Educating the East End, episode three: Head games
It was World Book Day at our favourite telly-school this week, and we were treated to the jaw-dropping spectacle of the teachers dressing up as their favourite literary character (Cruella de Vil? Quasimodo? Some of these cats have dark tastes). The head was a lion; you heard me. Having spent years dressed as a cowboy in TGI Fridays, you would have to put a bloody abattoir bolt gun to my temple to make me dress up again, but I salute the indefatigability of a staff body so comfortable in their authority they can turn up for the daily bear hunt dressed as teddy bears. Except Mr Palombo, of course. He's already a fictional character. He came dressed as Mr Palombo, the Pale goddamn Rider.
Election fever fell upon the inmates of Frederick Bremer School in episode 3 of Educating Not-the-East-End, and while Scotland spoke its mind (and said, "meh") in a competition no less contested, the ruling elite of Walthamstow were smiling and murdering while they smiled in the head boy/girl elections. I have mixed feelings about this institution. Done well, it's an opportunity for the student community to throw up a leader and a role model for itself; done badly, it's a popularity contest that matches the worst excesses of democracy. Zimbabwean town-hall politics meets Big Brother.
There were echoes of both here as we met the incumbent head girl Maliaka, who at times seemed to stray from the conventional blueprint ("Do you actually want me to bang you in the ******* face?" she asked a member of her electorate at one point. A far cry from kissing babies). We met Dike, a man who appeared to be born for politics ("He's got a lovely smile," cooed a teacher. "And he's very popular," said a student). He also burned confidence in nuclear levels. You could light a match off it. "Vote for me or I won't like you," he said at one point, and you had to hope it was a joke. There was Sheneil, who ran on the geek ticket ("You can chat to me," her platform ran, like Call-Me-Tony)
And then there was this week's precious stone: Joshua. Strange, solemn Joshua. Kids like Joshua weren't made for this world; they're too good, they were born out of time. Kids like him are worth ten of the rest of us. He stood on a surreal and lovely platform: "full stomachs and peace". In his potentially school-ending party political broadcast, he closed with a Black Panther salute, shouting "The voice of justice!" On his chest he had pinned two puppets "to show he didn't favour any racial or ethnic group". On paper it was a car crash. But on the ground it flew like Greased Lightning. It was a viral hit. "I used to go to Scouts with him," his instant fan club started to testify, and suddenly people were claiming this shy, invisible boy for their own. If he'd had a stutter, Channel 4 would have commissioned a spin off by now.
His dad, Lloyd, was a cleaning supervisor at the school. You could feel the love in the room through your telly. While Maliaka, campaigning for Dike, was reproducing the worst excesses of democracy in microcosm (she offered a free party if people voted for her candidate, and free pizza) Joshua was answering requests for the time with "Analogue or digital?" before whipping out both watches like Inspector Gadget.
But for all the bluster and certainly, Maliaka was troubled; weeks away from her GCSEs, she was struggling, and had practically given up. But headteacher Ms Smith had other ideas. "If you believe you'll fail," she said to a distraught Maliaka, "You probably will." She exhorted her to do otherwise. In an era when Dweck's mindsets are becoming fashionably orthodox again, you often hear this message. I worry that Dweck's very well-sourced work into self-belief and motivation will end up/has already ended up as this year's Brain Gym, lost in translation in a thousand box-ticking initiatives until it becomes The Power of Positive Thinking for the 21st century.
But you cannot think yourself into winning, any more than you can move marbles with your mind. A negative mental attitude will scupper you, to be sure, through the entropy of helplessness, but its opposite doesn't guarantee the universe will be any kinder. What it does is improve your odds. I've taught the children of the poor and the children of the rich, and the most substantial difference between the two is often the depth of their perceived horizons. "How?" says the former. "Why the Hell not?" the latter. Ms Smith was quite right to tell Maliaka to drop the defeatism ("Losers always whine about trying their best," as Sean Connery says in The Rock, echoing the "do or do not" mysticism of Yoda). In the end, she got her shizzle together and pulled a bouquet of rabbits from the GCSE Sorting Hat.
And Joshua? Joshua won, in a rare moment when the universe decided for one brief shining instant to be fair. Virtue was rewarded, and all the bribery and the popularity of the ruling classes couldn't stop the party. Of course, in some ways you could see it as a victory for the worst excesses of democracy – the celebration of the novel or the frivolous (after all he was riding a wave of viral so-weird-he's-cool) over the sober and able. But who could begrudge him his moment? He and his dad were the school heroes of the week. Them, and every other kid who works hard and doesn't tell their teachers to go shove their lessons up their pigeon hole. Them.
Find TES' full coverage of this series at the Educating the East End landing page