Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Shattering the crystal ball

In January 1998, I dropped my elder son off for his first day at 'big school'. I was very good and didn't cry until he was out of sight.

He was six-and-a-quarter, average sized for his age, with very blond hair, knock-knees and thick glasses. Like many children who wear glasses from an early age, he had a tendency to screw up his nose all the time to keep them in place. Anyone looking at him would have labelled him a nerd on the spot.

They would have felt vindicated watching him settle in to school life in those early months. Unlike most of the kids, he could read and write. I know that in countries where kids are packed off to school aged 4, kids are able to read and write much earlier, but in South Africa, where school starts in a child's seventh year, we never saw the rush. He had pretty much taught himself.

His general knowledge was unparalleled, and he tended to prefer conversation with adults to that with his peers. He would ask me with a pained look on his face why the kids at school called him 'weird' and 'freak'.

South African schools are big on sport - every child is expected to play one winter and one summer sport. My son was one of those kids who was keen to try everything, so he signed up for cricket and tennis in that first summer term, followed by rugby and (field) hockey in the winter terms. Watching him on the sports field, you would not have been impressed with his prowess. His efforts on the tennis court were purely cognitive. He had seen people play tennis on TV, and he aped their actions. On the cricket field, the coach called him Jonty Rhodes, not because of his skill, but because of his enthusiasm. His rugby skills were a joy to behold: 29 little boys would be crowded around the ball down one end of the field with utter disregard for positional play. At the other end was one little boy lying on his back trying to do a shoulder stand and touch the ground behind his head with his toes. My son.

Early in the second quarter of the year, he had to give up hockey and tennis to attend occupational therapy classes in an attempt to bring his motor skills age up to his chronological age.

Chess was on offer from grade 3 onwards. My son asked the teacher if he could join. She was a bit nervous about setting precedent, so she set him to play one of the regulars to see what he was made of. He won and became the first grade 1 child to play for the school team.

His idea of fashion was the top T-shirt on the pile paired with the nearest pair of shorts or jeans. Colour? What did that matter? They fitted didn't they?

Like I said: nerd.

Today I dropped off my 16 year old son at the station for his first day in 6th form - the optional two years that follow compulsory education in the UK. He is almost 6 feet tall, with a 6-pack. The glasses were abandoned in favour of contact lenses when he was 10, and that changed his life. The contact lenses were abandoned a few years later.

He is Mr Popularity with the kids of his own age. The girls drool over him. He no longer plays chess, because only the nerds play at school.

He throws javelin and sprints 200m for the county. He plays rugby with fierce determination and no shoulder stands. He bowled for a men's local cricket team from the age of 14. One of his GCSE subjects was PE (including sports theory). If there is a sport on offer, he'll have a go.

Before leaving for school this morning, he styled his hair with my straighteners and checked his appearance carefully in the mirror. And as I watched him walk from the car to the station, I noticed a much older woman admire his rear.

So I've learned not to set too much store by early predictions. He's still the same person on the inside in many ways, but the early predictions of where he would excel and where he would fail have been proven so very inaccurate.

Do you have a learner who struggles to start with? Are you ready to give up on them? I suggest they might surprise you, yet! Just hold fire with those labels - you might need to print off a different set at the end of the day.


V Yonkers said...

I can't believe how much your son sounds like mine. My son was the one in the goal during soccer doing dances as the play was at the other end of the field.

We put him in sports as it seemed that every thing academically came so easy. I wanted him to learn how to work at something, and not being a natural athlete meant he had to work for it. Although always tall, he was the kid no one threw the basketball to as it tended to hit him in the face and fall to the floor.

That changed when he was 11 and 12 years old as the game became more strategic. This year he was excited as he was able to start for the soccer team. Of course, it has been frustrating as they learn new strategies because the other team members pick it up faster. But once he has it, he is able to use those strategies more consistently in the appropriate circumstances.

We decided to challenge him when he was younger, putting him into circumstances where he could fail, as a young person so we could teach him how to overcome failure at a young age. I couldn't read until I was 13-14 years old, and now I am finishing up my dissertation for a Ph.d. On the other hand, I have a sister who was brilliant, and had a horrible time in college as she did not have the skills to cope with failure, nor the support of my parents (as she went to school away from home).

The upsycho said...

@V Yonkers Yes, we encouraged him to 'have a go' at everything, even when we knew he was doomed to fail from the outset. The teachers were concerned about allowing him to play sport with his glasses on. We conceded that they could be removed for contact sports. We replaced them many times! But we were not going to have him lead a restricted life because he wore glasses.

He is now a natural athlete, annoyingly good at everything he tries. We can only assume that his poor motor skills at an early age were due to his eyesight. We only realised that he was really long-sighted when he was 4, so his motor-skills both gross and fine had been severely hampered by an inability to see what he was doing. The opthalmologist told us this was quite common in boys and he was likely to outgrow it. He did.

But when he was little, you would have been forgiven for predicting a spotty teenager with thick glasses, no social skills, poor co-ordination, exceptional academic skills, few friends - all them as geeky as himself - and certainly no girlfriends. But had you done so, you would have been wrong.

We have always told our children that they can succeed at anything they put their minds, if they only want it badly enough.

By the way, do you know Josie Fraser? She has a similar tale of only learning to read very late, and yet going on to stellar achievement.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Karyn!

Children are all different, even if it's just the pimples. All of my six are different from one another.

There was one similarity in their want of school when they were all wee and that was they didn't oppose it - like some children do. But they were different nevertheless.

Catriona, the youngest, was by far the most determined about going to school, though I wouldn't call her an academic.

In New Zealand kids can't start school until 5 years old. Catriona pestered us until we agreed that she would start school on her birthday.

On the morning of her 5th, I got up early to have a shower and was confronted by my newly 5 year old daughter. She stood at the top of the stairs, fully clothed, coat, hat and shoes, with her sachel on her back, waiting to be taken to school. Her shiny clean face wore a determined smile. It still draws tears when I think about it.

Love your children and their every moment, Karyn, whatever age they are. They're precious.

Ka kite

The upsycho said...

@blogger Don't I just know it! So very different - each carrying their own baggage, and each requiring their own form of nurturing.