The Human Race: why your classroom is every colour of the flag
By Tom Bennett
How British are you? This is a question the philosophers of sports commentary are nuzzling right now regarding Andy Murray, who let the side down by winning a Grand Slam title. No true Scot would dream of such a thing, surely.
I recently read a gruesome paragraph or two on an English Defence League Facebook page (a warning that the price of free speech is listening to angry, red-faced troglodytes parade their unhappy childhoods at you; imagine a row of baboons’ arses, wailing like toddlers) about Mo Farrah. Mo, who is front runner for ‘most omnipopular, sainted man in Britain’ after his double-gold plunder in Stratford, was not Man of the Year for the happy tappers of the EDF. They were frowning because he had gone on holiday abroad after his medals, and had donated money to a Somalian charity. I understand their line was ‘WHERE’S OUR MONEY EH MO? EH? YOU SOMALIANS ARE ALL THE SAME, RUNNING EXCEPTIONAL MIDDLE DISTANCE EVENTS, EATING OUR YORKIES’ etc. So apparently foreign holidays now signify treason. I know it’s hardly taking on Christopher Hitchens to criticise the logic of the Brains Trust, but it’s interesting to see what passes for reasoning sometimes.
I even heard a few jibes about Bradley Wiggins on Twitter. I know: Wiggo. He’s the very avatar of Albion, with his girlfriend-tickling, Charles Darwin chin-furniture, and Brit-pop waifishness; he’s a walking Tunnock’s Tea Cake. But no: the blighter had the bad manners to be born in Belgium, a country most British people can barely point to on a map *waits for you to try* See?
Some people still don’t get what’s happened all around them: relentless, eternal migration. There is no such category as British thoroughbred; Britons have always been a Frankenstein quilt of Angles, Danes, Scots, Goths, Hugenots, Saxons, Norsemen and a million other tribes and gene pools. I kind of wish that a vast population of Normans could be discovered living inside a hollow volcano in Wiltshire, just so I could hear them call the EDF foreigners.
This is something we wrestle with on a daily basis in schools; integration, assimilation, cooperation; learning how to rub along, and learning from each other. If I ask my kids to pin point their family origins on a map, I can hang a decent cat’s cradle from the resulting lattice. And you know what? For the most part, every kid I’ve ever taught gets it. They just barely give a monkeys about where their classmates come from. The few- the very few- kids I’ve seen who set their shoulders against the door of multiculturalism, inevitably spring from soil sullied by generational mistrust and uncomplicated, unexamined racism. You have to teach kids to be racist. As Dennis Leary said, ‘I have a two year old kid. You know what he hates? Naps. End of list.’ A while back I had a parent who was unhappy about her kid going on a trip to the Mosque. I called to gently persuade her not to be ‘quite so racist’. ‘Do they have to go?’ she said. ‘Because if not, he’s not going; he doesn’t need to learn about things like that.’ What chance does a kid have, coming from such a crucible of stupidity and provinciality?
Perhaps London, and more broadly Britain, is still adjusting to its relatively new status as a pocket United Nations; a bubble Universe, where, for once perhaps, Polish and Arabic tongues are as vocal and as prolific as Anglo-Saxon ones. We’ve always been a port, but perhaps, like many island states, we expect the immigrant to act like a grateful guest in someone else’s home. But they aren’t. They are home. This is their home.
And this is something that some other nations, with older histories and experiences of immigration, have grasped already: nationality is not an absolute; it is composed of the particles that flow through it. In New York, a Chinaman, an Italian, a Jew and a Pole all walk into a bar. And no one cares because they’re all Americans. And while it’s not quiet mono directional, it nearly is; only the gravest act of genocidal gardening can begin to reverse the quiet combination of cultures once they have begun to collaborate; even then, roots are left that last lifetimes. Our classrooms are now Grand Central Station, and that isn’t going to change ever.
It’s like the river Thames; there’s no such thing. Every second, millions of gallons of water (and, I’d like to think, rusty pistols and pirate ships) flush along and out of the estuary, replaced moment to moment. The River Thames is simply the water at that spot, at that time, seen from above. Every cell in your body, we’re told, is replaced after a few years with new matter; the paté and Twix of your lunch box becomes the Lego of the new you. You are what you’re composed of. Like a football team; like the Sugarbabes.
The children in my class, just as much as the superheroes on track, field, pavement and river are British. This was the lesson of the riots, and it was the lesson of the Stratford games. All those races and faiths, and shades on the Pantone scale, from Jessica Ennis caramel to Johnny Peacock salmon pink to the mahogany of Mo Farah. Some of them barely speak a word of the Queen’s, and some of them speak it better than me. My classes are ebony, ivory, bronze, silver and gold.