Poisoned Chalice

I’ve just come downstairs from reading my son, that’s my middle one, a story.  I haven’t read him one for years, not since he got his hands on my Harry Potters and gobbled them up in one go; I haven’t had to.  No, instead, I’ve been handing him books, one at a time.  He quite liked the first of The Tripods trilogy.  He’s loved Swallows and Amazons.  But tonight: tonight it was my turn.

It was a little story, one I bought for my friend Lisa’s little boy’s Christening.  Her son has Down Syndrome too, so I wanted to buy him something special, something that would last, and something that wasn’t one of those hideous little boxes with ‘Baby’s First Tooth’ on the top.  So I happened, as you do if you are me, into a bookshop.  As it was for a Christening, I moseyed into SPCK.

I didn’t want to get him a Bible, babies get an awful lot of those for their Christenings.  No, I wanted to get him something that would mean as much to his mum as to him, so I perused the shelves of the children’s books until I found the one that fit the bill.  It’s a lovely little book called, ‘You Are Special’ by Max Lucado.  It’s about a broken wooden puppet who begins to learn that what other people think about him doesn’t matter.  I liked it so much that I bought a copy for my children too (well, for me, really, as I only had one very young baby at the time), and tonight seemed like a good time to revisit it.

It’s not that he’s having difficulty with other kids, far from it.  His introversion means that he doesn’t really notice what other people think.  Except when it’s shoved in his face.  Particularly when teachers do it, with their presentation of silver cups.  For ‘progress’, or ‘IT’, or ‘Music’, or something impenetrable that no-one seems to understand.

This giving of awards, cups and shields and whatnot is a new one to me.  When I was a child at school the only thing I ever won was a home-made certificate for disco dancing (at least I wasn’t attempting robotics with my non-matching neon fingerless gloves, I can comfort myself with that).  I have a vague memory of some sort of cup when I was in the Infants, but it never even wafted its glorious way past me.  I couldn’t tell you, either then or now, what it was for.

When I was teaching full time I was mean and never even gave out a sticker.  When the leavers left we used to give them a dictionary.  A nice hard back one with their name inside the front cover, written in my boss’ best handwriting.  Something to take to secondary school with them to remember us by.  But apart from that?  She instigated a big red book for us to write the great things that kids had done during the week to read out during assembly, but a trophy?

I remember going to a meeting at our sailing club when the issue was raised.  When Trophy Man (we never did find out his name)suggested that we should have more of them, and nicer ones because people like to display them in their cabinets, Husband and I looked at each other and sniggered silently behind our hands.  We don’t have a cabinet, for a start.

So when I went, as a parent, to my first ever end of term assembly, I wasn’t expecting a table full of silverware.  There was applause, there were homilies explaining why the children had been singled out for such adulation.  I counted up the terms, and the number of children in the class, figured out that if all went well, then everyone should get a chance to have their moment of glory, and uncomfortably supposed that it was OK.

The years went by and I listened to missives that praised almost unbelievable qualities in small children.  They never seemed to put a foot wrong.  They made astonishing progress.  Their parents whooped and clapped each other on the back in congratulation.  The same children went up to the front again and again, and I wondered, for a start, how Sam could ever achieve such heights.  Never mind the fact that he’d waded through metaphorical treacle in lead boots before even getting to school in the first place; he just didn’t fit the profile.

And neither, it seems, does A.  After all these years, he is in his final term of primary school.  Older brother and little sister have both come home with awards and he waits, his hope disappearing, dribbling down the plug hole in ever decreasing circles, for his turn.

He doesn’t understand how to get that cup onto the shelf on his behalf.  One minute it’s given for behaviour, the next for attainment, or trying hard, sometimes it’s just for turning up; the criteria swirl around him, mysterious, unknown.  Each time someone is praised for their work in Science, or with computers he thinks it must be him.  Each time it isn’t he cries inside; fat tears slide when he returns home to the safety of his little bed, the company of his silent companions.

He knows now that his turn isn’t going to come and I look at the cup on the shelf that his little sister will return in time for the final end of year assembly and I wish that other people’s opinions had never come home.

So I read him a story tonight.  A read him a story to remind him that he is special, they are all special, they are all wonderfully and fearfully made, just as they are.

“That first moment of stepping into a school as an adult – standing in front of those young people and knowing, just knowing, that before anything else it was their hearts I held in my hand – changed my life.” Christopher Waugh, @Edutronic_net

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8 thoughts on “Poisoned Chalice

  1. Another troublesome side effect of accountability. My school days reward system was based on understanding your own achievement, though there were never any awards, so there was never any expectation other than giving yourself the pat on the back.

  2. So much pride for the parents is encapsulated by these gaudy superficial rewards that are agony to give and cause such unnecessary upset and trouble. I hate choosing those to receive awards from a class of worthy recipients. And you are right, they seem to go to the same children year after year. We have a cabinet in our home but it is full of little things that my now adult children made over the years. These are the treasures that remind me of their talents and personalities.

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