When I was 12, I put in the bottom set in English. There was nothing wrong with my literacy, but the places had to be filled and there were always those kids whose parents could be relied upon to not care whether their kid was in the ‘thicko’s class’…
Thankfully this practice seems to be less common these days, but I’ve been reminded by this image of how easy it is to set a person up to fail.
It made me ask myself how many kids grow up to be adults who carry on wearing their ‘failure’ label; sometimes for life; simply because something, somewhere in their experience told them that that’s what they were…
I’m grateful that didn’t happen to me. I never doubted my ability to read & write.
Unsurprisingly though, this mindless decision did nothing to strengthen my confidence & self-esteem.
Something else must have eventually though, because; not only did I go on to university; I wrote s first class dissertation. And now I train people in neuroscience.
Of course, as an adult, I can appreciate that it was just a choice that had to be made in the unkind 1990’s education system. The head of year, whose decision it was, had no duty to emotional wellbeing or self-esteem.
A few years ago, I met him again at a school reunion, where he took the credit (that I didn’t give him) for me having letters after my name.
I doubt he remembered that he’d put me in B2 for English, much less thought about the emotional impact that had.
I know there are many kids who, like me, refused to accept their ‘failure’ badge, but I also know there are plenty who did-and who still do-so I suppose it’s not so surprising that I spend my life banging my ‘childhood mental health’ drum, VERY loudly.
So often, ‘failure’ does not belong to a person, but to the systems that failed to support them.
And I’m not just talking about education; When we read about the ever-increasing numbers of children who are excluded from, or not able to access school, we don’t think ‘they have failed’.
When we hear about the worsening mental health crisis in young people, we don’t think ‘they have failed’.
When we learn that 82% of young offenders re-offend within 6 months of release, we know people are being failed.
Failure is an easy belief to adopt. I didn’t, but the action was still unjustified. I deserved to be seen, not just be treated as the invisible kid.
Here are 3 things my 12 year old self should have heard instead;
1) You are not a failure, you’re not stupid; You are a capable & competent human being
2) You have autonomy. You have agency, influence & the power to shape your own life
3) I believe in you
In 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, let’s not be celebrating more unseen, overlooked kids who ‘overcame the odds’.
Let’s be celebrating the kids who thrived in childhood because those of us involved in their lives used our power more wisely than my old teacher did.