One in Twelve: how we invent problems
The ugliness of uniformity and weeding things out.
In a clump of about twelve daffodils under a tree in our front garden, there is one daffodil facing a different way from all the others. The rest of the group face in a general southerly direction, but this one daffodil faces north. It is as tall and strong and straight and healthy as all the other daffodils. It looks just like a normal, bright, yellow daffodil, but something has caused it to take a different direction in its growth, and therefore face a very different world from all the others. It seems to have a pretty good life though. To its right in the morning is the sunrise, to its left in the evening is the sunset. It faces the birds nesting in the hedge and the traffic going by. Daffodils have so much character in their appearance one can almost imagine it is looking out on the world (well, I can imagine it).
I relate to this daffodil. I feel as if things about my early growth caused me to take an individual view on the world. I crouched in the wet grass to photograph it being all different and taking an alternative view on life, and I sniggered “Ha. Good on you, pal.”
I guess in a perfect show garden, in a public garden, in a neat little controlled garden this one daffodil might have been sacrificed, plucked out, discarded for not fitting in. It might have been planted in an orderly formation in a perfectly boxed-in little patch of neatly-bordered ground, and when it didn’t quite line up it may have been removed or replaced. Some people can’t cope with visual difference or glitches to their own idea of order. “It’s just the same in almost every way,’’ perhaps an obsessive gardener might have observed, “but… well… there’s something about it that makes my ordered, daisy-free, straight-lawned world look messy.”
I often look at the ideas of an ordered world that our systems and societies try to create. In institutions such as schools with their rules and their uniforms, for instance, there’s an obsession with making everyone look the same, making them fit. This insistence on order says, “Don’t embrace difference, don’t accept wonky, individual, new or surprising, and for heaven’s sake don’t challenge our idea of the norm.” Uniforms are getting smarter and smarter and more and more samey. The idea of smart samey children troubles me enormously.
I wonder how life would be for all the thousands and thousands of children who grew up being the one in twelve – who wanted to face a different way from all the others – if teachers, parents and society had said “Good on you, pal.” I wonder what life would be like for the other 11 in every twelve who did find it easy to do what they were supposed to do, to have been allowed to witness that it’s okay to have something about your classmates that makes them seem a bit unusual. Maybe some of them could have been more brave about their own differences, and would have learnt to accept that just because someone has something about them that causes them to look at things differently from you doesn’t make them all that weird. Maybe we would all be better at just allowing, just accepting, just letting be if we weren’t so focussed on sameness being a positive thing.
My intense dislike of uniforms probably amuses others. Especially those who see them as benign, harmless or even good for everyone. I see them as the quite the opposite. I see uniforms not only a symptom of a society gone wrong but also a cause. They are anything but benign. Uniforms are for grouping together and for separating out. They are for armies to show whose side we are on and to identify the enemy; they are for workplaces to show who is serving and who is the paying customer. They divide people and they create subservience. Uniform says you need to look like everyone else or you are not with us. It says defining us by looks is important. It encourages us to weed out anything that doesn’t fit: to fight an enemy, or to send home a child who doesn’t look like all the others at school. It teaches children that fitting in and looking the same helps you get on in life.
Looking different may not even allow you in.
The message this gives is “If you want to be with us sort out the way you look first. If you can’t, you’re out.”
My suspicion is that there are probably at least 2 children in every class with a strong need to express their difference and many others who would like to be quietly non-conformist without the attention. But they are all squeezed in or kicked out. Sometimes discarded like a weed or planted elsewhere.
Now I’m older I don’t think of myself as the only one who felt a bit weird or a bit as if I was looking at things differently from everyone else. I feel like I’m one of the one in twelve, who probably exists in almost every situation, and who feels this way. There are loads and loads and LOADS of us! And I often wonder how many of the other eleven secretly sympathised with us and would love to have joined us if they hadn’t been forced to fit in. Maybe they would like to turn around to see the birds in the hedge too.
But maybe it’s too late for some of those who were forced to fit so much that they can’t ever look at things differently; their brains have be trained to admire 12 straight daffodils and no weeds without questioning why that might be a bit bonkers.
Yesterday, I was fairly pleased, after fifteen years of the damn things, to finally read a school report that didn’t suggest one of my children needed to change in any great way. Ever since our eldest child’s first report at age three, we have been told our children are too something-or-other, not enough this, perhaps a bit that. There has often been some unnecessary character assassination. In this latest report for our youngest, there was reference to her messy handwriting as a concern but no mention that she needed to change who she was. I felt it was okay for her to be her and that there was perhaps a certain amusement and fondness even for her character. I’m not going to let her get uptight about her writing though. From my previous experiences, a child who is concerned about his or her handwriting – especially because of what adults want from them – tends to tense up and write in an inhibited way and it can make things worse. She loves making up stories and has a marvellous imagination but already refuses to sit at the table and write at home because she says she does enough of that at school and she doesn’t enjoy the actual physical process of writing (<- my choice of words!). Her father struggled with his handwriting and too much was made of it and he never recovered; her brother struggled with his handwriting and I tried to not let too much be made of it, and these days he writes just fine; now here’s our youngest “struggling” with her handwriting too and I don’t want her worried or discouraged by expected standards. When I say “struggling”, I actually mean “isn’t writing as neatly as is expected for their age group” and “isn’t reaching the required standard”
But if it wasn’t for these required standards there wouldn’t be a problem. It seems to me we invent problems -which is a bit silly because there are enough real problems already.
I’m keeping a close eye on the next clump of daffodils about to flower. I hope there’s one facing it’s own way again and that there’ll be others just generally looking relaxed about their free-thinking neighbour.
And do I pull out weeds? Do I remove things that don’t fit in my own garden? Yes I do – I don’t want unwelcome plants crowding out my vegetable patch.
But weeds are not people.
People are not weeds.