The future belongs to the tortoise
When I started teaching about three years ago, I developed the habit of reading my pupils what were supposed to be uplifting stories with a lofty moral. I would be, I imagined, a bit like Jesus, but with better shoes. Inevitably, the stories bored the kids to tears and made me seem like a pompous twit.
I once told a class of 13-year-olds Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare, thinking they would be inspired by this age-old tale of patient triumph. Instead, they looked at me with blank, confused expressions. "What did the tortoise win?" piped up one boy. "Well," I replied, somewhat astonished at the mercenary question. "Nothing. Except the knowledge that he was the best."
"But he wasn't the best," said another. "He only won because the hare fell asleep." The whole class nodded. "And it doesn't mean anything anyway. I mean, Arsenal beat Manchester United last month, but it doesn't mean they are a better team."
"But," I spluttered, seeing my point swiftly disappearing, "don't you think that hard-earned victory was sweet for Arsenal?" "Maybe," said the kid with a shrug. "But they still got their arses kicked again the next week."
Fast-forward three years, and last week I told the same yarn to a very similar group of kids - I dragged it out of retirement to console a class who had been expressing worries about how their futures might be affected by today's gloomy economic climate. This time, however, nobody laughed, sneered or yawned. The story was met with real interest.
I don't kid myself that my storytelling skills have improved that much in three years and I'm not trying to fool anybody into believing that teenagers have miraculously become sweeter. I suspect that the tale of the tortoise and the hare now resonates more positively because it offers hope to those who feel themselves at a natural disadvantage, and to a generation of students who are starting to understand that persistence and determination are going to be more necessary prerequisites for success than they might have been for their predecessors. The hare - the gifted, fortunate layabout accustomed to sauntering idly to victory - has become an endangered species. The future, for good and ill, will belong to the tortoise.
The reason the story went over so badly when I first told it three years ago - a brief period of time to adults, an interminable epoch to teenagers - is that back then, before anyone had heard of Lehman Brothers or taken an interest in Greece's overdraft, everyone thought they were the hare. Over the years, I have advised many kids to develop a Plan B in case their career as a Hollywood superstar doesn't work out. When I started teaching, most kids would have been appalled by the suggestion that learning a trade was worthwhile. They are now starting to appreciate that the life of a competent plumber is probably preferable to the existence of an unemployed television presenter.
What is happening in popular culture is usually far more influential on kids than anything a teacher will do or say and, having been privy to many recent conversations between my pupils along the lines of "that Lord Sugar always hires the really hard-working girls and hates the posh dickheads", the kids are beginning to see evidence on the oracle that is television that grafting can count for more than an expensive education.
I would understand if anyone was sceptical about the idea that kids are suddenly proud to be tortoises, but I can assure you that the idea is not as worthy as it sounds. As many in my class pointed out, the burden the tortoise carries on his back is also an advantage. What he saves on his mortgage, he can spend on fast cars and designer clothes.
Chloe Combi teaches at a comprehensive in London.