Wednesday, 6 February 2008

The true value of education

Cross over the road my friend,
Ask the Lord his strength to lend.
His compassion has no end:
Cross over the road.

So we once sang, in an early, hazily-remembered primary school assembly. Or, rather, so everyone else sang. I, young, frightened and utterly unfamiliar with this peculiar ditty, found myself paralysed. The Mysterons' pet rabbit. So, instead (with the devilish cunning of youth) I opted to fix my mouth into a cleverly ambiguous gape throughout the song.

(It is a technique, incidentally, which still serves me well whenever some misguidedly buoyant fool leads a chorus of Happy Birthday, or a weary organist sounds the chords of the dirge that we call a national anthem.)

Bearing the above in mind, it will not, perhaps, be a surprise to learn that I am more often audience member than participant in Oxford’s thriving operatic scene. Nevertheless, it is not every day that I (who am insulted on a daily basis with a public sector salary) attend the opera. The experience of doing so, therefore, might be considered exceptional for me – even (dare I say?) something of a treat.

Now, I do not propose to write about the opera (in general, I turn my pen to the lower end of musical culture). No. I propose to write – prosaically enough – about my journey home afterwards. Elegant in tails and top hat – umbrella tapping at every third step (for, let us not forget, I had been at the opera) – I cast my gaze with easy nonchalance from side to side, looking about me at my more-or-less docile fellow citizens in what I like to think may have been a characteristically benevolent fashion. I am sorry to say, however, that neither my nonchalance nor my benevolence were primed for the experience thrust upon me as I rounded one particular street corner.

“Can you cross over the road, please?”

I was confronted by a young woman who appeared to be guarding the stretch of pavement behind her with Cerberus-like ferocity. My first reaction was mystification, to which I eloquently gave voice:


“Can you cross over the road, please?” Cerberus repeated. “'Cos my friend...”

And here, her voice trailed off, just as my eyes abandoned her (slightly flushed) visage and fell upon the area of pavement to her rear.

I am a keen believer in the theory of gender equality where appropriate.

I regret to admit, though, that a certain degree of prejudice evidently remains.

I am (albeit reluctantly) accustomed to the occasional sight of a male – somewhat the worse for alcohol – eroding, with the contents of a beer-filled bladder, the brickwork of a conveniently placed (for him) urban edifice. But sights such as this had not, I fear, prepared me for the spectacle upon which my inadvertently errant gaze was to alight, amidst the sidestreet gloom. For this (unavoidably female) “friend” – in a manner far more canine, alas, than anything I had yet witnessed of Cerberus – was squatting there, soiling the pavement with a veritable river. Eerily inky in the moonlight.

So I leave it to others to criticise the British education system; to make claims that schools are “failing our kids”. I have often heard it said that education is less about learning facts than it is about learning how to repond to others – being presented with paradigms drawn from the adult world, and learning to apply these to one’s own behaviour. Never again will I think such reasoning glib. For, that Saturday night, the reechoing strains of ‘The magic flute’ drowned out in my mind by that dimly recalled, ragazzoid chorus of pre-pubescent voices, I thought nothing of cultural hierarchies or of the conflict between high-brow and low-brow aesthetics.

Instead, I made like the good Samaritan: I crossed over that goddamn road.

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