Despite my years teaching English across secondary schools I believe that the most valuable lessons are not actually taught within the classroom. In fact under the current education system, children are often just taught to the test and particularly within English are not tested on their ability to interpret or be imaginative but are in fact tested on either their memory or their efficiency at regurgitating pre-defined answers. Of course this type of closed question, multiple choice examination can serve a purpose; the ability to recall and recount are important skills but need also to be accompanied by the capacity to think independently with a knowledge of how to transfer those skills into real life situations. It becomes problematic when we can only replicate facts and the opinion of others without being able to form any true opinions of our own- but standardisation is vital. Who benefits from creating a generation of free thinkers right?
During the process of collating The Silent Scream anthology I have learnt to let go of my beliefs that ‘a good education’ will help to set children up for life and have redefined my own interpretation of what a ‘good education’ actually means. Of course there are obvious benefits of having a ‘good education’ and it definitely helps to open up doors that might otherwise remain closed. But the one thing that will stead children far better going into adulthood is to have a stable, secure and happy childhood, to be acknowledged and validated for who they are and to develop an emotional understanding of themselves and others. Ultimately, they need to be taught how to have good physical and mental health because without those two things, none of the rest really matters. Your academic achievements are of little value you to you if you’re struggling through an addiction or severe episodes of anxiety (for example) as a result of not being able to manage your own mental health.
Of course the importance of a school education should not be underestimated (although there is much to be said also about the value of a home education) and I think teachers and schools are doing their best under enormous pressure to perform and achieve, (which by the way causes an enormous amount of stress in itself- is it any wonder therefore that 80% of classroom teachers have seriously considered leaving the profession in the last 12 months according to a recent National Education Union survey) but ultimately our impoverished education system is in need of an entire overhaul to suit the requisites of children and teachers under the current climate in which we live.
The curriculum itself is out-dated in certain areas and the importance of creative subjects which vitally contribute to the formation of authentic self-expression are undervalued and often culled where there are either a lack of resources and funds or a child is struggling to ‘pass’ the core academic subjects. It is baffling why the children who would often most benefit from pursuing those creative subjects would have them taken away in order to focus on getting them through the subjects deemed the ones that would serve them better in life; English, Maths and Science. Yes, we all need a basic understanding of these subjects and I am certainly not naysaying their relevance, but we need to recognise now, more than ever, the detrimental effect of choking creativity and independent thinking out of our children, especially those for whom academia is more challenging.
English itself is a creative subject and yet with the type of closed questioning that children are exposed to (particularly in SATs) English is being morphed into a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ subject with no opportunity for analysis and certainly no scope for children to attach meaning for themselves. The creative subjects and creativity within any subject, play a vital role in children exploring their own ideas, their feelings, their place in and understanding of the world. The arts and literature are essential to innovation and yet children are being taught that even down to how they form their letters, they must conform.
Again, writing of course needs to be legible and pride in presentation of our work is most definitely useful, but when you can pass or fail based on formation of letters (even when they are legible) just because they are not what the curriculum requires, where is the freedom of expression? Our handwriting tells a story about who we are, gives away secrets of our soul and yet we are conditioned into believing that how we form letters on a page is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ the subtle message being that autonomy is an error to be erased from the page. Is it any wonder therefore why we have a mental health epidemic amongst school aged children, when the soul of who they are is being crushed by a system of standardisation, obedience and control?
There are unquestionably many other contributing factors and I am no mental health expert (although I do believe there is a difference between mental health and mental illness) but if we begin to analyse (or perhaps we can’t because aren’t given the opportunity in schools) the subtle signals and messages that we receive about ourselves and our worth it is easy to see why we live in a society plagued with ‘not good enough’ syndrome. We are afraid to be who we are and express ourselves because who we are and what we think is ‘wrong.’
I spent most of my life in fear of being ‘wrong’ and prided myself on being an ‘A’ grade student because I felt that that one little letter gave my life value; it deemed me worthy of taking my next breath . But studying only text books taught me that I either pass or fail and I only saw life in black and white. Give me instruction and I can follow, leave me with a blank canvas and I’m terrified by the endless possibilities, by the thought of ‘getting it wrong.’ I’ve learnt not to be so terrified, that I do not fall neatly into a pre-defined category and to trust my instincts, to let my spirit and soul guide me. Living life by other peoples’ expectations or limitations (or even our own perceived expectations and limitations) prohibits growth of character and growth, I’ve learnt, is an essential part of maintaining good mental health.
Life experience often teaches us more than any text book could and the lessons we learn are often taught to us by the people we would least expect. During my journey of collating and editing The Silent Scream anthology, I learnt that the right teacher usually comes when you’re ready for the lesson. I count myself blessed to have encountered so many inspirational people during this process, all of which have taught me more valuable life lessons over this past year than I have learnt across my entire years spent within the education system (both as a student and a teacher) but I also think that coincides with a readiness in me to let go of the old, to shed skins and to open my mind to the possibilities that were always there, but that I’d hid from through fear of being underserving, incapable even. How many achievements have been made by people that many years previous would never have imagined they would have accomplished?
I learnt the world is a much more compassionate, supportive and friendly place than I ever imagined if you are willing to open your heart and mind. I kept mine closed off for such a long time, my early experiences teaching me to shut down and disconnect for my emotional survival. But once I stopped living in survival mode and actually started to live again, I began to rebuild those connections, proving that trust and love, although scary, do exist and that I am worthy of them (I still sometimes struggle with this though.) A life without either of these two things is merely an existence.
I also learnt that courage to face your fears liberates you from beliefs that do not serve you. In finding the valour to delve into my past and face my deepest fears about myself, I was able to disentangle the truth from the lies. I have therefore come to understand myself (and therefore others) by interrogating every aspect of my thought processes and behaviours, unravelling everything I’d ever been taught or believed about myself; my worth, my appearance, what I should and shouldn’t be doing, saying and achieving as a woman, wife, mother, teacher and friend and what I should or shouldn’t be doing as a result of my background, my circumstances and my finances. I’ve learnt to over step the boundaries I was taught not to and rewrite the rules. I’ve learnt to reconnect with my primal longing, my innate knowing of whom I am and that the fear of non-conformity is a lifelong jail sentence.
I learnt that I often still live too much in my head and that I isolate myself when I feel stressed and unworthy. I find my thoughts taking me down dark avenues if I don’t keep on top of my emotional and mental wellbeing- when I allow myself to become disconnected. It’s why during the process of collating The Silent Scream anthology that I decided to join a twelve step programme, following the steps and traditions of AA (which can be applied and used for any form of addiction or destructive habit) to help me keep on top of my negative mind narrative and to hold myself accountable for my self -destructive behaviours that from time to time still try to creep in. And by self-destructive, (in my case) I mean the urge to sabotage everything good in my life for fear that I am not worthy of it.
The twelve step programme also reinforces the notion that relationships and connections both with people and a Higher Power are an imperative part in reaching sobriety and remaining abstinent. I would argue that they are imperative to the mental and emotional health of anyone, not just those who have struggled with the demons of addiction. I also learnt that recovering addicts are some of the most incredible, inspirational and courageous people and that the judgements we hold about the ‘type’ of people that have addictions is unjust and serves only to perpetuate the disconnection which often drives addicts to their addiction in the first place. In working with addicts and working through a twelve step programme, I know that the pursuit of sobriety is hugely demanding and it takes a real warrior to fight the demons of addiction.
When I first shared my story I was full of fear. Dread. Shame. I thought others would be judgemental, pitying even. I knew that once it was out there I would be unable to take it back. A slate I could never wipe clean, which paradoxically is how I’ve lived my life; trying to wipe the slate clean for fear of my ‘mess’ being seen by others. Fear that I would be seen as anything other than perfect. I’ve learnt that perfect doesn’t exist and that the pursuit of perfectionism is in fact a major cause of unhappiness. There are far too many people living in isolation, not speaking out or reaching out because of fear of judgement and rejection and that even when people do reach out they often don’t get the right help and support that they need; waiting lists are long and people are treated as if they are on a spectrum of mental health where they only qualify for help far beyond the point at which they really need it.
I learnt that no matter how much you tell your children how much you love them, are proud of them and encourage them to be courageous, if you don’t love yourself, show pride in yourself and find the courage to put yourself into uncomfortable situations then your children won’t either because children do as you do and not as you say. I was naïve in thinking that if I took good care of my children’s needs it didn’t matter too much if I neglected mine; the knock on effect is that children learn that it is ok to neglect their own needs whilst meeting the needs of others. There is no value in that for anybody; there is a reason after all, why we are instructed by air stewards at the start of a flight to put on our own oxygen masks first in the case of an emergency before trying to help others with theirs. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t prioritise the needs of our children, but that we should strive for balance.
The list of life- lessons that I learnt are endless and served me better than any I attained from sitting in a class room, a lecture theatre or by studying text books. They all came from the sharing of stories, forming real connections with others and seeking out mentors that supported me and advised me in areas where I needed it. Those lessons came through a willingness to be vulnerable and honest, from daring to challenge and seek truth. Rebelliousness is often and unfairly indistinguishable from naughtiness (and therefore a bad thing) but the people we label as rebels are often the most authentic for they are not afraid to contest the requirement of subservience. I’ve learnt that it is ok to break the mould and now teach my children to do the same.
Ultimately, I’ve learnt the true value of using our voice for positive change. So, let’s use our voices against an education system that seeks to destroy creativity, individuality and sends the message that we are not good enough unless we fit the standard required by a government so out of touch with the needs of its people. Let’s rise against a society and culture that sells us self-hatred and fakery. In order to preserve emotional and mental wellbeing you have to be committed to your truth and live in your authenticity and find connections with people that support you in that. I’m not promoting anarchy here, but reminding you that the rules you adhere to are not inflexible and that in order for growth and change (a huge component to our emotional and mental wellbeing) we have to at least sometimes be willing to live outside the lines (including the ones we impose upon ourselves.) Fear and shame are synonymous with silence and repression. So face your fear, let go of shame and find your voice- let it be heard so that others can learn that empowerment starts with speaking your truth.
Maria Alfieri - May 2019
The Silent Scream: An Anthology of Despair, Struggle and Hope will be available to buy from October 2019