Negative reinforcement

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This is called 'negative reinforcement'. It's rubbish and, thankfully, rare these days. In moments of despair, fatigue or bloodlust, I may have called Dave Mania 'a buffoon', but it was never meant to be malign.

Teachers have famously got it well wrong with genius. Einstein pretty rubbish at arithmetic and Charlie Parker wasn’t much cop on the saxophone. Some of my old teachers went in for some of this stuff with us much lesser mortals. Like my old French teacher Mr Emlyn Jones. 

He thought I was deliberately “thick”, when I was merely useless – what with having him for the subject. He once called me “a cabbage”. Then, warming to his theme and upping the volume, he barked: “Whitwham! I would rather be planting a vegetable than teaching you!” He paused to let the full significance of this sink in. It didn’t. “At least it bears fruit!”

I paused to let the full sense of this sink in. It didn’t.

“You will grow up to be a wide boy!” he prophesied.

Yikes! What was that? Someone of vulgar tastes and low moral fibre, much given to hair gel and brothel creepers?

Who knew? My geography teacher, Sam Morgan, was worse. He too thought me thick, when I failed to name any of “the five great lakes”, which he had never taught me.

“What are you boy?” thundered the old nutter through a haze of caffeine and whiskey.

“Stupid, sir!”

“Correct!”

“Spell it!”

I did. Just. He told me I would amount to little. He was right. I got seven per cent in the O level. This is called “negative reinforcement”. It’s rubbish and, thankfully, rare these days. We’re now more sensitive and sussed. In moments of despair, fatigue or bloodlust, I may have sometimes called Dave Mania “a buffoon of the first order”, but it was never meant to be malign. The illustrious scamp may yet still get a Nobel Prize in Buffoonery.

But though we’re kinder, we can’t get too smug. We may not insult them, but our juggernaut curriculum can do it for us – it labels and defines with doom-fulfilling prophecies. I don’t want to go all Dickens, but imagine what it’s like to be put in the bottom stream or on the lower tier or on a D-minus forever and never feel that you’re much good at anything. It happens all too much. Callous insult may have galvanised Sir John to sweet revenge, but it still blights all too many lives. Not quite mine. I was lucky to escape.

Mind you, I did grow up to be a bit too “wide” – and am tending to an almost vegetable state these days.



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