PART V …BEFORE BECOMING A ROLE MODEL “ANYONE CAN ALTER SOCIAL NORMS FOR THE BETTER”
I call my local primary school’s front office and offer my time. After an all-important background check, I’m ready to serve. For those with time, privilege and a school nearby that is looking for volunteers, I can’t recommend this option enough. A week after calling, I find myself sitting with a class of charming sixyear-olds as they do basic reading exercises and make letters out of Play-doh. The following week, I’m in the playground, destroying 12-year-olds at football.
I get to know the kids by name: who’s a sore loser, who’s a bully, who has a killer step-over (and whom I therefore have to muscle off the ball and make it look like an accident). They all call me “Mr Smithurst”. I’m enjoying this. It’s hard, however, to shake the idea that my joy is somehow selfish, that I’m not doing it for the authentically altruistic reasons that seem to motivate the most saintly volunteers. Marsh, however, says that our altruistic reward system is a positive thing. Channelling the Buddhist monk and molecular biologist Matthieu Ricard, she has consoling words for my guilt: “That we feel good when we help other people presupposes that we are altruistic. If we weren’t built to be altruistic, why would we feel good helping others?”
Even Miss Julia, the class teacher who has been watching me decimate her children on the playground, seems to think that my presence here is salutary. “Having an adult to play football with at lunchtime is really valuable,” she says.
“Because… they need a midfield general?” I ask.
“No, not to teach them to play, but how to handle losing, or to see a foul as a mistake, not a deliberate and personal attack,” she says. “Otherwise, they get into fights about it. They need a role model with those social skills.”
What Miss Julia says makes a lot of sense. Marsh had also been quick to point out the same kind of altruistic domino effect – the impact that the average person can have on social norms. According to her, those who exist within a culture that expects other people to be trusting and helpful will themselves be trusting and helpful. Why? “Being a human is complicated,” says Marsh. “Since life is full of these complicated decisions and choices, we take our cues from the people around us. Just by being good, you can help to change the perception of what the average person is like, and thereby alter other people’s behaviour.”
Can I change the world by being a good sport? Maybe not the world, I conclude, but at least I can have a positive effect on how these kids treat each other at break time. And I don’t need to write an oversized, million-pound cheque to do this.
“We have another man who comes in and does a fitness boot camp,” Miss Julia adds, conspiratorially. “The rougher kids swear at him. But he just swears back at them. He’s ex-military, and he’s a great swearer. He doesn’t take any shit from them.”
“Can I swear at the kids?” I ask Miss Julia
“Absolutely not,” she says.