During my career, I have taught all age groups between 11 and 18. I have taught mainly at the upper end of that range, but the younger pupils are the most enjoyable to educate. They do not see education as something to be negotiated, or endured. They don’t tend to ask about the syllabus, or whether this will be on the test. They embrace irrelevant material with the same open mind as content central to the course. They delight in tangential learning. They ask questions that test the teacher, such is the width of their imagination. They approach learning without cynicism or pragmatism. If something is presented as interesting, they will run with it, interrogating it until understanding is teased out.
The 11, 12 or 13 year-old pupil is adept at expressing himself (or herself) and knows something of the world by this point. However, understanding is inevitably limited and therefore every new piece of learning is a potential gateway into something much larger. This pupil has not become dulled by screen exposure and it is unusual for teenage angst to have taken over as a dominant emotion. The spectre of assessments and external examinations has yet to hove into view and the desperate need to conform to the appearance, attitudes and opinions of one’s peers is still some way off.
There’s a focused energy that manifests itself in insatiable curiosity; the desire to ask question after question on matters of genuine interest. There’s also a pleasing lack of cynicism, unless they have become old before their time. My experience is that children are far more resilient than we give them credit for; many who speak of a lack of robustness in boys and girls are really attempting to push their own neuroses onto children. The world is a far more fascinating place when you have yet to fully work it out, or understand how you might play a part in its development. The world is an exciting place when observed from a height of just over a metre and consequently you’re forced to look up and wonder.
I reflect on this having recently watched the highlights from Italia ‘90, the 14th FIFA World Cup. I was glued to every game I was able to watch, being a 13 year old just out of Prep School in London. There is still much I remember about the tournament, and the football is only part of it. The names of the players, their clubs, the places and the history of the World Cup provided me with a gateway into much more and I existed for a few weeks in a wonderful place between true understanding and total ignorance. It was a sort of ‘zone of curiosity’, made more exciting for my grasp being tenuous.
The mad staring eyes of Toto Schillaci were often described as being typically Sicilian and I was therefore convinced there was a place in Italy where the inhabitants all possessed eyes like Marty Feldman. England played their group games in Cagliari, with its giant amphitheatre and necropolis and it seemed unusual to be playing matches on an island away from mainland Italy when other teams were fighting it out in glorious stadiums called the San Siro and Stadio delle Alpi. D H Lawrence wrote about Cagliari in his memoir, Sea and Sardinia and his trip of 69 years earlier felt like a very long time ago, though Peter Shilton had been playing professional football since before I was born, so he might as well have been on the boat with Lawrence. Not that they would have found much to talk about. I remember being excited that Chris Waddle played for Marseille when all the other players were marooned in English football and I reserved particular fondness for Steve Bull, who despite being good enough to play for England, plied his trade in the second division, presumably due to a sense of loyalty for his club, Wolverhampton Wanderers. I could only imagine Wolverhampton was a place of rare beauty, a bit like Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where you could get a free bar of chocolate if your own turned out to be defective. Your statutory rights were not affected.
I remember enjoying the silky violence of the Cameroon team, until they played England anyway. I was convinced the Argentinians were all cheats and was delighted to see Maradona in tears after the final. That was one back for Las Malvinas. I watched Lothar Matthaus’ goal versus Yugoslavia over and over and wondered how Scotland could manage to lose to Costa Rica. I had no idea where Costa Rica was or anything about the country, but it didn’t seem right for Scotland to lose to a country I presumed was a small Island off the Spanish coast. I remember being disappointed in Brazil too, having watched the 1970 final highlights and expected them to play like this al, the time. Incidentally, the moment where Pele dummies the ‘keeper might be my favourite bit of football, made better by the fact he misses the chance after all the hard work.
After all that rose-tinted rambling, there probably needs to be a conclusion. In short, it’s great being that age. You feel protected by family, excited about the world and keen to learn more about it. Almost anything is interesting if you’re willing to delve into it, and even when your team goes out on penalties in the semi-final, you’ve only got to wait for another 28 years for that to be put right. Let us all try to retain a little of the wide-eyed curiosity we had at the age of 13.