During Lockdown this last year I have renewed my relationship with the language app called Duolingo. Previously platforming Italian and Hebrew I returned to a previously abandoned Dutch project with renewed vigour.
During many intimate moments with my headphones, and stumbling attempts to make my mouth become a shape not thought possible, this renewed vigour met with a repeated sentence:
Ik ben geen banaan! I am not a banana! A sentence reiterated as I progress through the achievement circles on the app. Impressing me with its’ resilience and endurance. Geen banaan, a handy phrase that I will no doubt need in my future post covid travels. Yet I found it echoing distant memories, of learning, and transporting me back to the large village school of my childhood.
My primary and junior school life, as far as I remember, was relatively painless.
Apart from being hit on the back of the legs with a metre stick at 6 years old for dancing on the tables with the boys.
I could read before going to school – my nurse mother taught me with flash cards. Shame that the large village primary school I attended used ITA to teach all children for the first two years – a phonetic system: taebl, caek, etc. etc. Anyways I think I navigated it fine – probably trying to correct the teacher for her wrong spelling, knowing me.
This story starts when I returned back to school in Sept 1975. I was 9 years old.
The teacher was called Mrs Symes. She was known for being the needlework/arts and craft teacher. She also – to my imagination – looked like Burt Reynolds’ mother – and during storytime I would fancy her connection to him and feel enriched by the imaginative associated glamour of Hollywood.
She disliked me.
From the get go.
Her class was divided into 3 streams of abilities: Apples, Bananas and Carrots – which of course didn’t fool anyone – the “bright” kids were in the apples. The kids struggling with lessons were in the carrots.
I had arrived for the new school year riding on prizes and and top of the class commendations by my previous teacher, an unyielding disciplinarian who beat kids who couldn’t do their fractions.
I mean I was one of the so-called brighter kids in the class anyways but my avid interest in Greek mythology was supported by her with after school attention where she would answer all my difficult and annoying questions and delight in my capacity to pronounce and remember lengthy ancient names and places right.
So I arrive in my champion glow and am promptly put into the carrots grouping.
Throughout my progression in the school I had always sat on the same table as my friends, or next to my friends where there were desks. And all of a sudden I had lost my place with my peers.
I immediately thought there had been some kind of mistake. I didn’t belong with these kids. Plus I always finished my work really quickly and correctly but now had to wait for the whole table before progressing into the next workbook section, whilst my friends in the apples were already steaming ahead 3 sections on. I asked Mrs Symes if I could go where I belonged and was met with disapproval and refusal. I told my parents – but there was so much going on at home that that wasn’t a priority for them. I was devastated, confused, frustrated and felt disempowered. I also was useless at needle work – her passion and skill – and hated it.
It was my first brush up with external authority and I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of injustice. It felt both wrong and unfair.
At Christmas she grudgingly moved me into the Bananas.
But the social damage was done. I no longer belonged in my kinship group with my friends. Even if I was now a banana I was not an apple, and was thus ostracised, in that kind of way that kids do, picking up subtle cues of inclusion and exclusion. It burst my bubble of school being a safe place – as opposed to home – which didn’t feel to me like a safe place.
I stayed in bananas the whole year and became slightly troublesome and disruptive. I used to delight in pretending to drink ink from the ink wells but magically had none in my mouth, and then challenged other bananas to do the same, which of course resulted in messy ink spills on work and tables – during reading time. I was bored in bananas and also both angry and scared of Mrs Symes.
It was not until the next school year, where I was thankfully put back into my rightful place with my ex-peers and friends, that I buckled back down to enjoying my school work even if my social currency never got reinstated amongst the girls, which was kind of okay as they wanted to play kiss chase with the boys and I didn’t.
I often wondered what the moral of this story is for me. What lessons did I learn from it?
My overriding takeout was that some people are just mean. Maybe Mrs Symes had her reasons – but my hunch was that she just wanted to take me down a peg or two. For being “too“ bright or too confident, and for being absolutely useless at a gender skill she prioritised and considered I needed – needlework. If I was a boy would she have done that?
But the impact of losing your place among a group of your peers was an early lesson in ostracization, and the pain of exclusion. I did not have the tools to dig myself out of the mindset of being disempowered (which child does?) and I suffered.
I have learnt through life that some circumstances you can’t change. Doesn’t matter how much law of attraction you do, how hard you work, sometimes you just have to just wait – for the Mrs Symes cycle to pass, to trust that all things pass. And to keep your inner self connected to your outer self. I felt shame at being what I saw as ‘demoted’ in a system that prized academic intelligence above all others, and a disjunct between what was right and what was wrong. It left an impact on me – a feeling that no matter how well things seem to be going they can always be disrupted by one person’s active malice. That reason does not always prevail in the short term. Important reality checks in this post-truth world.
More importantly – one of the only kids from that class to go to university, and Oxford at that, despite both parents working in the local fish and chip shop, was one of the smallest carrots.