The idea of benchmarking children and letting them know how they compare to their peers is considered so poisonous by us teachers that we don’t ever do it and we let children live in darkness without any idea of how they compare to those around them (apart from giving them progress grades on a very regular basis). And the worst thing is, these pernicious tendencies are introduced from a worryingly early age.
I was at the birthday party of a four-year-old white girl on Saturday. There was an Indian boy, a Pakistani girl, three Hispanic boys and girls, a small gang of Black children, a Chinese of indeterminate sex, a Polish boy, a working-class girl, and twins born on the Welsh border who claim dual heritage.
Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and childless friends whose single relationship status was not a political statement for the duration of the birthday celebrations, stood around beaming at the happy throng as they gathered in a circle to play pass the parcel. One parent expressed a concern that youngsters ought to learn not to open suspicious packages, even at play, and another withdrew her child because of a suspected Sellotape allergy – but most adults were geed up for some cutesy fun, justly proud at this happy embodiment of MLK’s dream in the living room of a suburban home in Kent.
As the game commenced, the birthday girl’s mother sidled up to a group of us grown-ups. She was dripping with smugness, though of course no-one begrudged her this, in the circumstances. The music stopped, and the parcel with it, upon the lap of the Indian boy.
Imagine my horror when he unwrapped the first layer of paper and a small gift fell upon the floor before him; a gift that was his to keep for having done nothing more than turn up!
I was aghast, but I said nothing. I am not the sort of person to stick my neck out with a controversial and potentially hurtful opinion when people have clearly been working hard and with good intentions. I let the music play on, and the game continued.
Moments later, one of the Anglo-Cymraeg infants ripped off a second layer of paper, and to my amazement, was also rewarded with a prize! So it went on: each layer contained a gift, and each child unwrapped a layer. The final gift was ‘won’ by the birthday girl herself. I looked over towards the hi-fi, conscious that there was something very strange going on here and it was only then that my suspicions were confirmed and I was confronted with the shocking truth: daddy was in control of the volume knob.
I could contain myself no longer. ‘Fix!’ I screamed, ‘Fix! This is the most corrupt birthday party I have ever been to!’
The girl’s mother took me to one side.
‘We wanted everyone to have a prize,’ she explained, as if that were the most normal thing in the world, as if that were somehow a decent, generous-spirited attitude! ‘That way, all the children go home with a little souvenir and everything’s fair – everyone has a good time.’
Now, gentle reader, as you well know, I am usually the one to keep her head in a time of crisis, but this crazy Stepford Wife was really testing my patience.
‘Fair?!’ I hissed at her. ‘You call this fair? Tell that to the Black boy whose life you’ve just ruined! Your insipidly well-meaning liberal approach to pass the parcel is all very well for your own spoilt brat, but for these others… It can only condemn these kids to a lifetime of underachievement!’
She oh so casually wiped the spit from her brow and asked me what I meant.
‘Thanks to you and your ‘all must have prizes’, equality-schmollity, oh isn’t the world a lovely place, why don’t we all get on, I’m alright so if I’m nice to the poor maybe they’ll be alright too, nonsense… these Black boys will amount to nothing. Look at that one, you can already see a change has come over him since he arrived. Stop looking so pleased with yourself – it’s not me he’s going to mug!’
‘You’re a little incoherent,’ she suggested, passing me a vegetarian sausage roll, which I crushed in my bare hand, scattering flaky pastry on her Habitat carpet.
‘Your low expectations of these children mean that they will give up trying,’ I continued, breathless. ‘Without the incentive of competition, without the fear of feeling inferior, they will amount to nothing. If they set out into the world believing that Life is about sharing and that all people should be valued, regardless of where they went to university, they simply don’t stand a chance! They must learn to struggle, to fight! They must learn that they are alone.’
I was no longer angry. Pity for this woman’s tragic ignorance had quelled my rage. I put out my arms and held her close to me; an embrace that communicated something of the abyss that lay between us, but that nevertheless ensured that she might not ask me to pay for the cleaning of her carpet and curtains which had become stained with Ribena during the excesses of my speech.
Before I left, I glanced back at the children. A game of Musical Statues had just begun. As the music stopped, a fat child who had been gleefully twirling lost his balance and fell.
‘You’re out!’ chorused the children, as indeed he was. One pointed at him, trying her best to make it clear to him that he was A Loser, that he was, for that moment, the Most Useless Child In The Room. The boy skulked off and stood in the corner, sobbing quietly. A bittersweet moment for me. Here was this child, learning a most necessary and wholesome lesson of inadequacy and failure, who in a few months’ time would be misled by Leftie teachers into believing that despite his deficiencies – so obvious to his peers – his pitiful efforts were still valued in a gingerbread world of sugar-coated tolerance. Let us just hope that this fat child carries this memory with him, so that he is prepared for Reality when the revolution is overthrown and it finally Bites.
Perhaps then we can finally grow beyond this unhealthy obsession with Passing every Parcel, and begin to acknowledge the fact that some Parcels must Fail.