One in Twelve: how we invent problems

The ugliness of uniformity and weeding things out.

Daffs

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.”

Nuts.

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.

8 thoughts on “One in Twelve: how we invent problems

  1. I agree with you strongly on this one x I impose uniform as much as any other teacher, but I think more because that expectation is imposed on me rather than because I agree with it – which I guess makes me one of those who would like to turn around and face their own way but daren’t. I’ve never come across one argument about uniform that stands up to scrutiny – if it did then we’d automatically be condemning every single student who grows up in a country where uniforms are non-existant, and yet those are the very countries that are often held up as examples of good practice (except for their lack of uniform policy of course). In my experience uniform is used much more as a method of imposing control than for any practical reason – if it was practicality then why would we care whether a pair of black leather footwear has a Nike logo on it or not? But being able to give an instruction immediately you meet a student or group of students sets you up in a position of authority straight away, “do as I tell you” (but not as I do). If uniform is the ‘easy’ choice in the morning, then why don’t we do it to more adults? Lots of workplaces find it difficult to impose any kind of dress code without argument and offense being taken, let alone a full-blown uniform. I’ve never seen teachers volunteering to join the kids with the grey skirts, maroon sweaters and stripy ties…

    Like

  2. I’m tired – please forgive the typos that I’m incapable of spotting until after I click ‘submit’!

    Like

    • I don’t really have a strong position on school uniform. As a child I hated it, I felt embarrassed that it wasn’t chosen to look good on everyone, so some of us looked like sacks of potatoes while the popular kids managed to look cool in theirs. We were told it covered some of the differences, for example poorer children would be less apparent, at least via their clothes. That didn’t work. A pig in a dress.
      Playground bullies have a nose for difference, they’ll always find it if they want to.
      Anyway, on the larger point of your blog, I love that daffodil. I would have photographed it too. I live anything that stands out and shouts ‘I’m doing it my way’. I think because I feel admiration, because I want to be like that, because childhood often teaches us that even though we long to be different, to be ourselves, it takes real courage to actually do it.

      Like

  3. Great post, Rachel. I love your daffodil analogy.

    I’ll never understand show gardens (largely because the lazy part of me thinks it’s too much effort, but I also think they look startlingly odd).

    I’m also not a fan of uniforms – I don’t believe they actually achieve inclusivity (like you, despite its sameness, my uniform looked shabby compared to my peers’) and I feel that – certainly in the case of my daughter’s old school – enforcing uniform rules can be a distraction from the hugely more important job of teaching.

    It’s not just clothes though. I believe our education system is overly concerned with pushing kids to reach uniform academic standards, sometimes at the detriment to other skills, talents, and preferences. Certainly in my nephew’s case this is causing him a lot of anxiety and leaves him feeling excluded. My daughter grew up fitting the academic ideal, but feeling excluded in a number of other areas, which has left her struggling to adjust in the wider world.

    I agree that as a society we should be doing more to celebrate differences and diversity at a young age, so our kids can learn to dance to their own tunes without the worry of judgement from everyone else.

    Like

  4. I loved this post. I feel very strongly that every child born is, despite our many commonalities, unique in some way, and that uniqueness is a gem. (I also think our common ground is essential, for empathy and understanding.) I’d love to see a system that celebrates both our individuality and our similarities.
    On uniform, I don’t feel strongly about it but I’m not a big fan. We were told as kids that it masked poverty and so reduced teasing… in practice, not so. Shabby, tight uniforms appeared on the poor kids, cooler stuff on the ‘cool kids’ — and in the end, uniform achieved nothing except to place an extra financial or logistical burden on the poorer families. There’s an irony.
    BUT I do like the idea of community, of a team, and a little totem of belonging can feel nice. I don’t think this requires a whole uniform, though — a badge would do!

    (Although on school trips they should all be made to wear dayglo orange onesies — every single last one of ’em. Herding 40 small children through a zoo or museum holds a special kind of terror…)

    Like

  5. I once taught in a school without uniforms and the behaviour of the kids was much better than in my previous school. And the teachers didn’t have to police petty rules. And why do girls have to wear ties?

    I guess that most people would not even notice the rebellious daffodil. And as for getting down on the wet ground to take a photo! You’re obviously looking at things a wee bit differently, Rachel. A great post.

    Like

  6. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto
    a co-worker who had been conducting a little homework on this.
    And he in fact ordered me breakfast simply because I discovered
    it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanx for spending the time to discuss this matter here on your web
    site.

    Like

  7. Have you ever considered writing an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs?
    I have a blog based on the same topics you discuss and would love to have you
    share some stories/information. I know my audience would
    enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to
    send me an e mail.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s