How to spoil it all by saying something stupid

Hilary Wilce

The Christmas card I'd most like to receive this year, but won't, would come from George Amparo, a handsome young Columbian with whom I had a long, intense relationship a few years back.

George was a hotel concierge and his hours were erratic, but whenever we could snatch time together we would rendezvous in a room in town and set to work.

We worked on all kinds of things. How to spell "towel", for instance, or to write "room reservation"; how to sort "b" from "d"; and what made the difference between a "fiend" and a "friend". More than anything, we worked on how not to panic at the thought of reading and writing, but to approach it with calm logic and the skills already to hand.

You'd never have known George was illiterate. Like all smart adults in this situation, he'd developed good camouflage. But he'd shifted back and forth between Colombia and the United States so often during his schooldays that, underneath this surface, his basic skills were as snarled as tangled knitting.

There were other problems, too, not least the fact that at some vulnerable point in his life one of his teachers had called him stupid. Or, more precisely, "stupid as a dog".

George returned to this humiliation again and again, like a child picking at a sore. Whenever the going got tough, he would hurl his pencil down, and say, "Why am I even doing this? Everyone knows I'm stupid. "Stoopid, he said."Stoopid as a dog" I told him I knew exactly how he felt, although in my case the word was "hopeless", enunciated with genteel, pained despair. My school said I was "hopeless" at sport, "hopeless" at art, "hopeless" at home economics, and so "completely hopeless" at music that I was taken aside by the music mistress and banned from singing in the school carol service - the only girl in the school to be singled out for the humiliation of public miming.

Christmas carol services, I told George, stirred in me the same deep panic that the printed page roused in him. Even the first seasonal jingle of elevator music could make my mouth go dry and my heart pound with dread.

Oh come on, he said. He thought I was making it up to make him feel better. Where's the problem? You just open your mouth and belt it out. No one's listening, anyway.

None of us who can do things easily, can understand the terror of those who can't, or what courage it takes to overcome early condemnation.

For years when our children were little, we employed a nanny who was so talented and capable, so richly gifted with children, that we constantly urged her to train as a teacher.

"Who me?" she'd say, squirming with embarrassment. "I was useless at school. The teachers hated me. They couldn't wait for me to leave" After she moved on, she wrote us wonderful letters - impeccably spelled and punctuated - detailing her succession of dead-end jobs. She collected a fistful of glowing references, took up pottery and circuit training, bought a flat and taught herself DIY. But her talents still went untapped.

Finally, at the ripe old age of 37, she found the confidence to tackle what she had always been so scared of and enrolled to study for a degree with the Open University.

I could never understand this drawn-out timidity until I realised it had taken me just as long to challenge the pronouncements of those who had ruled my schooldays. And then only because I was driven to it by the dawning realisation that, however good you are at reading and writing, a life in which the spirit goes un-nurtured by singing, dancing, drawing, painting or playing, is scarcely a life at all.

So I dared to try. I might have been hopeless at hockey, but I found I could ski and swim. I was hopeless at sewing, but I made a quilt. I couldn't paint for toffee, but I read a book that said anyone could draw, and tried it, and voila - perfectly competent drawings. (I never tried singing: that was a taboo too far).

In trepidation, I asked my children if they'd ever been told by teachers that they couldn't do things, but their answers were reassuring.

"Teachers aren't like that these days," said the elder daughter. "They're not nearly so cruel" "Maybe you could have sung, if you'd come to my school, " said the younger one. "At my last school they told me I'd have to have special lessons if I wanted to sing, but at this one they seem to think I'm OK. "

Yet it isn't only school that shapes children's futures. Successful people often pay tribute to parents who told them they could do "anything they put their minds to" - even as video studies are showing that a commoner pattern of parenting is to direct ten times more negative remarks towards children than positive ones.

So maybe our New Year resolution - as adults with frightening powers to shape children's self-perceptions - should be to never, in any conceivable shape or form, convey to a child he or she is stupid; always make them believe they can do anything they choose.

Of course with the can-do culture there is always the danger of raising false hopes and expectations. But the no-can-do culture leads to far worse.

As with George, whose struggle for literacy was almost literally a struggle for life itself.

Because George was not only handsome and charming, but also gay, and had been taken up as the plaything of a group of moneyed young men, well known in our neighbourhood for their extravagance and decadence.

They gave him holidays, clothes, money and excitement. They made him feel, not stupid, but someone on the inside track. But they also gave him drinks, drugs and the distinct probability of Aids.

Whenever he broke free they would lure him back and he would turn up to lessons looking wrecked and wretched, with the number of the Aids hotline scrawled like a cry for help across the top of his folder. Sometimes he shook with fear. He had to get away, or who knew where it would end.

His plan was to leave and make a career with one of the big hotel chains but for that he needed to be able to read and write. So he aimed to work at these until he was good enough to take an access course at the local community college, do that, and then start applying for jobs.

After a year, he made it through to his course. Six months later he was plugging away at it. Then I moved, and never heard another word.

I know he won't send me a Christmas card, not this year or ever, and while I'd like to think it's because he's forgotten me, or he'd feel he was being "stoopid", I know how easily it could be something so much worse.

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