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Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Bad Seed? 

Hey Folks,

Given that this blog is ostensibly - love that word - to do with the fact that I suffer from depression and related anxiety disorders, it propbably won't surprise y'all to hear that I'm concerned. Rather than my concern relating to the usual, general and unspecified sense of fear and existential dread, I'm much worried about the behaviour of the media. And the government. What, you may be wondering, could the government and the media be doing this week to make Sad Sack actually share his concerns with us rather than them being accepted as part of the Natural Order? Well, since you asked, I'll tell you. Lots of people have commented on the legislation contained in the Queen's Speech, notably that which deals with anti-social behaviour* and the media's handling of so-called 'terror scares.' The common view expressed by these legions of bloggers and opinion pieces is that we UK residents were, although perhaps mildly concerned about the threat posed by terrorists we have mainly refused to be terrified of them and to make significant changes to our lifestyles. Neither were we truly frightened by the thuggish antics of a small minority of young people and children, at least until the government decided that we should be frightened and started to make them an issue. I imagine that I will not be the first to note that by trumpeting bills designed to deal with petty crimes almost in the same sentence as those aiming to protect us from international terrorism, then the implication is that this mindless thuggery is on a level as equally dangerous to us as the prospect of men and women prepared to die at the wheels of lorries loaded with high explosives. Taking this implicit argument to its logical conclusion, it follows then that this anti-social behaviour is an even greater threat to our safety do to the fact that it comes forth from and happens within our communities. The message that the government clearly wishes us to receive - and the media aids and abetts it in this aim - is quite clear: there's a group of teenagers on your street and they're throwing stones and bottles. Or grenades. Watch them closely enough and you might see them preparing or planting a dirty bomb. They'll kill you and everyone you care about. Fear them! Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that to replace the services of Alistair Campbell, that Blair had had Ilya Ehrenburg cloned to run a General Election campaign focused on these twinned issues. You all know that it's just mad enough to be true.

Young people have always been perceived as, at the very least, a major annoyance if not an outright threat; Saint Augustine discourses at length about the various failings of youth - it is nothing new, but it is my belief that it has become such a problem today due to the few real problems that we Westerners face. The fact that the fear of wholesale thermonuclear destruction courtesy of the Warsaw Pact and Nato is no longer uppermost in our minds, means that our idea of what constitutes a real threat to collective safety have become diluted and diffused - Lacking this main threat, our minds have wandered and engaged ever more fantastic and nebulous threats. Our apparently genetic need to fear something - higher primates such as gorillas and baboons fear crossing watercourses, and all animals flee from fire - is at odds with the manifest fact that our technology has allowed us to defeat those threats: as well as conquering the Cold War, we've largely destroyed the threat of disease and few fear the possibility of God's wrath and we conequently lack a Great Enemy to occupy this genetic need to fear. We Brits, however, and are constrained by the fact that we're too damn polite.

Liberals, humanitarians and cosmopolitan people - to use Robin Cook's term - have been doing their level best to ensure the failure of those who actively seek to make all Islam and its adherents responsible for the actions of a tiny minority and wish to respond to the violence of these few with collective reprisals, and I think that we are generally succeding in this to ensure that we maintain a free, open and tolerant society. WE are all aware, however, of the hate spread by several vocal members of a truly racist minority in our country, who argue that while many Muslims do not take part in violence, they still tacitly agree with and support its aims. This may be true, I honestly can't say, but I fear that it is true for us as well. Many people would never describe themselves as being racist, but it is a common enough occurence to hear someone, when confronted with the bile preached by the likes of Nick Griffin, say words to the effect of that's terrible, but he kind of has a point... Even if this does represent the 'silent majority,' then they are still constrained by the fact that they know that such views are rarely tolerated and their sense of British manners precludes them from being openly racist and saying that they truly fear what might be said inside a nearby mosque. Where then can this 'silent majority' place their fear? Fat people? No can do, they know it's the fault of poor genes, or McDonalds. The disabled**? Impossible, their homes would be picketed by placard-waving disabled rights activists. The answer: they fear Britain's children. In the eyes of the government, the media and the wider population, children and young adults are schizophrenicaly portrayed as being simultaneously our 'hope for the future' and 'thuggish criminals.' Our society's obsession with the actions of young people has been given full vent in the trial of Luke Mitchell, who is accused of murdering his girlfriend in June of 2003. In what is an extremely emotive case, I'm sad to say that the media's coverage has broadly been sensationalist in manner with plenty of lurid speculation that I believe to be dangerously close to being prejudicial. It seems that even BBC Scotland's coverage is not above it either, but the actions of the tabloid press in particular make me burn with rage. I've read several lurid accounts of the evidence presented in court on Thursday and, despite the import and gravity of the case, it stretches over pages six and seven after dubious psuedo-news reports on the latest happenings in the I'm a Celebrity...encampment. Reading the two pages would require a strong will to cope with the sheer amount of innuendo and spurious claims being presented as evidence. I firmly believe in the nature of the judicial process, but I worry greatly that the prosecution is surrendering to tabloid-style decisions about what constitues sound evidence. Thursday's evidence seems - if the newspaper accounts are to be believed - to centre on the content of several essays and scribblings on the jotters of the accused. The media have driven themselves into a frezy over quotes lifted from these essays and graffitto, making much of the fact that Mitchell refers to Satan as 'a fallen angel' and to having shaken hands with the devil. Much is also made of the accused having written that God 'is a futile excuse at most for a bunch of fools to go around annoying others.' These quotes are tied in the media's mind, if not the prosecution's, to Mitchell's view of himself as a Goth, and the fact that he admires Kurt Cobain and listens to Nirvana. It is implicit that the editors of these esteemed organs view such statements and opinions as being symptomatic of someone who would kill. Neither is there any discussion or analysis of what Mitchell may actually have been saying the quoted material. The entire sweep of the media has failed to analyse these comments in any meaningful way - the do not, for instance, link his professed atheism to him being a student of a school which bases a significant portion of its ethos on religious teaching. Over and over again we are simply expected to accept all this as evidence of murder.

Permit me to offer my own very brief analysis of some of the possible implications of what was presented as evidence: Firstly, regardless on your views on its truth or authenticity, few would argue that even the Bible refers to Lucifer and his status as a fallen angel and physical contact with Satan is a common theme of religion and popular culture, with much literature discussing the subject. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters springs almost instantly to mind as do the lyrics of U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For which actually contains the line 'I have held hands with the Devil.' Few would argue that this would make Bono a Satanist or a murderer. From the way the media has chosen to portray this evidence, is it reasonable to expect that an abscence of belief in God or a steadfast conviction that religion is a load of bollocks, is the thinking of someone who would murder their own girlfriend. I'm a Christian and I find such an inference deeply troubling and offensive. These 'facts' consigned to pages six and seven are bad enough, but the massive frontpage headline simply beggars belief: 'I have tasted the Devil's green blood' splashed across the lower half of the page - under, funily enough, still images from I'm a Celebrity... - and while your eyes may see 'I have tasted the Devil's green blood,' your brain reads 'guilty.' Now you can call me an apologist if you like, but there to be a very good reason for Mitchell to have written this. At the very least there is a possible context for such a statement. We have already been told that Mitchell is a habitual and heavy user of various drugs if not an actual addict. You do not, in my opinion, need to be a team member of the Betty Ford or Priory clinics to be aware of how often addicts describe their addictions in physical, tangible and evil terms - 'demon drink,' 'the hell of substance abuse' - but once again these statements are seen as evidence of criminal intent. This may be the first and last time that you hear me agreeing with Donald Findlay, the boy's QC, who says that they are at best little more than the writings of a rebellious and occasionaly thoughtful young man, and at worst 'stupid.' I personally don't find him to be that rebellious: if I had a pound - even a Euro - for every time I've met an angry teenaged Goth atheist, I'd be taking you all on holiday come summer. Mitchell is a cliche of the modern teen certainly, and I seriously wonder about the current state of collective wisdom if he is being viewed as some sort of dangerous Other. My true hatred of sensationalist coverage stems from the fact that it has the effect of misdirecting us from the real facts of a case. Tucked away in the last two columns of the story, we read about Mitchell's fascination with knives and how he talked openly with friends about how cool it would be to commit murder. Again this does not mean that he actually killed his girlfriend, but it is arguably far more pertinent to the case than what he may have scrawled on the cover of a folder. Luke Mitchell may well be guilty, but it is for the jury sitting in court to decide and not the media. Sadly, regardless of the eventual outcome of the case, I fear that Mitchell's portrayal in the Press will lead to the further stigmatising and alienation of young people, especially those that choose to dress in a certian manner, listen to music that they like and offer opinions on society, politics or religion that more 'responsible' adults may feel uncomfortable with. Ultimately, it makes a mockery of us and our belief that our children are our future.


*Note that if you replace 'behaviour' with the word 'elements' you get a catch-all label most famously beloved of the Third Reich and the USSR. Am I really suggesting that we're on a descent into fascism? Perhaps I am, but I'm hoping to be proven wrong

**I myself have several blind friends, but I've viewed them with a measure of suspicion and distrust ever since David Blunkett became Home Secretary.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Teacher, leave those kids alone: part one of a potentially limitless series 

So, as previously intimated, I've been doing the education thing for the past month and a bit. At first, every event was distinct and sharp in my my mind, but, as the days have passed into weeks, most of them have blurred into an indistinct mass divided into at school and at home. Which is not to say that I haven't enjoyed it as it has been a largely good experience, it's just that only the exceptionally hilarious, sad or maddening events loom large in my memory. I'm lucky to be working with some exceptionally talented and committed staff, and the school environment is good too. I don't recognise any of the 'problem school' issues, beloved of tabloid editors across the land, in this school and I know that it is equally true for the permanant staff as well. In the mornings, I usually arrive before 8.30 which leaves me a good twenty minutes or so to bond with my colleagues in the highlight of the morning, the The Daily Mail Game. The DMG could be considered to be analogous with the USMC's 'hoo-rah' team talk, used to fire men for battle, and it works like this: A teacher's name is selected from a rota each day and that teacher then has to buy a copy of the Mail. In the staffroom they shut their eyes and open it at a random page. They then open their eyes and read whatever is on that page. Such is the mind-numbing stupidity of the Daily Mail's content that we cannot help but be enthused to got out and achieve miracles of educational performance, lest the children in our care leave school so mentally stunted that their only realistic career choice is to work as a journalist for the Mail. If you ever wish to see true failures of educational achievement and guidance then look not at kids hanging around on the streets, but at people who really should know better switching off their analytical functions and unquestioningly accepting the piffle peddled by newspapers like the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail Game has proved so successful that we're thinking of marketing it as a family game next Christmas, and we all fully expect to be millionaires by this time next year, Rodders.

Sadly, it's not all fun and games; I have to do actual work as well. For the first couple of weeks this was mainly just job shadowing and getting the measure of the kids, and doing a fair bit of marking. I know that in future years the system will surely crush me , but for now I actually enjoy marking. Dad's at college doing computer science and he loves the programming element: it seems that we take comfort in repetitive tasks. Doing these sorts of tasks is really in my best interest as it means that my assigned teacher, Mr Bird, can get on with his job and I therefore get to observe a good professional interacting with his classes on an almost full time basis. I also take an active role in class by helping the kids as and when they require it and lately I've taught a couple of lessons to allow me plenty of practise before my tutor from uni comes to assess my progress. A couple of times, they've even left me alone with different groups of pupils to see how I cope with the all-important discipline issues. The fools. So far, though, it's all been going swimingly. Mr Bird, who I work with the most, although I float into the other social science classes fairly regular, is also the school's Depute Head and it's rare to find a member of a schoo's senior management team with any significant teaching responsbilities. He is, however, very gifted and it is obvious that the quality of teaching would suffer if he weren't able to combine the roles successfully. The downside is that he's frequently called to attend no-notice meetings or take interminable phone calls that take him away from class. Although I wasn't too impressed at first, it's worked to my advantage in that I'm now used to and confident enough with the regular students that work continues and discipline is maintained when he's off dealing with the Bigger Picture - the Head, she deals with the Really Big Picture, and consequently has no teaching role whatsoever, which just confirms my theory that school's would benefit from a business management type to deal with the financial side of things to allow the professional teaching staff to get on with things. But I digress.

Success has a funny way of working against you, and my capicity to deal with classroom travails came back to bite me. A week or so back, I, the innocent almost graduate, was sent into Here Be Dragons territory having been asked (i.e told) to cover a 'please take.' This term denotes notes that are passed, such as in the manner with which Blind Pew dispensed the Black Spot, to un-busy teachers asking them to cover for an absent colleague: 'Please take class X @ 10am.' Wily staff will do deals with colleagues, Satan, anyone to avoid an unfamiliar or 'bad' class with a gusto that would impress Machiavelli. Of course, sloth plays a part as well. I was in our classroom marking some essays on electoral reform in Britain in the 1850s - fascinating stuff, you should read up on it - when one of the admin staff walked in and left a note on the desk. Mr Bird saunters back in and tells me that he has a meeting right after lunch to discuss decentralising departmental funding...my eyes glaze over, drool forms at the corners of my mouth as I slowly nod my head and I vaguely realise that he's reading the note..."Oh, can you do this for me?" Do what, I ask, instantly aware to the myriad of possible dangers consigned in a secretary's note. "Mr Green" isn't in today and I've been asked to cover his Higher Computing class, but I can't because of this meeting. I think you'd be up to it though; you can handle it can't you?" He's a decent man, and I honestly think he has confidence in my abilities and that I was indeed up to the task, but knowing that didn't prevent men from wanting to thump him. The luch bell rings and we go and have eat our lunches, which is the traditional protocol at lunchtime. My fate becomes common knowledge among the teachers. You'll be fine, they reassure me. An art teacher who seems like he was was and old man when ENIAC was a boy seems certain that all young people know everything there is to know about technology. "Yes," I tell him, "my glasses are the source of all my powers." What I don't tell him is that I got a D for Higher Computing. The bell ends, signaling the end of lunch.

Showtime

I don't know this class, I don't know this subject; the kids are already in and sat down by the time I get to the classroom. They're doing programming. I feel like telling them that they really want my dad, that this is his bag. I can, at a push, remember how to do a basic loop program, but I'm much more comfortable naming the divisions that fought at Stalingrand and their commanders. I scan the class and recognise a couple of kids from other classes that I've worked with and thankfully they are both good students. One of them is a girl of 17 who is so kind and decent that, to quote a description of one of my own school's prefects, 'so nice that she makes Mother Theresa look like Imelda Marcos.' One pupil asks - deliberately or not, I don't know - a particularly awkward question. Teaching an unknown class can be like a totalitarian state: if you are slow to put restive backs to the wall, then pretty soon you can expect to find yourself facing the firing squad. When you have a good working relationship with students, they'll tolerate weakness or mistakes without complaint, but plenty of others will use it to their advantage. Getting caught out is the easiest way to lose control, but I'm already reacting. I ask the class to offer their knowledge to enlighten their classmate, and there's a pause. It lengthens. Then Mother Theresa's hand shoots up and she reels off an answer that I should be paying attention to, but can't hear such is the volume of my internal cheering. They get on with their project work, coping by themselves and mostly helping each other out. They only ask me basic questions which are covered in sufficient detail in Mr Green's lesson plan. It seems as if they've let me have Round One. They are restless, however, chattering goes on around the room and it increases throughout the second half of the lesson. One boy in particular seems to be talking more than most, but this is just because he has a rather distinctive voice which stands out from the general buzz. Usually, I'd be inclined to let this go because it's not as if he's causing serious problems or disruption, but I'm on the edge still and he's getting to me. I specifically tell him to quiten down and get on with his work, which is silly as it personalises the issue and can lead to escalating tension between teacher and beligerent pupil. I know all this, and I know it's a mistake, I know that he feels aggrieved for being singled out for what is essentially a group transgression but I'm young and inexperienced, he won't shut up and I'm the one with the power.

"That's enough." My tone hardens: "I mean it." Definatly, he ignores me and talks at an ever-increasing volume until he really is disrupting the class. I have to take action. I leave the sanctuary of the desk knowing that I've contributed to this confrontation but I don't know how to step back. The class is arranged in parallel rows of tables, with two sitting side-by-side at each. PCs line three of the walls. I stand opposite him and place my palms on the desk, leaning down to make eye contact and I turn on The Stare that I've been perfecting for most of the last decade. I tell him in no uncertain terms that unless he shuts up right now then I will bring down the full weight of the IT department, the school, the law, God, right down on his head. He's got the message, he knows that I'm The Man in this situation, but he can't help himself and starts to protest. Although I've saved face and the class can finish its hour in peace, I'm hyped up, unable to stop myself and almost snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As I utter the words "stand up when you speak to me," I know that I've fallen into a trap, that I've committed a stupid unforced error. As he stands, I realise the gravity of my errror; it's not so much a person going from a sitting to standing position, more the construction of the Tower of Babel happening right before my eyes.

He's simply the biggest sixteen year old I've ever seen, more than a head taller than me and with the build to match. He's huge, and I can't believe that I've failed to notice his sheer size before now; you can hear me swallowing as my adam's apple moves in my throat. He's standing in front of me, copying my stance, and he's the one looking down for eye contact

"Right, I've stood up. what now?" There is an audible intake of breath as the class prepare for the inevitable fireworks, they know that neither of us can back away now; somebody has to die. My forebrain is utterly paralysed, shocked by the sheer mass of teenaged manchild before me. I'm doomed. The discs spin, three cherries line up and the machine starts spewing coins as my tongue engages, speaking seemingly from far, far away and saying in a voice that I can hardly recognise.

"What happens is that I just told you to stand up, making you look like an idiot in front of everyone, and you did it. Now I'm telling you to sit down, be quiet and let everyone get on with their work and you're going to do it now. He sits down without a word, deflated, seemingly stunned at the loss of his position. Afterwards, I'm back with one of our own first year classes, trying to figure out where The Speech came from. Mr Bird asks me how I got on with the please take.

"Fine," I say. I smile. "No problems."

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Initialising Sarcasm Quotient, Random Insanity Generators. Resuming live transmission... Now 

Hey Folks,

I've been dead for the past two months: dead tired. My last post absolutely drained me of the will, if not the actual inspiration, to write despite there being literally hundreds of world happenings and personal anecdotes to use as material, not least the fact that I saw Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines on Five recently and enjoyed it. No, really, this is me, and Wee Jonny Mostow doesn't have a gun to my head either. So yeah, my last post; there are a couple of comments - okay, the only two comments - that raise questions, and I think it's only fair that I address them, however belatedly. Taking them in reverse order, it is indeed a true story, although not in the way that the first commenter thinks. Although it is a true - and, I hope - accurate portrayal of an actual real-life series of incidents, there is the issue of perspective. When I was writing it, I was, on reflection, pitching it to those who are (were?) regular readers of Doctor's Orders. Regulars know that I'm Allan, 23-and-two-thirds, an occassional student and a depressive. When writing, I totally failed to consider the impact of the post for any new readers.

The first person to comment, Mystic Mog, was reading it with none of the foreknowledge that regular readers possess and, because of the style of the piece, read it in an entirely different way and perhaps came to a different set of conclusions. Although he left only a short comment, it seems that the piece had quite an effect on him, and not a particularly happy one at that. I also think that the story deserves some context so that the regulars can better understand it too.

Back in in June, I wrote a piece about how I was bullied at school and how I eventually dealt with matters; I'm not proud of it, but that was what happened and I think I've learned to accept that part of my past. When describing where I got my mad skillz from, I referred to an uncle whose life "reads like an airport thriller." He, not I, Mog, was the main protagonist of the previous post and I suppose that when I was writing it, I believed that regulars would connect that June post and the events in my last one. Retrospectively, this seems a stupid thing for me to have done as I for one can hardly remember things that I read a few days ago, never mind several months ago. I say this to the legions of the confused: I'm sorry. If, however, you made the link, award yourself five stars and expect a favourable report come the end of term.

But I digress.

As to my motives for writing the piece, they're a bit... complex, I suppose, and there were several strands and, given that confessional blogging - if it happens at all - is the rule here at Doctor's Orders, I'll try and explain them. I love mystery, intruige and secrecy and ever since I heard that "something" had happened in my uncle's past, I've stored away snippets of conversation and tried to unlock the doors to get to the bottom of the story. As I've grown older I've done what research I could into a story that's something of a family myth, rarely spoken of and only ever confronted in the most oblique terms. Over the years I've pieced together the sequence of events by a lot of in-depth reading of those sources that are available, and much more recently, a few rather frank discussions with some people in the know. The events described are done so as accurately as possible; thoughts and feelings are based on conversations with some of the participants and personal knowledge of their actions and personalities. I believe that the emotional descriptions are as accurate as the actual events themselves. My primary reason for writing was to honour people and events and it seems that from Mog's comments that I succeded in this in an accurate manner. To directly answer your question Mog, I have no knowledge of the events you spoke of, but I know several people that undoubtedly do and I have the utmost respect for you all. Secondary motivations are less definable, but I suppose that it's accurate to say that I was aiming to show the human side, the personal interactions that are all too often glossed over when we try and dicuss global conflict. I don't believe it was gratuitous to describe the death of a young mother; the protagonist's reaction to that was pivotal in setting him on the path that led to the final confrontations in the wake of the Warrenpoint attack. One thing that was stressed in conversations was how important keeping hold of one's humanity is in terrible, brutal situations and to not surrender to hate.

Mao said that true power flows from the barrel of a gun, but I very much doubt that true justice ever will.

The Mastadon-like post that was my last offering is only part of the reason for my most recent malaise. For the last five weeks I've been pulling the old 8.30-4pm daily grind: I've been teaching. The poor bastards never knew what hit them...

More soon, which is a sincere promise if only because I've got several posts set up on a time delay.

Take it easy.