Here is what I learned at school: That children are arranged in circles. Well, I say circles it could just as well have been tiers in a vertical system but circles is what springs to mind as I write this now. Back then it would have been hard to put into any words, and certainly not geometrical shapes, though my memory of what was happening is very clear.

In the first and inner circle were the children who got the most stars on the star chart displayed in our classroom for everyone to see. A small inner group. The most popular children. They got silver stars and gold stars as well as – the less valued – red and green and yellow stars.  Their stars stretched in a long line on the chart. You won’t be surprised to know they were mainly, maybe not exclusively blonde and blue-eyed children, and they got the good, speaking parts in the Nativity play. I imagine they always had to be on the look out not to lose their position. The next circle also had a number of stars but not nearly as many. I expect they tried very hard to keep up with the children in the first circle. Perhaps they tried to be like them. And then there was us. We were all foreigners except for one girl. We came from Poland in my case, Nigeria, Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), South Africa and Saudi Arabia I think. No one told us where that child was from but I knew he spoke Arabic. The teacher who seemed to be having some kind of break-down or fit used to throw his board rubber at him. We were white, black, brown and so obviously different we each got bullied at one time or another. And then there was this one English girl. Why was she in the foreign circle on the outside with us? The only sense I could make of it then – and now – was because she was different too. She was emotional and laughed much louder than the other children, holding her hands together in front of her and shaking with excitement. So she was bullied as well. The other children held their noses and said she smelled whenever they went past her.

Years later I found out that this learning was called the hidden curriculum as distinct from what the school thought it was teaching us. I wish I could tell you that we banded together sharing what we could see was happening to us and that we gave each other moral support. If we did so at all it was entirely silent. I wish I could tell you that we then reached out to the other two circles and broke down barriers and started a children’s revolution saying we refused to be divided like this or be made to compete with one another. I think we probably all knew and watched and saw everything that happened. But we were divided by gender and race and class and language. We didn’t know how and nobody helped us to form vital alliances, to find the words to describe and understand what was happening and change a system of inner and outer circles and ranking children. I think I’ve been trying to live differently ever since. If I could travel in time, I’d go back and rip the star chart off the wall and sit with all us children and help them/us through it so that no one was ever bullied again and each felt valued.

I know teachers, youth workers, therapists, parents, adults in all walks of life, who have devoted years of their lives to doing exactly that and have made a real difference to children growing up in whatever version of those circles they found themselves in over different decades. I know poets, writers and artists finding ways to speak out against the ‘othering’ of people. I feel so lucky to have that sense of community. We’re living in an immense backlash where prejudice and hatred are being whipped up daily and the earth is being destroyed. We can see it. We watch it all. But we don’t have to watch helplessly.

Plac Solidarności w Gdañsku. Młodzieżowy Strajk Klimatyczny. YOUTH STRIKE ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE IN GDANSK. NATURE BEFORE EXAMS!
15.03.2019 Photograph by fot. Krzysztof Mystkowski / KFP