I had a teacher when I was nine years old, and I don’t remember her name. I do remember, with the unembarrassed cruelty of a nine-year-old, that she had long, stringy dark hair and a moustache on her top lip. She was new to the school, young-ish and timid. We weren’t an easy class. I also remember that I was her favourite, or at least I felt that way.

I wasn’t an easy nine-year-old, either. Too clever by half, fond of hearing my own voice and even fonder of hearing it answer a question right, with an arsenal of long words I liked to use but didn’t always understand. This teacher made a huge fuss of me, though. She crowed over my answers, had admiring conversations about my work with the teaching assistant, asked me where I wanted to sit before she rearranged the class tables, and generally made me feel like I was the most important person in the room, with the possible exception of God.

I loved it. I luxuriated in the attention. I was going to be a world-famous novelist, a journalist, the eradicator of cancer, British Prime Minister by the time I was twenty-five. Clearly I deserved a bit of special treatment. It was the best year of primary school I ever had.

Do you know what else I remember, though? Underneath, I despised her. Even I could sense that she was going over the top, that I didn’t really deserve to be made such a fuss of. I suspected the real reason for my celebrity was some weakness in her, though I didn’t know what that was. And though I liked her and felt sorry for her, I despised her for it.

Ever since then, I’ve thought that kids want to work a little for their praise.

I can’t think about that teacher now without a pang – I hurt for her and her insecurity and my casual dismissal of her efforts, the way even her name has slid out of my head – but I think about her often these days. I think that what we praise our children for teaches them what we value, and becomes what they value in themselves. And how many times a day do I tell Henry he’s a clever boy?

Too many. Too many, when cleverness isn’t nearly as important as trying hard, or being kind, or being brave enough to try something new. When cleverness isn’t really what I’m praising him for at all.

He will be able to tell if I mean what I say. So I think I’d better start saying what I actually mean.

2 thoughts on “Praiseworthy

  1. I can remember being nine and having a teacher who was forever praising me. I can remember the first day of year four (as you’d call it now) and her thoughtful expression as she looked down at me in that classroom. “You look a hardworking boy,” she said, and I realised, at that moment, that I’d have to make sure I lived up to that.

    I spent the rest of the year working as hard as I could, desperate to please, and feeding off her compliments and encouragement, every word of which was genuine, but never overstated. She was – I suspect – rather different to the teacher you had.

    We we were taught by Mrs Mann for a year, and then I moved up to year five, and she got a new class whom she taught for a term before she died of cancer. The last day of the autumn term, she cleaned out her desk and cupboards, knowing somehow that she would never return from Scotland. She can’t have been older than thirty. They made a garden of remembrance for her at the end of the school field.

    These days, she still haunts my thoughts from time to time, perhaps more so now that Joshua is nearly the same age. I can still remember the rhymes and the songs and the strange little rituals and the emphasis on politeness. And most of all, I remember that assumption that I would be a good student, not someone to be pressganged into working but someone who could already do it willingly, and my desire to live up to that. I learned an awful lot from Mrs Mann – but nothing more important, perhaps, than the lesson she taught me on that first day.

    • That’s so lovely. What a huge difference you can make to a child by saying so little.

      I often wonder what happened to my teacher – despite the (in hindsight) chronic lack of self-confidence, she was lovely. Perhaps given a few more years in teaching, she’d have been more inclined to tell me to button it. I hope so – I needed it.

      (This isn’t a story that reflects terribly well on me. I almost put a disclaimer – when you start a story about your primary school teacher, it’s almost certain to be heartwarming, and this one isn’t.)

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