A parent-helper's view

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Clipboard in hand, Michael Cook walks the line between individuality and eccentricity

I'm sorting out the clipboards for Poppy's class. Problem: there are 30 children in the class, and 29 wipe-clean green plastic-backed clipboards.

Someone will have to make do with the flimsier, smaller, wooden clipboard with the less springy clip. Someone will have to be the odd one out. The freak. And no one wants to be the odd one out... I was seven or eight when I got a new bike for Christmas. There were two of them hidden behind the settee when we came down in the morning, hardly wrapped, maybe a ribbon round the handlebars. A red bike for my sister, an identical blue bike for me. Could I have been happier? Well, yes, I could.

If, say, it had been a Chopper, like the boy over the road had, then I would have been quite a lot happier. Or a Raleigh Grifter. That would have made me a little happier. And I could see from the unusual shape that it wasn't the junior racing bike I had pointed out in the Green Shield Stamps catalogue, so maybe I wasn't at the peak of the potential happiness a new bike could have brought me.

But at many levels I was content with my bike. It was, my dad announced, almost revolutionary; you unscrewed the middle bit, bent it in half and stored it neatly in half the space. You could even carry it about in the boot of your car.

In the street on Christmas morning, my space-age bike attracted a lot of attention. "Why are you riding your sister's new bike," asked the boy across the road. "It's my new bike," I explained. "It's a girl's bike," he said.

I put him right. It wasn't a girl's bike. It was a folding bike.

Our cousins came for Christmas dinner, and asked misguided questions about my present. I corrected them.

In the new year, someone asked why I was taking my cycling proficiency test on a girl's bike. Honestly, you would have thought that someone with enough knowledge of bikes to take a cycling proficiency test would be able to tell the difference. Could he not see the bulky hinge attachment I kept trapping my flares in? When were people going to stop going on about some tiny difference between my bike and boys' bikes? I mean, my bike and non-folding bikes... There is a fine line between individuality and eccentricity. Of course, we do not want our children to be slaves to a 21st-century consumerism that demands that everyone should own the same things, think the same things.

But equally, we don't want them to be freaks.

I really hope someone is off sick today. You don't want to be known for the rest of your life as the boy with the brown clipboard. Believe me.

Michael Cook is a freelance writer and parent-helper at Jesse Gray primary school, West Bridgford, Nottingham, which his children Alfie and Poppy attend

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