You’ll never amount to anything.
My primary five teacher did not have high expectations of myself and my nine-year-old classmates. But it wasn’t our fault, he said. It was our primary two teacher to blame, he said. I don’t recall exactly what it was she had done to ruin the life chances of our entire class but I remember marvelling at her ability to play the guitar and the way her dangly earrings used to sway in time to the music. They were shaped like fish. That’s the extent of my memory of primary two.
By contrast, my memories of my primary five teacher are all too vivid. He didn’t play the guitar, and nothing he wore held my interest but I remember very clearly the way he used to tell us that we would never amount to anything.
Perhaps he was building our resilience.
I wonder where my classmates are now. What have they amounted to? Have they done better or worse than me? How would our primary five teacher rate us now, almost 40 years later? Have we all failed at life? What mark do we deserve and who is counting?
I am surrounded by numbers. Statistics. Every day the BBC tell me how many more deaths, how many more cases, how many more NHS staff infected by a disease they work to save us from. The media assess how our government measures up against other nations, by analysing who took action at the right time, who didn’t and who’s to blame.
As educators across the country work hard to measure the worth of their pupils, how many young people will be labelled as failures because they were expected to score low in the exam they never had the chance to take?
The counting doesn’t end there. Some counting is more purposeful than others. In my place of work there’s a debate around how to calculate the number of participants “attending” a venue that is closed. That’s how we used to measure our success: a counter above the front door measured the number of people who entered. Whatever their customer experience, whether they rated us five star or no star, we counted their footfall as a success. A physical, indisputable measure: a foot crossing a threshold. So how do we measure up when the door is closed and the counter stuck on zero? I am told there are other numbers we will find to measure instead.
Perhaps the most significant count of all, though, is who gets paid in a pandemic?
It feels like a confession to say that I get paid in a pandemic when the people I have worked with, relied on and learnt from, do not. I get paid for being one of the people working out what else to count once the counter stops. I look for ways to be useful, to measure my success and justify my salary. How do I measure my own success? Is it in the diligent completion of my 9-5 daily shift, worked the isolation of lockdown? The number of visitors I drive to our website? The number of words I write? How well I follow instructions? Or do I earn my salary by adhering to company directives?
I can measure the number of sleepless nights, the level of angst and feelings of helplessness at my inability to know how best to act in a crisis but these are not measures of success. Measure what you value, rather than valuing what you measure, so the saying goes.
What about those who are not getting paid in this pandemic? I marvel at their ability to act, adapt, to think for themselves, create new opportunities and be of value. They are the ones that I turn to now, the ones I still rely on and learn from in this pandemic. The freelancers, artists and activists brave enough to be different; the ones who do not depend on an institution to pay their wage. Their creativity, generosity, empathy and humanity are beyond measure. But unsalaried.
I recall the people who have inspired me, the ones who made me feel valued and the ones who did not; the ones who labelled me a failure. I recall my primary five teacher and my primary two teacher and I wonder how each of them is measuring up in this pandemic.
Written by Average Jo.