back to it. One reason is age. Teaching’s not a game for one who struggles to put on socks. Another reason is enshrined in a story I heard on the radio.
A boy at some unidentified school was acting violently. A teacher told him to desist. He refused. The teacher took him by the shoulder. He squirmed free and grabbed a wall bar. The teacher prised his fingers off the wall bar, picked the boy up and bore him, still struggling, to the principal’s office.
Bravo, teacher, one might think. But no. Instead of being given an extra biscuit at morning tea the teacher was put in front of a tribunal. And according to the principal telling the story, although no one believed the teacher to have been aggressive, or to have been cruel, or indeed to have been anything other than concerned to solve the problem, the tribunal had no choice, because of the way the laws of the land are written, but to censure the teacher.
Well now, an adult doing what the boy was doing would have been cautioned by the police. Had he ignored the police, he would have been arrested. And in order to effect the arrest the policeman would have been allowed to use reasonable force. But not, it seems, a teacher. Because teachers deal with children.
We are back, once again, to the nature of the child. One might have thought that by now, as a species, we’d have reached consensus on our offspring, but there remain two fundamentally opposing views. One is that they are devil’s spawn, in desperate need of moral instruction. Spare the rod, says this theory, and spoil the child. The other is that they are frail, pink, innocent vessels brimming with the milk of human kindness.
Both theories sit side by side in every adult psyche. By and large the first view describes other people’s children, the latter one’s own. And the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
All children like to be liked and most are capable of kindness. But most can also be cruel and some are downright barbarous. In short, and this really shouldn’t come as a surprise, they’re a lot like us. Indeed one lasting discovery of teaching was that when you met the parents you forgave the child everything.
But such frankness has gone out of official favour. The view that now prevails in the literature and the law of the land is of the innocent child, studious, cooperative and untainted by selfishness or cruelty. And though well-meant, it’s a dangerous delusion.
To illustrate why, let me introduce a school rugby team I coached 30 years ago. The story redounds a little to my credit, or at least I think so, and I apologise for that, but there is a point to it.
The Under 15Cs, as their title suggests, were not a team whose results were read out to cheers in school assembly. Neither they nor I minded. They consisted largely of two types of player. Those who were keen on rugby but not much good. And those who weren’t keen on rugby but who were keen to be seen to play it. Some of the latter could run several kilometres of a Saturday morning without ever occupying a position in space time that coincided with the need to make a tackle.
One Saturday we were playing a team from a catholic school. The first half went well. As I handed out the half-time oranges I remarked that the All Blacks often came back from 30 points down.
Late in the second half one of my players found himself being trampled in a ruck. The trampling boots were a long way from the
"All children like to be liked and most are capable of kindness. But most can also be cruel and some are downright barbarous."
ball but not from the lad’s head. I had noticed before there was a distinctive catholic style of rugby, especially against teams that were nominally protestant. Every ruck was revenge for the reformation.
The rucking became stamping. It was tantamount to common assault. The ref was doing nothing. I stepped on to the field and seized the pope’s avenging angel by the collar. He turned to have a swing at me then spat abuse. The ref joined in, as did several parents. It seemed that I had stepped beyond the altar rope and besmirched the holy tabernacle.
On the Monday morning I was summoned. The headmaster told me he had received reports of my having manhandled a pupil from another school. I told him the story. He listened carefully. He asked a couple of questions. He was a good wise man. ‘‘Consider the matter closed,’’ he said, ‘‘you will hear no more about it.’’ And I didn’t. But would I now? I amnot confident.