The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, October 21, 2004

I've been staring out of a lunchtime window at work, seeing if I can plot patterns in the spidery movements of groups of children across the yeard three floors below.

"In our earliest years, no one minds much what we do, existence alone is enough to earn us unconditional affection. We can burp up our food, scream at the top of our voice, fail to earn any money and have no important friends - and still be valued."

The physical ease with which young boys drape their arm across another boy's thigh, the lack of preamble when they walk up to an acquaintance and casually ask "where are we going?" with neither greeting nor further question, the fluidity with which groups swell, part, fragment, and disperse into other swirling fragments - the movement is balletic from above, and is a kaleidoscopic reminder of the innocence of childhood, the unconscious assumption of shared good.

"But to reach adulthood means to take our place in a world dominated by chilling characters, snobs, whose behaviour lies at the heart of our anxieties about our status."

It's several moments before I focus in on the small boy sat alone on the steps, and how his head bobs up and down as he gobbles a processed cheese sandwich. As taller children approach, his head whips up, alert, startled and wary like an animal. Within ten feet, his posture has entirely changed - his head bowed, unfocussed, not looking, fixed apparently casually on his sandwich. I imagine his eyes deliberately blurred into disregard: so as not to provoke response?
As the taller children recede, his movements become unco-ordinated and childlike again, the head bobbing up to check their retreat.
The one fluid behaviour this child has mastered, alone on the steps, is the unassuming invisibility of a safety-fear trigger.

Left alone, he struggles with both bag and sandwich as he stands, faces three directions, uncertain of where to go. In my mind's eye, he's assumed an automatic status: victim.
He spots another boy ten feet away. "Where are we going?" he asks, in a casual tone.

"The distinctive mark of snobs is not simple discrimination, it is an insistence on a flawless equation between social rank and human worth."

And now I don't know for sure where my observation led me.
Did I glimpse the potentiality for threat in the rigid, brutal hierarchy of the pre-adolescent? Or did I see one glance, and upon it superimpose the raw jungle fights of my own school days?

Source of quotations: Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton.