“You should be good at chess,” said the maths teacher who ran the lunchtime chess club when I turned up to try it one day. I’d played a little bit of chess at home, and I wanted to be in a supervised space rather than in what I experienced as the violent wilderness of the playground, so I went to see what it was like. Despite some initial attractions – indoors, sitting down, not being mocked for being clever – it didn’t keep me. That was partly because I didn’t get on with the company (the football playing boys outside were sexist and loud, while the chess playing boys inside were quieter but still sexist – and teenage girls could tell at a glance that I had Social Death Plague). It also had a lot to do with chess itself: although I’m fine with most of the individual bits of chess, can plan ahead, think about moves, remember patterns, etc., I didn’t actually have any motivation to use those skills for this task. I couldn’t see the point. Nothing much of interest happens during a game. At the end, you might win, but you might not, and both of you take it personally.
I was thinking about this recently when I heard some people making clear pronouncements about tasks they are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at – specifically, a group were discussing various tasks, including one which involved devising systems and ways of organising things, probably with an IT element. Several people said in conversations about this: “don’t let me near that” or “I’m terrible at those things”. It got me thinking about who is allowed to declare such things and when: in that situation, such declarations were not challenged, while wheelchair users who can also walk even a tiny distance report that they are strongly discouraged from reducing the amount of walking they do, or even told they shouldn’t be using the wheelchair at all. And about how and when we make such declarations: recently, my mother found a list of my strengths and weaknesses which she had written when we were considering where I should go to secondary school. On the ‘good at’ list, she’d written ‘science’. It stood out as something which no longer seems true, although most of the other items were right (for example, the ‘bad at’ list included not getting on well with my peer group, which is probably still true and is much in evidence in the chess-club story above!). Somewhere between 10 and 13, I discovered or decided that I was bad at science. Even though my dad was a science teacher and my grandmother a researcher with a PhD in zoology. Even though my dad had a poster of Jocelyn Burnell in his lab. Even though I was taught science by women. Even though I wanted to be an archaeologist, and knew science would be required. What happened?
Bad teaching and bad school conditions (a top set science class with 36 out-of-control kids, in which it’s never safe to do practicals) probably had something to do with it. Lack of motivation for the immediate work, as with chess, is probably also a factor. But my sense is that there’s a broader issue, which is about capacity and personality formation. An adult member of my Quaker meeting said to me at around this age something like, “It’s hard to be a good all-rounder.” That remark seems to me to be onto something about the general pressures of these situations. I didn’t actually think of myself as a good all-round student – although I usually got good marks in most academic subjects, I was abjectly aware of all the areas of life in which I was a miserable failure. (PE. Making friends. Being happy. Music.) I did see what she meant, though. School performance is meant to be maintained. When you get a good mark, you don’t get to stop, you have to go on and get the same or a better one next time. In the absence of someone else saying, “that’s okay, you’ve done enough”, I found ways to choose to identify myself as good at things I actively enjoyed, things where persisting would be its own reward (reading, writing, and, err, more reading), and to declare myself ‘bad at’ things where I didn’t see the point or felt incapable of the level of effort it would take me to achieve the next thing which would be demanded of me. I did this with maths and PE before secondary school, science, music, and languages while I was there, and with hobbies: swimming, chess, horse riding.
Writing this, I imagine that some readers are judging my actions. (I know the education system was judging me.) People say things like: Try harder! You shouldn’t stop, you should work at it! You can do anything if you put your mind to it! Proof that you’re lazy! Well, maybe. But what if it’s actually more like a process of simplification? In the group who were discussing various tasks, we ended up with four tasks to choose from, and I would honestly have to say that I thought I would be fairly good at and have something to contribute to all four. What I don’t have is the energy and focus to do all four properly, along with everything else which needs doing in life. Perhaps deciding not to try too hard, to allow oneself not to be good at some things – or even more controversially in a world where effort is meant to be key, to give up or not bother – is actually a move towards simplicity and not having too many irons in the fire.
I can indeed do all sorts of things if I put my mind to them. It must have been a great frustration to some of my teachers when they could see that I chose not to. There is a skill which might be learned from this refusal, though: a skill of discernment, a skill of attending to what is top priority, a skill of seeking to become what God needs me to be and not what others want me to be. I’m still working on this skill (there’s a good chance I’ll end up trying at least three of those four tasks…), but I am trying to honour it as a skill and not a failing, in myself and in others – some of whom will be choosing not to do something I think they could or ought to do!