I attended my first School Sports Day in over twenty years this morning. Although my children are aged seven and ten, I have only recently embarked on an attempted career as a writer and so have not previously had the time to attend this annual event. So far, so guilty father syndrome. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the onrush of parental angst and all the feelings and fears that came flooding back on this crowded, sweltering field, while inhaling the evocative aromas of recently cut grass and sun cream.
I don’t think that I ever came first in any school sports race, neither did my wife, and it doesn’t look as though the children are likely to be breaking any family traditions too soon either.
I had never heard of the “Monkey Race” before, but I soon discovered that it involves running on all fours. I think my daughter must be one of the only entrants in the history of the race that would stop every five steps or so to brush the grass off her hands. However, she did me proud with a third place in the egg and spoon race, primarily because she kept her thumb on the plastic egg to keep it from rolling off. But this in turn caused my stomach to unexpectedly knot as I was whisked back to a time when I diligently kept my thumb away from the egg in order to play by the rules.
When I was still in short trousers we had been told that anyone holding the egg on to the spoon would be disqualified and labelled a cheat – at nine years old this was more than my life was worth - “Death before Dishonour!” and all that. Yet despite this, I would come a very honourable second-to-last while all the cheating bastards would race ahead. Surely lightening bolts would come out of the sky and strike them down at any moment. Why was the sky still clear without a thundercloud in sight?
Similarly, it seemed that a good honourable jump in the sack race was simply not enough to claim first prize. In order to win you had to stick your toes into the corners of the sack and sprint down the track as fast as your cheating legs would carry you. The teachers and adults didn’t seem to notice. How could they not notice? Were they temporarily blinded by a faerie glamour that deceived them all? The alternative explanation, that they didn’t actually care, was incomprehensible and refused to take hold in my mind.
Although as a child, when I had complained bitterly about things not being fair, usually when my sister had got her own way, and my father had replied, “Well life isn’t fair Kim”, I hadn’t actually believed him. All through childhood and school we were constantly told that if we played by the rules and did things the right way then we would be rewarded, and that if we broke the rules and cheated, then even if we got away with it in the short term, we would eventually get our comeuppance. If the education system was to be believed then all those school sports cheats would have ended up in a life of unemployment or constantly in and out of prison, while those who played by the rules would now be running successful multi-national companies who poured their profits into making the world a better place. And yet somehow I find it hard to believe that it turned out that way. In fact I would bet my right arm that most of those who run the big multi national companies slipped a bit of blue-tack under their egg, or cut holes in the bottom of the sacks so that their feet would easily slip through.
Looking at the teachers and adults around the sports field today I could see that none of them were going to ruin a sunny day out of the classroom by berating little Jenny for picking the egg back up with her other hand rather than scooping it up with the spoon when it rolled off, especially when little Jenny’s mother was sitting only twenty feet away and watching closely. It was all happening again: all those kids that played carefully by the rules failed to win. They didn’t even lose heroically because the teachers were too busy handing out stickers to the first three across the line, so no one noticed apart from a few parents who were preparing to tell their children that it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts.
Do I want my children to learn to lie and cheat to get ahead? Not particularly. I would like them to grow up with some kind or morals, but I don’t want them to buy into the hypocritical competitive sports morality. If I could go back and teach my younger self anything, it would be that it doesn’t matter a damn what his teachers and society think. He needs to understand that he has to find his own code of ethics that will allow him to live the way he wants to. This doesn’t mean harming other people, as a self-assured person is in a far better position to be able to help others.
Ok, so my children aren’t wise enough yet to be able to tell the teachers that it’s not the winning or losing, but the doing it your own way that counts, but I did feel a glimmer of hope when my daughter kept her thumb on that egg.