Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Lilies of the field

Home Front

There was a particularly poignant detail in the reports this week of the brutal murder of an 18 year old black youth - by all accounts an adorable, hard-working and sporty lad who was thinking of becoming a lawyer and worked as a church youth leader in his spare time - in Liverpool.

(The murder was singled out by the police for special note because it was apparently motivated by racial hatred, which means we get to hear far more about it than, for example, that of the young man who died last week after stab wounds received because he objected to his girlfriend being pelted with food on a bus…or about any other of the many senseless killings of young men, by young men, which happen all year round.)

It was a detail that will have leapt out of the page for thousands of parents at this time of the year above all others.

Anthony Walker’s life was snatched from him two weeks before he was to receive his A-level results. Of all the torments his family must endure in the years to come, the arrival of those results will be among the most bizarre and cruel. The computer-print out bearing the precious grades will come in the post, presumably, as for every other student in the country, but in the Walker home there will be no nervous boy to tear open the envelope. It does not bear thinking about, does it?

What is it with us parents and exams? We press our young to work hard towards a specific set of very narrowly defined goals, and then when the results come in we blithely declare that there is “more to life than exams“. Any kid in any sixth form can tell you that in no way whatsoever is there “more to life” than exams. For the kind of driven student I remember being, life barely exists outside exams. And if you are good at exams, not everything else seems easy. It comes as a shock to find that life does not come with a list of set books attached.

It is so hard to get it right. Either we soften the blow of poor results by employing the old “Your uncle Kevin failed all his O-levels and it never did him any harm” line or by using newer, more modern versions of the same tactic, such as that suggested recently by teachers that failure be described only as “deferred success”.

Sheer hypocrisy, either way.

Of course exams matter. They matter dreadfully in a world which never takes the trouble to make anything other than a snap judgement about a person. We make our children sit these crucial exams, the foundation of many snap judgements in their future lives, at an age when they still find the idea of deferred gratification a tricky one, How to explain to a 15 year old boy that without an A-C grade at Maths GCSE, about two thirds of the decent-paid jobs in the world will be closed to him, when he can barely imagine himself having a job at all?

As our children progress through life we watch in agony as doors close on them one by one. At the age of three we know that the flat-footed daughter is not going to be a ballet dancer. At six we know the ham-fisted son is not going to be a piano player. Slipping down from top set to third set in Science at thirteen…oops, there goes the medical career.

The lilies of the field toil not, neither do they spin, and neither do they worry about exam results. It is a great blessing that the tragic Anthony Walker, though a diligent student, also filled his life with other joys and achievements besides revision. He was indeed a lily of the field, enjoying his youth properly and helping others rather than burying himself solely in exam results for the sake of far-distant success.

May all families anxiously tearing open envelopes this month think and pray for his family in their grief, and remember that their children, too, are lilies of the field in their own way - even those with a string of deferred successes.

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