The thing about being a school teacher, be it primary, secondary, Early Years or whatever, is that you see an awful lot of interesting behaviour in the course of your daily grind. There is always someone doing something special you have seen before, and, I reckon anyway, a large amount of these behaviours have at their heart a desire to get something that they really want, not time out, not work avoidance: attention.
Children have a hundred million different ways of securing this most precious of commodities, and an equally large number of reasons for seeking it. Sometimes you know it’s because they are starved of it at home, parents may both be working all hours (they might even be teachers), they might be part of a large family, they might have joined an even larger, blended family. Sometimes, everything on the surface seems to be tickety-boo, only for chaos or unhappiness or money worries or illness or alcoholism to lurk underneath, stealing it all away. Put most children in a classroom and they figure it out pretty quickly: they like getting the attention of their teacher and they will employ their considerable wiles in order to get it.
We teachers like the ones who figure their way to the attention-lode by conforming to the rules, handing homework in on time, having neat handwriting and completing all the tasks we set them to do and more, always trying hard, always doing their best. But there is another sort (I rather like these ones too). They are the ones that take up so much of our time, eating up our energy with their demands; they have figured out something else entirely. For them, any attention is better than none, and they really don’t care how they get it.
There’s the one where they ask a question that is completely unrelated to what you are attempting to teach. There’s the one where they can’t bear to wait for someone else to work it out for themselves, so keen are they for you, and everyone else, to know that they know the answer, to congratulate them on their cleverness. There’s the one where they lead (or attempt to lead) derision over someone else’s stumbling mistakes, and then there is the one that gets on my nerves the most; just as you have everyone sitting there in the palm of your hand (figuratively speaking), eyes glued, brains firing fireworks, they make a smart remark into the pregnant silence and neatly switch the gaze of the entire class to themselves.
What these kids have worked out, what they have discovered without anyone having to teach them, is that words have power. They may take no notice of us when we blither on about choosing verbs effectively and up-levelling connectives (or are they conjunctions now?), but they know already how to use a word for maximum, disruptive, and often hurtful effect.
The thing about children, though, is that they are still overtly learning. Sometimes they say things, and they have no idea that they have just dropped a verbal nuclear bomb on one of their friends. They can’t understand why nobody will play with them, and, usually, when someone (ie. me) has pointed their mistake out to them, after a bit of encouragement, they are (usually) happy to apologise. They are still young, they didn’t mean for it to come out the way it did, and for that, we are prepared to cut them a little slack. Unless, of course, they did mean it, if they knew exactly what they were doing, and the sorriness they feel is that of being found out with their metaphorical hand in the cookie jar or their metaphorical pants down. Their apologies, then, are grudging, revealing.
In many ways, it is the same with adults – although, thanks to years of learning subtlety, a little harder to discern. Most times, when people realised that they have said something, say, about Down’s Syndrome and they see that it has hurt me or families like mine, their apologies come quick and fast, and with sincerity. When they meet my son, my bonkers, funny child, they often admit that the person who was suffering was them, and it was ignorance that was the matter. “I didn’t think he’d be like this,” is something I have heard more than once. “You’d never think it, to look at him,” is another, and, one of my Granny’s best, “I can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about.”
She was right about that one. There’s an awful lot of mis-information out there about Down’s Syndrome, and, sometimes, it can feel as if one has stepped into a time slip and fallen into the 1930s. As if the future held only institutions, or shortened life spans or pity, or scary things for sure (like those things never happen to the genetically perfect). Or it could be some sort of dystopian novel where if a potential baby, boy, girl, Down’s Syndrome, carrying a non-genius gene, or whatever was out of fashion that day could somehow be swapped for one that did measure up, and no-one would be the least bit bothered about it, no tears would be shed, no hearts would be broken, there would be no shadow of sorrow or lingering what-might-have-beens at all.
And if they use words of power, like mong, or retard, or imbecile, or sub-normal (or educationally sub-normal, remember that one?), or Down baby/person and they haven’t met my son, my glorious, funny, vulnerable son, who has no voice, as yet, no way (yet) to tell them not to use him as an insult, the day they do their shame, their sorrow is palpable, and, when they understand how it is, they stop. They step away. They understand their power and they clean up their mouths, their minds.
Like children, you can tell what it was all about when you listen to the apologies. And, in exactly the same way I deal with an attention seeker in my class, the best way to deal with them is to do the very thing they hate most of all. Ignore them.