This is H, aged 5, at his sports day many years ago. He's looking confused, and not a little distressed. You see he'd just run the 50m running "race" and won by a mile. Fastest boy in his year group. The day is forever etched into my memory - but not because of this great achievement. Let's face it this was in Reception, when at least half the year can barely coordinate themselves sufficiently to hurtle down the track let alone understand the point of it all. No, the reason I will never forget the day was because of the comment made by the teacher running the event.
"Round you go again!" she said.
You see, his school didn't believe in competitive sports. Ever. "Everyone's a Winner" was the school's motto, and very commendable it sounded - if a little overly politically correct. But to put this ethos into context you should know that this little boy had never, ever been a "winner" in his life.
Non verbal until well past the age of three, he found school impossible to comprehend. He spent most of Reception under the table, a convenient place from which to lob heavy books at any passing teacher! With 46 fixed term exclusions to his name by the age of six school was not somewhere he shone. Rather he endured, they crisis managed and I cried. A lot.
So when my little Cygnet (as his class was known) raced down that track, completely engaged and utterly focussed on that finish line, I could have cheerfully strangled the insensitive, dismissive voice that expected him to keep re-running the absurd "race" until it was time to move on to the next activity.
WHAT ON EARTH FOR???
There is a reason children participate in a huge variety of activities in school, beyond the academic, and it isn't just to give the teachers a break. Children learn in a huge variety of ways, and learning is never solely about reading and writing. Emotional and social education is a fundamental part of any child's education, and many children - particularly younger ones, gain most social and emotional learning from activities outside the classroom, in addition to the holistic environment they are in. My child had, at that moment, made an enormous breakthrough. He had been engaged in a group activity, focussed on a delayed result which required immediate engagement and participation, and appreciated the potential reward of any effort he made.
Which was swiftly taken away from him with that single sentence.
Unsurprisingly, the children who excel in the classroom are rarely those who are equally talented at sport. Or music, or art. All children are individuals with gifts, talents, difficulties and challenges as diverse as their faces. So denying children the opportunity to redress any imbalance within the classroom by removing competition outside, is misguided and potentially damaging.
So why am I telling you this now?
You may well ask. Two reasons really. H is nearly 14 and we've seen a complete turnaround over the years. Still hugely challenging at times, he now excels in the classroom, whilst the athletics track brings more of a challenge. Due to poor management of joint hypermobility and a huge delay in obtaining appropriate support he not only has completely flat feet but also something known as external tibial torsion. Basically his legs curve outwards below the knee, offsetting his entire skeleton and he simply cannot run fast anymore. Indeed, before he started wearing day splints, night splints and summer in casts to stretch his calf muscles last year, he could barely run at all.
The second reason for remembering this event is that we do seem to be "going round again" with the twins. Unable to play much sport because of health issues my youngest son is a gifted chorister. But no amount of persuasion could prompt his school to permit him to shine. Their obsession with group work and "equal opportunity" blinded them to his lack of opportunity in other areas. His singing gives him confidence and since joining our local church choir he is a different child.
Similarly, his twin is incredibly good at art. Whilst that might seem rather boastful, I can honestly tell you that she's really not much good at team games, struggles with Maths and finds friendships quite a challenge at times. Art is her "thing". But try convincing anyone that's it's ok to excel publicly and gain opportunities to work outside of a group and it's as if you've suddenly grown a second head.
H himself summed it up best after his enthusiastic and commendable participation in his High School Sports Day in July this year. He tried so hard and wasn't last but was quite thoughtful after. He hadn't forgotten that day eight years ago either.
"I was fast once, wasn't I Mummy? When it didn't count."
Except it did. It counted HUGELY for me. I observed and recognised every little achievement in those 50m and will never, ever forget that day. It's made me want to celebrate all goals reached, to recognise all my children's talents and appreciate where they are NOW, and let them feel good about themselves. Because none of us are equal - and difference isn't a bad thing. That child winning the race may well be fighting battles you have no comprehension of - and deserves to be a winner, to come first. It might be the only time they do.