The spirit of ignorance

25th December 1998 at 00:00
Faysal H Mikdadi presents a seasonal story about a boy and his brain.

Robert had a little problem. Actually a host of little problems. Indeed a legion of big problems.

He was the product of child-centred education. So he was self-centred. He was the product of the modern generation. So he was acquisitive. He was the only son of a one-parent family. So he was spoilt rotten. He was very bright. So he found ingenious ways of not doing any work. He had a pretty face. So everyone did everything for him. He was a weak character. So he followed the herd.

And he was surrounded by adults who were too busy to give him any time. Too acquisitive themselves to give him any real care. But they gave him every gadget that his heart yearned for.

His room had a television, a video player, a computer, a Game Boy, a Sega andIglossy new books that shone on the makeshift bookshelf. New books. Wonderful little worlds that his vessel was too rotten through ill-use to heave forth to explore.

Robert was pig ignorant. He wore his ignorance like a badge of courage. Proudly. Like the true sportsman he was. But then he wasn't really a sportsman because real commitment was too much like hard work, even on the field.

Football was a way out of doing any learning work. Now that really was boring. But adults accepted it when he said that he couldn't do his homework because he had football practice, because he was sailing, because he was playing rugby.

Of course, Robert did not know any of this. Because the adults around him lied to him and told him that he was everything that he wasn't. And lacking all childlike curiosity, which, some would unkindly have it, was strangled at birth, he never asked about anything. So he remained blissfully ignorant. And egonorant.

And this Christmas Eve was no different to any other. Boring. Boring. Boring. Except for the endless presents that would be arriving tomorrow. He had compiled a lengthy list with many misspellings to break every adult's heart and wallet equally. He knew that every single item would be bought for him. These then could join the endless unopened boxes lining his shelves. Getting off his bed, switching the television off and opening another box was much too much like hard work.

Robert was hooked on his television. He couldn't give it up. He had got so bad, that when he had to brush his teeth, he ran to the bathroom, got the toothbrush with some paste on it and ran back to brush his teeth badly while staring at the screen. But then he did not care for his teeth much, so they rotted. He did not care for his brain much either.

And the brain needs regular brushing. Daily. Or it will eventually cause you pain.

And his poor mother. She worked so hard that she never had a minute to herself. Robert meant well. He would have liked to help his mother with the household chores, but it was well nigh impossible; television programmes followed one another with such rapidity that there was little option but to lie on his bed and continue watching. Occasionally, when his mother was unreasonable and insisted on homework being done, he would trudge through the work. He could do it best while staring at the screen sideways. He made a few errors but then, what the heck, Mum always corrected his work for him. He had also perfected his ablutions to fit within a commercial break. His homework within the break.

Robert often fell asleep with the television on. Tonight was no different. A loud commercial entered his dreams of sporting glory and television world. He knew that nothing worked as well to rejuvenate his Mum as Oil of Ulay. Or your money back. Half sleepily, he tried to work out how a customer could get a bottle, use half of it and send it back with a picture of grandad showing that it had had no effect. And your money back. Then he could get a second bottle and do the same. He could make a fortune like that Soros fellow that his Mum was always on about.

He woke up feeling clammy. He felt frightened and jumped out of bed. He ran to his mother's room as he did almost every night. Usually because he had an upset tummy (Monday), a bad cramp (Tuesday), a headache (Wednesday), a sore finger (Sunday). He was fairly well on Friday and Saturday nights. Thursday was football training day and illness would have been terribly inconvenient.

Mum's bed was empty. Robert heard a noise in the kitchen.

"Mum? Mum?" No answer.

He walked down the stairs whimpering. He heard a man laughing and wondered if Mum's boyfriend was back.

But a jovial voice said: "Come on in, Robert. Come on in, my boy." It wasn't the boyfriend.

A man sat at the top of the kitchen table. He had a little shining light that surrounded him and whichever way he moved, the light moved with him.

"Hello, Robert."


"Come and sit down a minute or two." The young man lounged in his chair and appeared so relaxed. Not a worry in the world.

"Who are you?" "I am the spirit of laziness who comes to see all the boys on Christmas Eve. I look in to see what they want for Christmas."

"And then you come back with Father Christmas and leave them their presents. "

"No, afraid not. Ilook at their list and then I do nothing about it. Why? Can't be arsed. Boring. Boring. Boring. So my boy, what do you want for Christmas?" Robert recited his list. This took him about half-an-hour. Which was a great achievement, especially as his school was worried that for the past three years he had been unable to memorise his times-tables. He recited on and on.

The young man yawned every minute or so and, as Robert recited, he aged before his eyes. His hair fell out. His nose became bulbous. God, thought Robert, he is becoming ugly. And Robert, not having many social skills, stopped reciting and started staring.

A gruff voice lurched forward from the virtual monster before him. "What ya lookin' at? Hey? Don't you recognise me?" "No."

"No what, you little ill-mannered child?" "No...Sir."

"Not Sir. I am not a man. I am not a woman either. I am a childish idea, see?" "No...Sir."

"Stop calling me Sir, boy. Come here."

Robert was frightened to move. But he could not help it. He walked towards the terrible creature. It held its chest out and pointed at its huge number of medals. Robert peered and tried to read. His teeth ached but he tried to read: "Medal first class for spectacular ignorance"; "Ignorance conference 1944"; "Ignorance revisited 1988"; "Writer of fiction for The TES".

Robert smiled and said, "Don't tell me. You're the spirit of ignorance? Right?" "I don't know."

"What are you doing here?" "I don't know."

"Don't you know anything?" "I don't know. I read The Sun sometimes. Occasionally I'm made to read articles by Chris Woodhead and Ted Wragg in The TES to keep me going." A tear trickled down the creature's ugly cheek at the mention of The TES.

"Why are you crying?" asked Robert.

"I don't know."

"Is it because you're ignorant?" "I don't know."

The creature lay its head on the dining table and sobbed uncontrollably as the lights went out.

Robert froze for a minute. It was pitch dark. He felt his way around the kitchen feeling for the light switch. As the light came on he looked towards the chair. Sitting there before him was - no, it couldn't be. Impossible.

It was Father Christmas. No. It wasn't. It was Jesus Christ. No, it was Eddie Murphy. Ginger Spice. His Mum. The apparition kept changing. It was fast-moving, incomprehensible.

"Hello, Robert." The flickering image smiled and its face changed again. So many faces that Robert did not recognise.

"Hello Sir...Madam...Sir...Sir... How do you do?" "I'm doing fine, Robert. I always do fine." A young Tony Blair smiled and was replaced by an even younger Margaret Thatcher.

"Who are you?" "I'm the spirit of hope. Your mother and your friend."

"You're not my Mum."

"I could be."

"Why are you here?" "To give you a vision of hope, my boy. Come. Hold my hand."

Suddenly they were in the country. Green grass and a carpet of bluebells stretched before them. A man was sitting before them with a child of four or five on his lap. They were reading a large book together. The child was pointing to the pictures and saying something. The man laughed and hugged the little one.

"Who are they?" asked Robert.

"Don't you recognise the man?" "No."

"It's you, Robert. You in 20 years. With your little child. And you are wondering why you did not work at school. Now you are trying to make sure that your little one has a better chance."

"But I never had a dad to give me a chance."

"Don't make excuses, Robert. What happens to you is up to you. You only spend an hour-and-a-half out of every 10 hours of your life in school. The rest of the time is yours. Don't you want to make something of yourself?" "But what can I make of myself?" "Whatever you want, Robert. Nothing is impossible if you want it badly enough. Nothing. And nothing, of course comes to nothing. You must make an effort."

Robert realised that they were back in the kitchen and he looked down at the hand holding his. He squeezed it and it squeezed back. He looked up at his mother.

"Are you all right, sweetheart?" "Yes, Mum. Just had a funny dream."

His mother smiled.

"I'll be up in a minute to see to you, my sweetie."

"Mum?" "Yes, little fellow."

"Call me Robert, please."

"Yes...Robert my..."

"Good night, Mum. Sleep well."

"Good night, sweet... Robert."

"Mum?" "Yes, Robert?" "I love you."

"I love you too, Robert."

Faysal Mikdadi is an adviser for secondary education for Wiltshire County Council

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