I have just finished watching an episode of a show on BBC3 called ‘The World’s Strictest Parents’. In true BBC style the title masks what was an interesting, eye-opening glimpse into two very different ways of life: the two wayward teens from the UK, and the strict, no-nonsense Botswanan family they spent a week with.
I would usually avoid shows like this, but we are currently in Switzerland and there was little else on cable TV. However, it did remind me of why we are in education in the first place, as both Hannah and Leigh, the two UK teens, are classic examples of individuals let down by our society.
Hannah, her mother having died, spent most of her time binge drinking with her friends; Leigh spent his days smoking cannabis with his ‘only friend’, having dropped out of college age 17. He had piercings, her hair was dyed black. Both arrived at the Selelos family home with their defenses up, but it didn’t take long before the strength of the family bond loosened them up and made them confront the people they were fast becoming.
What was most telling was their time spent at the school the Selelos children were sent to. Leigh soon found his feet, which suggested that it was only his addiction to cannabis that caused him to drop out in the first place (he would not have been the first; I have seen many young men squander their futures through smoking something they believe is not addictive, but is one of the most insidious, destructive drugs there is, due to both its ubiquity and seeming harmlessness). Hannah, on the other hand, was a lost sheep, reverting to well-practised defence techniques of switching off and pretending not to care.
The revelation to them both came half way through the week: they realised that being cool in the UK meant dropping out and acting rebelliously, whereas in Botswana being cool meant working hard. ‘Which is a good thing’, Leigh finished by saying. Hannah began to make an effort, albeit rather tokenistically as they were only in Botswana for a week. However, she did see her ‘live for now’ attitude for what it was – a form of protection against a world she had no control over.
How many young people do we know that are Hannahs or Leighs? Are we part of the problem? Do we only see the piercings or the dyed black hair? Do we give up on them too soon, joining a long line of adults who have done the same thing? I would like to hope not. I would like to think that we have the same high standards with teenagers like Hannah and Leigh as we do with all the young people we teach. I would hope that we enforce the same standards of behaviour in the classroom with all students, and not simply say to ourselves ‘they can’t help the way they behave’ or ‘it’s not my problem to sort’.
I would like to think that, as a new term approaches, we do not reinforce a system which churns out Hannahs and Leighs: lost souls who live for now as the future is unbearable to even consider. It is easy to say that the Botswanans have got it right, keeping their traditions (which include lashing recidivist children who ‘have no rights’ – a fact that went down like a lead balloon with the two teens), that our society is broken (look at the riots), that there is little we can do other than work with the ones who want to get it right, who have a future. But we have a duty to every single student in our schools: not only to educate them, but to expect them to behave, and to sanction them when they do not. It was clear, through watching this programme, that they were not the world’s strictest parents, nor was it the world’s strictest school: theirs was a family who cared deeply enough to tackle disrespect, and a school with clear, firm boundaries and the willingness and strength to uphold them. For me, both had at their core one simple thing: love. Something both Hannah and Leigh seemed to have lost, but had found again, on their return home.