A fiend, set deep in the subconscious, creeps up just before dawn, drowning out any hopes and dreams I entertain in a sea of impossibilities – ridicule and shame make getting up to meet the day seem a fruitless task…
I’d be a fool after such a night not to wonder how that whispering demagoguery took hold from such a tender age… empty promises, false claims to justify imaginary smears, add urgency to the question!
If you go by labels and pigeon holes, I couldn’t be writing this. The rule book states I’ve been packaged, relegated accordingly. The truth is I slipped the net, escaped by a whisker – I’m affected, but not incapable.
As an outsider I can fall two ways. Actually, like a good many of us, I can slide every which way, but while my hand is on my heart, let’s just say I can either pack a punch, or help lift the load…
During my formative years, the direction in which I was being pushed didn’t add up. I found myself at the antithesis of the school spectrum. The power of the teachers was paramount, the lessons given out with such conviction, like thousands of others, I could do nothing else but buckle under pressure. I lost control of my faculties and began to believe I was at fault, that I wasn’t worth the shoes I walked in. Dragging the weight of shame behind me, I became an expert in the area of marginalising and failing. I am well aware of how easy it is to swallow the bitter pill of resentment and the destructive outcome that can entail.
And here I crouch beside the water, all these decades later, turning the stone. The smooth, rotund, undulations are cool, reassuring to the hand… there’s no doubting the weight… it’s heavy… I push, ever so slightly, a place teaming with life opens up… an ancient familiarity, where nothing is what it seems, harbours time to wonder awhile.
Watching a line of ants going about their business, shifting twigs, earth, crumbs, anything useful for the home run, I became transfixed. Some of the debris was so big they gathered in mates to help carry the load. Marvelling at their diligence, working together, solving complex manoeuvres on rout, I swear I heard an unsaid language at play, saw how nothing bar death would stop them colonising, as humans might. Whatever these tiny creatures were doing, they were giving me an enormous amount to think about.
Irony had it that some great teachers outside the system, opened my eyes to reason, to the logistics, flipped chaos into sense, revealing how the finger of the system needed me to fail. By unearthing this truth, I revealed a helpless child still pickled in the anguish and absolute fear of failing. As the root cause of my disintegration and alienation, became clearer, a stark simple truth emerged, prompting me see the model for what it was: a fundamental understanding of how the formalities of education are structured, on the back of a calculated curriculum… formed from the ground up, categorised and evaluated, according to someone else’s need.
Set up for the path ahead… we start, like eager puppies, performing tricks for a treat. If you behave accordingly, jump the hoop as you are supposed to, you’re rewarded with a gold star. As the terms go by that prized star grows in stature, morphs into exam results, degrees, doctorates, the crowning glory of a diploma. For those of us running in the opposite direction, such a glittering prize becomes an increasingly impossible goal. When you’re told year in and year out that passing exams is the one and only way to realising life, and you can’t get past the first hurdle, the wind soon goes out of the sails, along with any remaining enthusiasm for the persons and places who put you there.
In sport winning and losing are necessary to the game… competing adds zest, fun and edge to an event. But if winning and losing become the affirmation of our education, our life and our existence, then it’s time to shut up shop and expect unmitigated problems.
In endless meetings, think tanks, state gatherings, in the halls and corridors of parliament, in our senates and universities, we manufacture, invent, dream up, re-establish and refresh the benchmark, by which we measure the next generation to come. It’s a simple hypothesis, the highest achievers, the underachievers, and the last in line, are measured and framed, then sold and bought. For every winner, there must be losers – the yardstick makes it so! Even if we make second or third, especially tough in a high-ranking institution like Cornell, Harvard, or Oxford, where the competition is fierce, we are marked out as those who didn’t quite… passion and fundamental interest for the subject, lost to a disparaging and demeaning game.
This is a dilemma that I have to address if I want to root out the worst of what these academic ground rules have given me. Take it from a bigot in recovery, the dismissal of many to offset a few, sets us apart. The greater the distance, the more the bigotry between us festers and grows. Our thoughts and imaginings, underlying these rulings, ponder the worst. We become vindictive, deceitful, learning to stab each other in the back, with a wry smile and a fake tear… the leader reveals a margin of hope, for the outsiders and the malcontents, yet from that first day in the ring, questions, doubt and malfunctions arise… it’s kill or be killed… a deadly poison, seeping into the fabric of humankind.
Rather than push each other further apart, how do we wake up to the challenges, make this segregation and separation between us diminish? How? You may ask, at least I hope you ask, given the distance between us here, between the so-called ill-educated and educated, if it’s feasible, possible even to come halfway, to find aspects of life we share, with sensitivity and careful diplomacy.
Sometimes it seems as if we’re tiny cogs, part of a gigantic machine that’s propelled by its own momentum, unwieldy and cranky, as its grown in stature through the millenniums.
Some accountability must lay with those untouchables, who live somewhere in the rational and irrational ether… phantom legislators, top ranking officials, lawmakers, administrators, who we rarely come into contact with. We assume they know what they’re doing, at least we hope they know… logisticians, working a slick machine, behind a guarded façade, an impenetrable fortress of leadership and governance, where the dress code, gives pomp and ceremony an all-prevailing, important air. If you’re not a member, or don’t have an invite, you don’t get in.
The idea that we adopt and construct power by image has become a global phenomena. In our mercurial standing, separated at birth, retained in adulthood, the front is written up, a fortress representing the sanctum of our existence.
The facilities and faculties of education remain complicit. Parading the main event, as governed by league tables, by a name, the plaque, the buildings, the tools at our disposal, desks, offices, the latest computers and so on, gives us status… the coveted letters of merit before and after our name and we lift the trophy. Our choices, those life defining decisions, made by parents and teachers, are hammered by charts and winning results, no matter what the consequences; this is particularly so in our revered universities, like the university city of Cambridge where I was formally educated.
And yet, when it’s not depressed by political football, or stitched up in fancy clothing, the teachings, found within our schools and colleges, have the possibility to close the gap between us by miles. There’s no doubting the rig, however its sold to us, whatever the facade, the means at our disposal make a marked difference… proper, dignified, respectful, encouragement can see a child turn a cold and seemingly impossible corner toward a more refined, mature, responsibility.
Nevertheless, the stark reality, for most pupils and educationalists, sees this organic need for learning buried in reams of paperwork, doctrine and bureaucracy, a smokescreen of importance, where the ramifications of mind, in all its manifestations, are overlooked…
From a humble flint stone, to a complex robot, thought has given humankind a wide and varied array of lifestyles, punctuated with a plethora of modern miracles. Water, cupped in the hands from source, can be propelled, plumbed, hot and cold, to the kitchen sink. A bolt of lightning, morphed to electricity, powered into homes and capitals by a flick of a switch. From a hand-print in a cave, to a masterpiece in a gallery… wind and string, to a symphonic hall… foot stomping in a clearing, to a swan lake… from an incision with a sharp stone, to microsurgery in a gleaming theatre… a donkey and cart, to a rocket jetting the airways… smoke signals, to the mobile phone… these innovations and inventions were once a twinkle in the mind’s eye.
Riding waves of discovery, the mind has enabled us to go where no person has gone before, in the same breath it gives us triumphs of engineering, that can induce mass extinction with a single shot. Truly, a double-edged sword. Our flare for developing the earth’s resources, such as the harnessing of oil, continues to give us our greatest achievements, yet it has also given us levels of pollutants that threaten the heart of our families, the animal kingdom, as well as the natural environment. And if that weren’t enough to pull the power of our cerebral faculties into focus, the fickle nature of this friend, mind, serves up more wars than ever before, more conflict, mental and emotional breakdowns, unmitigated stress, alienation, depression, inhuman laws, unparalleled insecurity driven by uncontrollable fear.
From armchair quiet in a presidential office, calm planning and strategic counsel, can unleash chaos, loud, untold hell, in another country, on the other side of the world.
For many of us, who work in artistic and academic fields, the power of thought can make, break, or fragment, as we seek sociological, physiological and psychological understanding.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy, an accident, a breakdown, to gain perspective, to realise that the mind and the logic therein can be as treacherous as it is creative.
In my lifetime, there have been disasters, such as Aberfan, Ronan Point, Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough, Grenfell Tower, not to mention other tragedies that tell a trillion stories of how easy it is to destroy life.
Our thoughts may enlighten, dictate, destroy, reciprocate, fix, the ways and means by which we live, but they can never turn the planet, or replace the largess of being a witness to its wonder and beauty.
It’s not unreasonable when you ponder the mind like this to realise the limitations, a vital perspective, where we come to observe the ordinance, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, without the spin of thought, however useful, clouding the window to our surrounding world…