Teachers' putdowns are a zing of the past – more’s the pithy
In this age of offendable children we need those barbs designed to swerve them in the right direction
Those stinging zingers from our school reports can haunt us deep into adulthood. “She has a tendency to rest on her laurels,” was a comment in one of mine at the age of 13. I had to ask my parents what the expression meant.
Twenty-five years later, I married a man who had received precisely the same comment on one of his school reports. In both our cases, that bewildering post-victory metaphor from classical antiquity rebuked us and spurred us on to a lifetime of non-stop striving. It’s been exhausting ever since.
Were it not for that pertinent comment, though, we might have curled up and gone to sleep on our respective laurels some time in the summer of 1976. There’s no doubt that a bit of well-honed criticism at a young age can push one into a lifetime of trying to prove the criticism wrong.
A new BBC documentary to be shown next year, Bowie: The First Five Years, recounts the dismissive comments given to the 18-year-old David Bowie by the BBC’s Talent Selection Group in 1965. “A singer devoid of personality”; “The singer is a Cockney type but not outstanding enough”; “An amateur-sounding vocalist who sings wrong notes and out of tune”. Well, that brutal rejection didn’t stop him. Five years later, he’d reached the stratosphere of fame with Space Oddity.
Perhaps we should be grateful to those cloth-eared talent-non-spotters. It may have been that very rejection that encouraged Bowie to improve and achieve success.
One of my favourite bedside books is Catherine Hurley’s Could Do Better, a collection of school reports of pupils who went on to achieve fame. They recapture the days when schoolteachers used their pens to vent a term’s worth of cloistered frustration and annoyance. Of Peter Ustinov: “He shows great originality, which must be curbed at all costs.” Of Jilly Cooper: “Jilly has set herself an extremely low standard, which she has failed to maintain.” Of Sue Lawley: “I do believe Sue has glue in her plimsolls.” Of Alan Coren, from his physics master: “Had he lived in an earlier aeon, I have little doubt but that the wheel would now be square and the principle of a lever just one more of man’s impossible dreams.”
They have a certain acerbic deliciousness, those comments, and the people of whom they were written tended to treasure them in later life. They are archetypally British in their conciseness, sarcasm and wit. In their uninhibited way those tweedy British schoolteachers saw straight through to the essence of the boy or girl in question, and their barbs were designed to swerve their charges in the right direction.
Yes, some of those comments could be damaging. I’ve met boarding-school old girls who are smarting, half a century later, from phrases in their school reports, such as (for one Cheltenham girl): “She is more of a liability than an asset.” That withering epigram has proved hard to shake off.
Things have swung too far in the opposite direction, though, in these days of litigious parents and offendable children. Today’s typical school report (“Naomi has had a moderate term, and for the most part I am happy with the progress she has made to date”) is so bland as to be of no use to a child in dire need of a spur to improve themselves.
If you are in any doubt, just look at David Bowie.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2018)