Of fish and feathers

Generations of my family have played The Drawing Game. Christmas, birthdays, any family get-together is a good time to play. What you do is draw a small picture at the top of a strip of paper. Then you pass the paper to the person next to you. She or he writes a description of your picture, folds the paper to conceal the drawing and passes it to the next person, who attempts to draw what they’ve described, without looking at the original picture. The game goes on until all the strips of paper are full, then you unravel them and marvel at the results. It’s actually a lot more fun than I’ve made it sound.

I have one major issue with The Drawing Game – I’m really bad at drawing. I’m so bad that after a couple of rounds of captioning my pictures one Christmas, my daughter was driven to despair. She wrote ‘one of Mum’s rubbish drawings’ under a particularly hopeless effort. The person who had to draw what she’d written was understandably nonplussed.

Undeterred by my failures, I decided a couple of years ago I’d get in touch with my artistic side, or at least try to find out if I had one. For years, people have told me that anyone can draw, but I’m still not wholly convinced. I bought a sketch pad, some pencils and a large rubber. I decided to start with a feather I’d found in the garden. I’d not got more than half a dozen lines on the page when the phone rang. Forty-five minutes on, I put my pencil down beside a passable drawing of a feather. My friend had described what to do, step by step, and I’d followed his instructions to the letter.

Now that’s what I call talent – not my drawing, his teaching. To get me from ‘one of mum’s rubbish drawings’ to an identifiable feather in forty-five minutes, without being able to see what I was doing, was nothing short of genius. The trouble was this particular genius had a strong preference for large amounts of vodka.

Chronic alcoholism is a pretty effective strategy for wasting your talents, and it’s one that’s likely to earn a fair amount of disapproval, should you happen to opt for it. But it’s by no means the only way to avoid making use of human potential. The world is brim-full of wasted talent. Over the years, I’ve worked with a remarkable artist who collated statistics at a dusty desk. I’ve chatted to musicians while they flipped burgers, and met a percussionist pounding the street as a postman. I’ve taught English to a poet who pushed pallets in a warehouses, and an economist who washed up in a pub kitchen. I was once rescued from a cascade of wine bottles by a fully-qualified property manager, with two degrees, who worked the checkouts in Tesco’s. We live in a society that ignores inconvenient talent. Instead, everything we do has to feed the economic sausage machine, otherwise it’s considered pointless, unproductive or unrealistic, head-in-the-clouds, or a pipe dream.

Our education system doesn’t help. It values academic ability more highly than creativity, and the ability to regurgitate facts above all else. If you excel at mathematics, English grammar or science, fine. If your genius is for art, construction, drama, sewing, welding, baking, motor mechanics, caring, hairdressing, music, plumbing, or anything creative, practical or people-centred, the likelihood is you’ll emerge from your school days feeling more than slightly useless.

I worked in schools for many years. Behaviour management they called what I did, but it was more like firefighting. I spent my days battling to force square pegs into round holes. One afternoon a frustrated teacher asked me to take a disruptive student out of her class and listen to him read. It was a fruitless exercise from the get-go. He was severely dyslexic. So far as I know, he still can’t spell his own name reliably, twenty years on. After the third tortured sentence of a book intended for a child less than half his age, he looked up.
“Do we have to do this?”
I couldn’t see the point either. I asked what he’d be doing if he had a choice.
“Stripping down an engine.”
“Really? How do you do that?”
My knowledge of the infernal confusion engine is zero, and my interest even less. Nevertheless, he was able to explain in detail how to dismantle the engine of a car, and to hold my attention while he did so. His enthusiasm caught me up and carried me along. I could almost picture it all in my mind’s eye. It was pure genius. Yet a few weeks later he walked out of school for the last time. A stressed out teacher had called him ‘pathetic’, and it had proved the last straw. We found him a placement with a local mechanic. A few weeks later, his boss told me he was the most naturally-talented apprentice mechanic he’d come across in twenty years.

I’ll never understand why we want everyone to be the same. People are created with an infinite variety of gifts and talents, yet we want them all neatly hammered into identical holes, no matter how much damage the process causes.
‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid’.
Regardless of what Facebook tells me, I’m pretty sure Albert Einstein didn’t come up with that one, but whoever did hit the nail firmly on the head. Why do we want our children to grow up believing they’re stupid?

I’m a lost cause. I’m an idealist, an ageing hippie. I cling stubbornly to the outdated principle that human beings matter more than money. I still hold the wild belief that education should enable human beings to develop their individual potential, rather than squashing them into boxes. I have this revolutionary idea that you and I are more than economic units, that we’re here to explore, to discover, to develop our gifts and abilities, to value ourselves and other people, and to care for this amazing planet we live on. I don’t any of us were born to spend our lives striving to be what someone else wants us to be. I told you I was a hopeless case.

In that past life of mine, I sometimes used to tell frustrated students the problem wasn’t them. It was the system.
“If school was all about artistic talent I’d have special needs,” I used to say.
But given the right conditions, even I can draw a feather…

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