Protecting a child from a bully

Growing up in a colonial territory with a wide mixture of people from all over South and South-East Asia posed no risk of paedophilia or other acts of criminality; only of being bullied. A bully, by nature, respects no boundaries. Twice I fought back, puny as I was, and was then left alone.

When I was a teenager, I noticed (most unhappily) that my 4-year sister would occasionally be pushed onto the ground by the 4-year old boy next door, even after playing together amicably. As the third boy in the family, a little rough play might have been part of his lifestyle. So, I decided to teach her how to counter-attack. When he moves forward with both arms stretched to push you (I told my sister), move right foot back, clench fist at right shoulder and, when he comes closer, step forward with right foot, straighten right arm fiercely to hit him on his nose with fist. We practised that for days, because she was (and is) a gentle person.

Then, one day, it happened. The boy was knocked down. When he complained, crying, to his mother, she slapped him for lying! (Our parents were free with slapping and hitting. I was hit with a stick by my father when I was 17 because I was seen to be tardy in returning home after delivering a message to my uncle up the street.) That nice little girl would not hit anyone, said the mother. (Our homes were so close, that there was little privacy outside the walls.)

Years later, my daughter, at 3 to 4 years of age, had an identical problem. After playing in the sandbox I had built on our open front verandah, the little boy next door (of the same age), the youngest of 3 sons, would hit my daughter (a very quiet child) for reasons unknown. His lifestyle might have also included a little rough play. So, I trained her to counter-attack, in the way I had trained my little sister. This boy too was chastised by his mother for lying. My daughter was never attacked again.

Strangely, this was one of the mothers who had withdrawn from the morning coffee invitation by my wife after the priest in the VW had visited his mini-flock in our street. I admit that I did have a never-to-be-fulfilled thought of punching him on his nose!

Shortly, I built a large sandpit in my backyard. Up to 7 children (only one was mine) could be seen playing together amicably, protected by the side gate being shut, with my wife keeping an eye on the children. The children were obviously not aware of priestly injunctions!

The good life

I am fortunate in finding another article of relevance to one of my recent posts. This post pointed out that the offspring of non-English speaking immigrants from Europe had done well materially. I gave credit to their desire for education.

In a recent issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine, Hugh Mackay, a social researcher of renown, said he had noticed that “although people were saying that Australia was doing really well, they also felt anxious and confused, as if something was missing.” He went on to say: “My sense was that we had become distracted by materialism, and by the tantalising idea that everyone was entitled to a Utopia of self-indulgence.”

This resonates with my conclusion, after more than 6 decades of a highly interactive and contributory life in Australia, that my adopted nation is now a nation of great expectations. Now, assumed wants become asserted needs; and ‘they’ are expected to meet these ‘needs.’ As well, with politicians focusing on the next election all the time, rather than acting on pro-active policies for the long-term, is it surprising that more and more citizens become concerned about the future? Treading water with a full belly in rough seas is surely not a sustainable approach to life, is it?

Mackay is now promoting what he calls the ‘good life’: a commitment by us to treat others the way we would like to be treated. Since we are ‘’social creatures who depend on communities to sustain us,” “we have to build and nurture them, and treating others with kindness and respect is the best way to achieve that.” More ‘give’ and less ‘take’ – will that ameliorate that subliminal discomfort which Mackay senses in us?

The alleged non-rounded students from Asia

Before a radical Australian government made immigration entry non-discriminatory, a few Asians had been admitted, on a case-by-case basis. A handful were spouses. The majority were doctors, off-setting a shortage established by (reputedly) the most powerful union in the country. However, by keeping a heavy hand across the door giving access to entrants from the Indian sub-continent, for about 20 years, it was the East Asians (preferably Christian) who had priority of entry.

Ironically, as I read about 10 years ago, a researcher had found that the highest income-earners among the Asian immigrants in Australia were those from the Indian sub-continent! However, in terms of family objectives, Asians from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Japan (as well as Australian indigenes) valued education highest. Is that really surprising, considering the extent and quality of the literature, especially the poetry and the philosophies, produced by the civilisations of Asia? Indeed, did not all the major religions of mankind arise in Asia?

Whatever their skin colour and religious affiliation, Asian students in Australia began to top academic lists. And that was because they worked hard, very hard. I once saw a 4-year old boy, sitting on his mother’s hip in order to see better, reading a plaque written in English in a building in Singapore. I compared him with my granddaughter who could not read even near the end of 2 school years.

Asian students then became criticised in the media for not being ‘well-rounded.’ It was claimed that they did not participate in sport, as they should. This reminded me of an assertion by one of our senior politicians, under Parliamentary privilege, that a Sri Lankan bowler was a ‘chucker,’ presumably because Australia’s top batsman could not cope with him. Is it not futile to tell an immigrant, or the children of immigrants, not to study as hard as they do? One studies hard to ensure success and to overcome any possible deficiencies in equal opportunity provisions.

Is it significant that the offspring of the post-war non-English speaking European immigrants have been reported to have done better materially in life than their Anglo-Celt cohort? Education does pay! And we should thank our school teachers for assisting those who seek to learn to do so, apart from breaking down inherited prejudice of all kinds, especially skin colour prejudice!

As for other prejudices, personally, I hate beetroot because of its colour. Yet I like purple, to the point of owning a car coloured ‘lilac mist.’

Educating children – a health hazard

In the distant past when the dragons blew smoke over the land (figuratively speaking), I used to correct my little daughter’s workbook. Her teachers then asked me to desist. Those were the days when parents ran the risk of being deemed anxious or difficult. I was obviously picking up errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar which had been missed. And I accepted that teaching is a demanding job; I belong to a family of teachers.

Later, when my young son was required to study a particular river, he was not told why. When I explained the location and role of rivers in sociological terms – sites of settlement, trading, etc., he understood.

When my children were in high school, I asked a science teacher whether he was encouraging his students to ask ‘Why?’ His response: ‘Why?’ I then drew his attention to a scientist on t.v., who used to ask ‘Why is it so?’ This approach subsumed the subsidiary questions ‘What is it?’ ‘How did it come about?’ ‘What is its significance?’ etc. Contrarily, a physics teacher enthralled his students by telling them about the wondrous achievements enabled through advances in modern physics, but forgot to teach them how to pass the final year exam.

My Greek neighbour and his wife used to work 6 and a half days per week in their small family business. Their son, influenced by his Anglo peer group chose to be on the dole. So, they told me. (Apparently, one can choose to be on the dole; and an able-bodied person can somehow qualify for the disability pension.) Then, an Asian-Australian girl assessed as being in the top 2% of her cohort, claimed – as  advised by a couple of Anglo friends – that completing school was not that important! Against that, an Asian girl reportedly complained that her 99.5% mark in her final exam at school indicated an error in assessment; she claimed that her mark should have been higher.

There was also a son of an immigrant couple (Ph.D and M.A.) who told them, when he was 13, and on his teacher’s advice, that it is not for his parents to decide his future; he would decide that himself. Is this not akin to the neo-colonials of the Western world insisting on “placing the cart of civil liberties before the horse of civic order and economic development” (K.Mahbubani, a prominent Singaporean).

The differences identified above obviously indicate differences in cultural perspective. Would they reflect an underlying dissonance between civilisational values?

A new parent’s experience with school. Part 4

My School Board represented a closely-bonded team, especially as the 2 Deputy Principals had known our children over the years. Hence, after the closure of one of our monthly meetings, it was not surprising that the Principal and the Deputy who had survived the ‘My Dad said …’ experiences, told us that they had something interesting to convey to us.

That day, the Deputy had received a deputation of one, who had presented a petition also signed by another 2, protesting that their teacher was ‘picking upon’ another one of them during class. Justice had reared its head. What was amusing to the teachers was that the leader was the son of the Chairman, and a second signatory was the daughter of the accountant member of the Board! Obviously, the petition was not a matter for the Board. But, as I said with a smile as I left, ‘If anything happens to these kids, it will be over my dead body.’ They were only 12 years old. They had guts. This event proved that parents and students now had a right to be heard. That’s progress.

That evening, the daughter of the accountant admitted to her parents that she been frightened when she signed. So she signed ‘real small.’ On the other hand, the ringleader had been sighted on his way to the Deputy’s office looking quite chirpy. Some might deduce that he is a fine ‘chip off the old block.’

The next year, the new principal made it clear that she did not support the idea of parents involving themselves in her bailiwick. Hence the delay in accepting the parents’ proposal to teach our children about religion (an idea already accepted by our Schools Authority).  Ironically, this Principal and my family attended the same church. Lesson no. 8 for me – religion may not bring adherents together, except in prayer.

Part 3. A new parent’s experience with school

Being involved, even at arm’s length, with the schools of one’s children is challenging. We would not encroach upon the professional role of teachers. Then, to modify what is taught would be a systemic matter; a central educational authority would need to be involved.  Therefore, what would be the responsibilities of a parent-involved school Board? Were we only advisory? Did we have right to govern; if so, in what areas? What if the parents on the Board, representing the needs of our community, had a concern about the way some of our children were being educated? What if some new educational fad was being adopted without any community consultation? Did the community have a right to be consulted? Well, we were now free to ask, without being considered anxious or difficult.

The foundation school boards in the national capital of Australia attracted high-quality parent involvement. Canberra, set in a desert, was nevertheless well-endowed. It was primarily a public service (head offices) and university city, supported by necessary private sector services. Senior lecturers, colonels, and public sector directors made a great contribution, including dampening unrealistic community expectations of what is achievable. Many of us had management and/or policy experience.

The Board at my school was successful, because the parents on it made a substantial contribution in our own right. (We were not a glee club, as developed some years later.) We re-wrote the school’s manifesto, extolling our educational objectives, using the knowledge of the 2 qualified psychologists on board (one of whom was a practising Quaker); the third parent, an accountant, helped with budgeting. We also wrote the outline of a program to educate our children about religion. Lesson 7 – lead when given the opportunity.

Part 2. A new parent’s experience with school

A few years later, my son asked his teacher, the Deputy Head who had taught his sister, a question which had bothered him the night before. He began thus: ‘My Dad said … .‘ His concern was that Capt. Cook could not have been the first person to discover Australia, since the Chinese, Malays from the neighbouring islands (now in Indonesia), the Dutch and the French were known to have been to Australia (or traded with Australia) long before Capt. Cook. Again the teacher agreed, in spite of the text book saying otherwise. Who said that lightening does not strike the same place twice? Lesson no. 5 – get ready to leave town! ‘Dad said … ’ was becoming quite dangerous.

Worse still, another teacher would not allow my son to bring home his books at the beginning of the school holidays, saying that children should not have to study during their vacations. When I persisted, she complained to the Principal that I had been rude, and was challenging her authority. To sort things out, I invited the Principal and his wife to dinner. During the 4 hours together, we could not disagree on any educational principle. That I had studied child development during a university course in psychology may have helped.

He subsequently convinced my wife that I should nominate for the foundation school board. The Board would have the Principal and his 2 deputies and 3 elected parents. The community elected me to the Board and the Board elected me chairman. We were now entering a new era in governance. Just as the USA was reported to be giving up Board control of schools, Australia’s federal government decided that the schools in the national capital should replace inspectorial oversight of teachers with direct control by principals, backed by a community-supported board of governance.

Many of the teachers, having obtained freedom from inspectors, opposed parental involvement. This was made clear soon when a teacher spoke of ‘Piagettian concepts’ (referring to Piaget who had studied his children most carefully and offered his conclusions about development stages and such like) at a meeting with the Board. Unfortunately for her, there were 2 qualified psychologists on the Board. I had read Piaget too. Lesson no. 6 – tread carefully. It was going to be interesting.

Why is it that, ever so often, as in our parliaments, there is confrontation and contest instead of co-operation or joint action, in the common good? When the freedom of communities is enhanced, why are the benefits diminished by personal ego-involvement?

A new parent’s experience at school. Part 1

When my Australian children began to attend school, they could read. But they had not been able to get into kindergarten because demand exceeded supply of places. While they missed the socialising available at kinder, they were well prepared by by my wife and I. Purely as an aside, 15 of us parents in our catchment district then undertook a door-knock survey of the expected demand for kinder in the following 5 years. This forced the relevant bureaucrat to get off his perch and solve the problem. That was lesson no. 1 for me.

At the first Annual General Meeting of the Parents & Citizens Association I had ever attended, I asked a question. By the end of the meeting, I found myself a vice-president of the P&C. Lesson no. 2 – keep trap shut at meetings. Because my 5-year old daughter and her classmates had to sit on a cold concrete floor during a very cold winter for some classes (why?), I proposed that the P&C buy little carpet squares to protect little bottoms; whereas the principal wanted the money spent on curtains for the school hall. The parents won. After another similar difference of opinion, I resigned (to work on my thesis). Lesson no. 3 – go with the flow, or get out.

In those days, parents had no status, and no rights. Question a teacher, and be known throughout the school as a difficult or, worse still, an ‘anxious’ parent! At an early stage, my daughter read from a text book that Marco Polo had discovered the Silk Route to China; and that he had travelled in his uncles’ caravan. She pointed out to her teacher that, in the circumstances, the uncles must have known the route. (She did say that her dad had agreed with her.) The teacher agreed with her too. Lesson no. 4 – beware such a perceptive child. But, as a good student, she was popular.

Learning English as a second language

To learn a new language relatively easily, you have to have the opportunity to use it. By using it more and more, you become familiar with it, and thereby become more comfortable with it, picking its nuances. But middle age can be a substantial barrier. My elders were comfortable with English, having learnt it in colonial schools; my father was even able to toss out an apt quotation in English at appropriate times. Yet, under the Japanese Military Occupation of Malaya, he had experienced great difficulty with the Japanese language.

In contrast, those post-war European immigrants who had arrived in Australia without any knowledge of English, were able to learn enough of the language, through continued usage, to be reasonably facile, if not competent, in a reasonable time. Those of us from Europe and (later) from Asia, who had learnt English before arrival, had only to moderate our accents – apart from coping with the unfamiliar Australian accents, and some quaint (and often colourful) colloquialisms. Yet, no matter how hard we tried, there were those Aussies who just had to comment upon, even denigrate, our accents, and our use of the language.

While I had learnt English in normal circumstances, coping with the idiosyncrasies of the language without much thought, the Indian shopkeepers in Singapore attending an English language evening class at which I taught a few years later, could not understand why the English language is not phonetic, like their languages; or why certain words which had the same spelling had different meanings (eg. bow, row); or why certain words with similar spelling were pronounced differently (eg. rough, bough, cough; or teak, steak). They kept asking why, as they struggled to remember.

Fortunately, they would be only speaking the language, not reading it. I refrained from suggesting that the English might have the same problem with their own language, especially with their regional accents.

An accidental teacher

During the long wait (months and months) to see if I would be accepted for tertiary education in the family’s college of choice, I became a school teacher – at 18. It was at a Chinese afternoon school, a private school. Our school day being only half a day, 2 schools (or 2 shifts) would share the premises. Educational facilities were restricted – not surprising in the under-developed world.

My students were Chinese, who had completed their normal school day in a Chinese vernacular school in the morning. They were now enrolled in an English-language school, to improve their English, at a much lower level of formal education. I could see that the older boys were bored with much of the curriculum. So, they would ask me questions about the English language – a very clever ploy. Fortunately, I found that I could cope.

One day, the oldest student, who must have been close to 18, asked me the meaning of the word rut. When I explained the usual meaning, he said, ‘Other meaning?’ I then noted that he had a Chinese-English dictionary on his desk. I realised where I was being led; the facial expressions on his neighbours suggested to me that this question had been well planned.

With my 2 hands engaged in a traditional gesture, I said ‘This is other meaning.’ A few words in Cantonese, followed by laughter throughout the class, established my status as an acceptable teacher. In the new relaxed atmosphere, I believe that these boys obtained the learning they sought. I too learned something useful. In the diverse training programs which I led later in life, it was by appreciating the needs of those who had come to learn that relevant progress was achieved.