Throughout my life I have been one of those people that, somewhat annoyingly for others, will try something regardless of how terrible I am likely to be at it. I will now anecdote (and yes can I use anecdote as a verb. I teach English and can word in any way I like. (See, there you go. I did it again. Different word worded differently.))
Anyway, To anecdote...
I did PE A Level. Stigma aside, I found it difficult. It was very cross-curricular, and it taught me more about psychology, in many ways, than my Psychology A Level did. For PE there was a moderation day. I was to be moderated in my second sport: Rounders. (Don't ask, but, in summary, I was very good at one sport and it didn't afford me much time to do another. The sport picked as the token second sport for me was rounders.)
When we arrived at the moderation day rounders was at the end. First there was football. They were, however, short one goalkeeper. I volunteered. I can barely save money in a sale let alone goals. Somehow (good defenders, most likely) I kept a clean sheet. This is not, however, about my Gordon Banks impression. It is about its reception by a child from another school who I had met (read 'was flirting with') at the moderation.They told me that they would never have volunteered. That they'd be too worried about making a fool of themselves. I was awestruck in the bad way. Who, my eighteen-year-old mind wondered, wouldn't just give something a go? Perhaps I was bought up in a way that embraced giving stuff a go, or perhaps I have just always been that way regardless, but it was always confused me, the attitude of fear of doing things. The most confusing part of this avoidance action is that I have always thought the fear was simply a part of life, and a positive thing. At the time of the aforementioned moderation I was competing nationally (not in rounders or football) and shaking before every race. This is still true of lastMonday morning, when I delivered an assembly and was physically shaking before I began. I've always thought that fear was part of difficult actions. Difficult actions are rewarding ergo fear is a good thing.(this is a bit of a false conclusion, but it has always worked for me.)
Yesterday I was reminded of that student at the football moderation when a student said to me that she would rather refuse to stand up to do a speaking and listening assessment and therefore fail than stand up in front of other students and potentially do badly. I was shocked. I called my head of department and we both quizzed the girl after the lesson. She had her mind totally set on not trying. But it wasn't not trying, not really. She had actually written the speaking and listening presentation. She had written the whole thing out verbatim in fact. This presented a difficulty in that full speeches are expressly forbidden by the regulations. So she was told to reduce her speech to notes and then she could go.
She refused. Twice. On consecutive days. She just didn't want to stand up in front of people and risk doing badly despite the tacit acceptance of failing by not doing anything. It mystified me and mystified my head of department so much that we started grilling her a bit. We asked her about her options for GCSE and they turned out to all be coursework based subjects; in other words, the sort of things you can keep redoing. She had even dropped PE half way through the year after ending up in a class with, in her words, 'loads of really clever kids'. I was dumbstruck that this student had not been noticed as a cause for concern at any point before. How had we missed a student whose confidence in herself was so low that she was avoiding situations where she could be exposed in any matter? But aside from our failings pastorally there was another nagging question in that annoying itchy bit at the back of my head, and I don't even mean the bit with the questionable rash. That question: What have we done to this girl?
The major difficulty with the itching, nagging question was the identification of who I actually meant when I used the pronoun. I knew that I was certainly part of the culpable 'we' but who was I lumping myself in with. The teachers? The school? All of education? X-Factor? Sadly, and annoyingly, the last one is likely to be true to an extent. Perhaps the show itself is not guilty per se but it is representative of a element of the society whose progeny we nurture.
My feeling is that we are part of a youth culture that sees itself in terms of a dichotomy of performer and observer. Students see those who perform as being either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad and both come with inherent problems. Being good leads to the depravity of quick young fame and being bad leads to ridicule. Not a day goes by that there is not a video on the internet of someone doing badly at something and receiving the full force of mob disgust. It even happened at my school. A girl posted a video of herself singing on youtube and it went viral around the school for all the wrong reasons. She crossed the void between observer and performer, risked judgement, and saw it rain down upon her. She is either resilient to the point of being metallic or oblivious to the point of being wooden. I still can't quite decide.
I think that this fear is ingrained into students and it makes them fear the judgement more than the act. The student that I was so shocked by is afraid enough of judgement that it is safer simply not to take part despite its inherent failure. They wish to remain behind the glass screen at all costs and never expose themselves because it is safe but it also overcomes any aspiration. Students are culturally indoctrinated into believing in the glass ceiling as opposed to trying to break it. So they just sit, and stare, and never believe.
Strangely, this creates quite the opposite effect on some other students who believe that things will simply come their way without work. This attitude seems to be a sort of glass slipper syndrome where they just think everything will be okay because it will all work out. I find this particular attitude most prevalent, somewhat inappropriately, among the young boys who believe they are the next David Beckham, forgetting, of course, that in order to be a great footballer you actually have to practice playing football. Instead, most of them play a bit of football for the school and their aspiration is not to be an excellent footballer, rather to have the accoutrements of booted fame; a model wife, wheelbarrows of money and pure, innocent idolatry. But perhaps this entrenches further my theory. Students either believe they are destined to be spectators or that they should automatically belong on the pitch, stage or ring. There is no middle ground and, for most, no idea of what the concept of hard work entails or solves.
I will finish with this:
A student this week asked me why rappers were so good at rapping when most of them didn't finish school. I told them that there are things that can't be taught but have to be actively learned. The only way to ensure you get what you want is to go and get it, I told him, and then it still might not happen. He seemed shocked at this.