Stab in the dark/ heart

I always forgot which workshop was which. That didn’t seem to matter because all of them were founded on the same concept of mind and thus similar models of behaviour. They each had similar benefits.

To quickly recap what I’ve said before, the way we respond to any situation or experience is rooted in our previous experiences and the conclusions we drew from them. Our habits and behaviours grow from these assumptions and invariably reinforce them. From them we develop tools and practices to overcome, or at least cope with, life’s difficulties. Even anorexia is a coping mechanism for some even larger, more deep-seated problem.

The best example of this cycle in action, isn’t actually an anorexic behaviour, it’s the attitude my students display towards exams. You’ll remember that I work as a learning support assistant in a secondary school. The students I work with don’t experience success. They are constantly assessed and found wanting but they are resilient and they develop strategies so they can survive.

Assessments, for them, involve having some sort of written or verbal question fired at them and feeling totally at a loss, but knowing this feeling will stop if they just volunteer an answer. Any answer. They don’t expect to get it right, so they don’t waste time trying to work out what the correct answer might be. They just blurt out the first thing that comes into their head. If it happens, by chance, to be right, they’re surprised and grateful to the teacher because they have no idea how they came to that result.

Usually, of course, it’s totally wrong, reinforcing their belief in their own inability. They assume successful students just have the right answer pop into their head, so they make no attempt to develop ideas in exams. They favour one or two sentence answers and skip any questions they can’t immediately respond to, allowing them to finish very early and then get the hell out to lick their wounds together, laughing and pretending they don’t care.

By getting it over and done with quickly, though, they can consign the humiliating experience to the past and forget it, concentrating on those things that comfort them and make the school day bearable: their friendships and feuds, their amusements, teasing their teachers…

I can remember working with a lovely, hard working but completely innumerate student and trying to get her to subtract 2 from 7 by holding up seven fingers, then curling down two of them. “So, how many fingers do I have left?” I asked.

“27”, she replied.

Similarly, last week, in a Geography lesson, another student was looking at a photograph of the huge buttress root of a rain-forest tree. The teacher asked him (unnecessarily), “so, is this at the top or the bottom of the tree?” He said, “The top.”

In both these cases the students knew, or were capable of knowing, the answer. The first student could count, and knew humans only have 10 fingers; the second doesn’t confuse the tops and bottoms of trees. However, they just followed the discourse formula they had learned to expect: an incomprehensible question followed by a random, incorrect response. They might as well have said “Haploid cells” or “Vermillion” or “The War of the Spanish Succession”.

But we all do this. In Ascot House we favoured selective memories that only brought bad things to mind; selective interpretations that only imagined the worst.

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