Yesterday, Alina was happily swinging across the monkey bars, kicking out and issuing threats of violence to anyone in her way. Her hair was as wild as bramble, one shoe was missing and her hands, face and polo shirt were patterned with three shades of marker pen. I smiled to myself and decided that whenever I think of Alina in the future, I will remember her as a gangling, semi-feral 11-year-old, doing what semi-feral 11-year-olds do.
Which is not what she was doing when she arrived at our school prom in a stretch limo with Courtney, Ramona and Paige. Who convinced her to wear a pink maxi dress embellished with flowers and sequins, I wondered. What force more powerful than nature washed, brushed and blow dried her hair into submission, piled it into something approaching sophistication and forcibly restrained it with a diamanté hair clip and a kaleidoscope of sparkly butterflies?
I’m largely unfamiliar with the finer points of girls’ fashion, but have it on good authority that Alina’s metamorphosis was completed by the addition of kitten-heel party shoes, a glittery shoulder bag, dangly Hello Kitty earrings and make-up that might or might not have included concealer, foundation, eyeshadow, eyeliner, lip liner, lip gloss and bronzer. Her nails were mostly acrylic and possibly dangerous.
As the teacher responsible for drama and school productions, I know how dressing up and role play can promote learning. Would Benjamin’s description of the Viking attack on Holy Island have been just as authentically bloodthirsty if he hadn’t worn a horned helmet and slaughtered several monks with a cardboard axe?
The theft of innocence
But the idea of the primary school prom does not sit comfortably with me. Something more sinister than the acting out of historical cases of brutality is at work here. It is more like an unreality show that aims to sexualise children and encourage them to look like contestants in a child beauty pageant. This is not learning through role play, this is the theft of innocence.
Or is it? I suffered post-traumatic adolescence disorder when my daughters were young, and tonight has brought it all back to me: the cold sweats, the flashbacks, the palpitations and that recurring nightmare where I’m wandering empty streets at night, desperately calling their names. On my fraught journey through our children’s adolescence, I lived in constant fear that something unspeakable would happen to them.
Of course it didn’t, and by the end of this night, my fears for Alina are beginning to subside, too. Her transformation from semi-feral 11-year-old to glamour girl has ended up failing miserably. Her pink maxi dress is stained with tomato and basil soup, her party shoes have gone AWOL, an earring is missing, her hair has escaped its restraints and her make-up has given in to a combination of sweat and chocolate fudge cake. I relax and think about next year’s summer production. Maybe we’ll do Bugsy Malone.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield