I stood at the checkout with my son’s warm hand in mine. I could see, over at the next checkout, another mother from our school. Her son was with her, too. We didn’t talk, but there was a wry grin exhanged between us. We both knew why our boys weren’t at school.
Today is the Swimming Sports Carnival.
I phoned in his absence this morning, mumbling something about his ears. I took him to the doctor soon after, she looked in each of his ears, hmmming and adjusting the ottoscope before confirming what I already know. His ears are fine.
I remember one of these days a few years ago. My mildly dyspraxic girl, still grappling with learning to swim, was standing terrified beside a six foot deep pool. It was competition day. She was crying and begging to be let off. The teachers responded with grim determination. The bank of stopwatch officials waited with barely disguised impatience. The whole swimming complex seemed to sigh with frustration. I was not allowed to go to her, poolside, to help calm her down. The whole school waited until she eventually got in the pool. An older girl was already in the water with a pool noodle, waiting to tow her the length of the lane. What is the purpose of this kind of showy display of ‘you WILL do it, even though you can’t do it?’ Who does it serve? Near the finish line, myself and some of the sympathetic parents around, erupted into applause. And my beautiful daughter emerged from the water, dripping with shame. She smiled a wobbly smile at me and slunk back to join her class on the bleachers. I went out behind the swimming pool complex and cried for her. It was an awful experience.
This picture is from last year, when she was delightfully astonished to place first in her heat. One day, I might see a similar smile on my son’s face, when he swims well enough to enjoy competing. But this year, he and his perfectly fine ears are sitting out the indignity of race day.
It has always baffled me why P.E teachers are so hot on participation. Why joining a competition even if you are not competitive is such a religion to them. My kids are both involved in sports, both are involved in their schools’ wider culture. I entirely endorse the idea of being there to support your classmates, your school house, your peers. And this is why it bothers me so much. I have spent too much wasted time on the phone talking to the PE staff at school about this. Going around in circles. Banging my head against a brick wall.
The compulsory nature of Swimming and Athletic sports days (and the dreaded Cross Country) means that you are effectively forced to stay away if you are not going to participate. Or lie about an injury or illness that prevents you from swimming or running. It’s madness. To me, that is teaching kids something far worse than not racing. It’s saying that if you are not like those people who enjoy competition, you should hide, you should make excuses. It’s saying that you should suffer for a day because you are not like them. Suffer in competition, or suffer in silence at home. It’s saying that your voice of encouragement and cheering from the sidelines is only valuable if you have also competed. It’s bollocks.
We are not all the same. I would never dream of asking my kids to compete in showjumping horses until they are competent in the saddle. I would never expect a dyslexic child to enter a spelling bee, or drop someone with agoraphobia in the middle of the desert. I think there is a cruelty to the one-size-fits-all environment of our Education System in relation to PE. And I think it needs to change.
So today, we are sitting out the Swimming Sports in silent protest. I feel resolute. I know I am not the only mama out there feeling this way today. I sit here in solidarity with all of them. With you, if you have ever felt the frustration I feel.
Here’s to the others. The non-competitors, the slower starters, the ones who always bring up the rear, to the ones whose genius is not defined by physical test of speed; whose gentle souls are built for fairer things. They are not failures for not being sporty, they should not feel ashamed. Sporting prowess is simply one kind of genius. Take it away Mister Einstein.