The motto of one of the high schools I went to was “I Aim High”. Naturally, the ‘i’ in aim had been erased from most of the signs…

Expectations weren’t so high at Penrose High, in general, but I had a maths teacher who took three of us out of the crowd and set us off with text books two years advanced. We didn’t sit the official exams but we all passed the practise exam. We got much better grades a year or two later when we were really ready, but I learned an awful lot more when I was challenged than when things were easy.

When I was at teacher’s college they talked about setting high expectations – for behaviour and for learning. This was much more difficult in the classroom than in theory, of course, but I found that my year ten english class enjoyed and learned a lot from Pygmalion, my social studies class engaged and grew while studying democracy and social action. These were tough, complex subjects and well “beyond’ them, but they learned a lot more than they would have had I pitched to the middle of the group. I had a wide range of abilities in the classroom and at least when I pitched high it was a bit much for all of them (and quite regularly it was a bit much for me too: curly questions a-plenty!)

Now, they didn’t do higher level assessments, and they probably didn’t do much better in their assessments than they would have otherwise, but at the tender age of fourteen they grappled with important topics and did some amazing stuff – raising money and awareness for various human rights issues in their social action assignments, for example.

I’m realising it’s not so different with a toddler. Yesterday, leaving the playground, he bid the others ‘Au Revoir’ and it occurred to me, he knows to say the french word to the french people!

At home he always says ‘bye bye’ when he, or someone else leaves, but at the park, and the bakery, and other french places, he says ‘Au Revoir’. At church and when we’re with english-speaking friends he knows to use ‘Bye bye’ and will only say ‘Au Revoir’ if prompted.

What’s going on in there? 

It’s easy to assume, simply because his communication is limited, that he doesn’t understand things, but that’s simply not the case. I could dumb down my communication ‘to his level’ but to be honest I don’t really know what ‘his level’ is.

As the teacher in Ballykissangel said, “If it doesn’t hurt or confuse I try to give an honest answer.” And I’d like to say the same with regards communicating with Louis. It’s a challenge every day, heck, every mealtime, every time he wants my attention and I’m feeding Elena… or a million other things I might be doing. But I want to keep trying to explain, trying to talk to him with respect and honesty.

“Louis, you can throw the soft toys and the balls, but not the hard toys.” This is usually followed by a demonstration of what soft and hard mean. And then he goes and throws the toy car anyway.

Drives me up the wall, but so did explaining democracy thirty times in a term. Didn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile.

The other obvious application for this is my writing – of course. I’m realising the importance of integrity in this field. There’s a lot of focus on marketing and setting up your ‘platform’, on publishing, and success. Now there’s a time and place for all that, there has to be or there’d be no books, and no writers making a living… important considerations.

Focussing too much on that stuff will make us sell-outs. I’ll stop doing something well for the sake of doing it well, for integrity and self-respect and because I have something important to say – or its important to me at least. I’ll grow resentful of successful writers, of agents and publishers, and eventually of writing itself.

So, here’s to doing things well, to aiming high, just BECAUSE.

One thought to “A(i)m High”

  • Hélène

    I missed out on the amazement Richard felt/still feels at bilinguism in practice in young children. However amazing it is (and it is!), from a personal point of view, it’s literally a no-brainer, just the way it is, you speak French, I speak French to you, if it’s English, I do English. Children are ruthlessly efficient at identifying the “best” language to communicate in though. VERY embarrassing when sweet people with terrible accents try and engage in the “wrong” language with the bilingual kid, and face puzzled looks. Sophie used to get quite cross until she learned the art of politeness. Had to smile my way out of that one loads of times.

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