My eldest child is off to secondary school next year. That has sneaked up on me. It only seems like five minutes ago that they were in Reception, covered in tinsel and jiggling about being a star in the Nativity play. How did it get to secondary school so quickly? In fact, how did we all get here so quickly? I’m sure that we’re all still eighteen.
Middle class problem, but the whole secondary school thing has been and continues to be quite stressful. I don’t think I am alone in this. I’m not sure which school my child is going to yet, and like everyone else, I won’t know until the County Council pronounces next year. I am sure it wasn’t this complicated when I was little – we just went to school.
The whole thing has been made a lot more controversial in my area by the eleven plus. Some children sat it, some didn’t. Some parents are regretting putting their children in for it, some are wishing they had given it a go. Some parents object on moral grounds. Some parents just plain object. One mother I spoke to said that some parents had said to her “we want this” (complete with fist pumping of the air). Another mother expressed relief to me that she was not going to enter her child for the exam as they were not “bright” enough. Maybe not if you were posing a maths problem or dissecting Shakespeare. I have, however, seen one of that child’s drawings – I could never draw like that in a million years. I understand all of the points of view (apart from the fist pumper, I really don’t get that). It is almost as divisive as Brexit.
As a race, humans have always valued high intelligence. The pursuit and acquisition of knowledge has always been, and hopefully will always be, something to which humans aspire. However, does our superior intelligence make us superior to other animals or even to each other? It seems that increasingly within our society that higher intelligence, or rather high academic achievement, is viewed as something that should not only be aspired to, but crucially, if it is not gained or achieved by a person, then they are somehow inferior as a human being and of less value. That is quite a narrow definition of worth.
At the end of 2013, a little boy was born six weeks early. He was not expected to survive, although the doctors wisely kept their counsel at that time. Wise because it was not something that anyone needed to hear at that time, it would not have helped, and on that particular occasion, the doctors would also have been wrong. My nephew celebrates his fourth birthday next month. As well as having blue eyes, blonde hair and a bit of a temper which I am sure he gets from his mother (my sister), he also has an extra chromosome. This means that he will view and experience the world through entirely different eyes from most of the rest of us.
It was unexpected. Partly because he arrived six weeks sooner than his due date and no one had bought him anything yet, but also because of the extra chromosome. We had been conditioned to think it was meant to be a devastating loss. In the melee and relief of everyone being all right in the end, I started thinking of all of the things that my nephew was never going to be – brain surgeon, astrophysicist, barrister, racing driver – those things, will almost certainly, be out of his intellectual reach…..But then I started to think of all of the things that he was also never going to be – murderer, liar, thief, bully. And as I have watched him learn and grow these past four years – a happy and healthy child who is not yet old enough to see the looks that some people give him – I have wondered why his life in particular is viewed by some as having less or no value…and how, why or when that was decided. Then I have wondered exactly where we, as a society, should draw the line and why it is that we think that we are entitled to draw that line?
When did not being something matter so much? What is wrong with leading a good, kind and honest life and not causing damage to yourself or other people? Why is this of less value? Some of the things we aren’t, or will never be, are good things not be. I am not suggesting that brain surgeons are not good, kind and honest people. But what I mean is that we can’t all be brain surgeons and I don’t think we should get quite so het up about it. Without someone to build the cars, the brain surgeons and most of the rest of us wouldn’t be able to get to work. Without teachers to teach our children, they wouldn’t be learning to be the best that they can be, whatever that may be, and most of us wouldn’t be going to work, or at least not until the kids are old enough to be trusted not to draw on the walls with your lipstick. Worse still, without someone working in the underwear factory, barristers would be literally breezing into court. What a terrifying prospect. If our rubbish was not collected each and every week, in less than a month, we would all be swamped. A few weeks longer and there would be a significant public health problem.
By all means, do that degree in a subject that no one understands a word of, throw yourself off a cliff with nothing but glorified knicker elastic tied around your ankle if you must; if you’re not hurting anyone then do whatever it is you want to do – everyone should have that opportunity, regardless of their place in life. And if the only thing stopping you from doing it is that you’re scared of failure, then you definitely should proceed without caution. However, if you don’t, won’t or can’t because your gifts don’t lie in that particular direction, don’t sweat it. Maybe your gift doesn’t fall within that narrow definition. And maybe, just maybe, how we live rather than what we live is all that really matters in the end.