Everyone knows how good stories start. When I was very little it was always 'once upon a time', but then of course George Lucas gave this a futuristic twist: 'long, long ago, in a Galaxy far, far away'.
I am from the generation whose parents and teachers had adult/teenage memories of World War Two. My mum, dad, aunt and uncle all had first-hand experiences of service in the case of the latter three, and teenage years growing up in London Dockland during the Blitz in the case of my mother.
Every so often, my cousins, brother and I would be treated to an impromptu story of lives lived in a galaxy which seemed very distant from the one in which we were living: my uncle who was a dispatch rider blown off his bike into the side of an American tank on D-Day, resulting in a smashed kneecap that ended his war; my 14-year-old mother seeing the enemy planes come overhead as she ran for her life to the air raid shelter, my dad serving on one of the first ships into Singapore after the surrender. My Dad was the best story teller, and we listened in horror to his vivid descriptions of the 'walking skeleton' prisoners of war they picked up to bring home. They had known little of what happened in the Far East prior to this time, and could not believe what they were seeing.
But in the end, none of these were THE horror story that haunted me ever after. This came from my brother's history teacher, Mrs M. who took our class occasionally and told us stories of World War Two from the perspective of living in an occupied nation.
Mrs M was Czech, and had lost her entire family in Auschwitz. But it was her story of the occupation that was the most harrowing. She was 18 when the Nazis walked into Prague in early 1939, six months before the world went to war, and six months after Europe had washed its hands of Czechoslovakia's plight with the Munich Agreement. Mrs M was a master storyteller. Her teenage audience listened avidly as she described herself as a very naïve young girl, giggling with her friends, watching the tall blond soldiers marching in their vivid uniforms. 'We thought they were very handsome and dashing', she said. The first action of the Nazis was to stage a parade in the town square. The people were ordered to attend, but she said, to be honest, we probably turned out quite willingly to admire these very attractive young men, just a little older than us. But admiration turned to horror when a teenage boy sniggered at the soldiers' stamping and goose-stepping, because they immediately pulled him out of the crowd, and kicked him to death. As time went by, and more such events occurred, they began to realise that this type of event was purposely staged. It was done for effect, to show the local people what would happen to them if they showed the least sign of disobedience to the occupying army.
Sitting there, in peaceful mid-1970s Europe, with Britain poised to join the European Economic Community, it seemed impossible that the middle aged lady with the kind eyes who taught history in our rather boring parochial school had ever witnessed such atrocities. But she spoke of them with such passion, telling us that she would rather not have to tell us about such events, but she did, because she was so determined that these things should never happen again. And at that time, it did seem impossible. The past my parents and Mrs M had inhabited was as L. P. Hartley says in The Go Between (1953) '…a foreign country; they do things differently there'. Or alternatively, in more contemporary Lucas-speak 'a galaxy far, far away'.
I had not thought of Mrs M. in a long time. But this morning she came rushing back into my mind, urging me to remember. The trigger was a blog that had been tweeted from several twitter accounts, alleging a chilling practice in an anonymous academy, describing a practice termed 'flattening the grass':
A MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called "flattening the grass" rolling assemblies. Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT's expectations of students' behaviour. Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry. If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner. The students are the "grass" which is "flattened" by the experience.
While of course no one dies in this exercise, the similarity to the scenario described by Mrs M. is obvious and chilling. An enforced assembly where an all-powerful cohort single out a victim to be ritually chastised, with the purpose of terrifying the watching majority into blind and complete obedience to their authority, in order to ensure that such a terrible fate is never meted out to them.
I hope with all my heart that this allegation is not true. But at the same time, I hear Mrs M.'s urgent voice in my head 'you must make sure that these things never happen again'. What do children learn from exposure to such cruelty? It will depend on many things, for example the way that other adults in their lives behave; their own underlying personality. Some will be crushed, others will learn to duck and dive to stay under the radar; others will openly rebel and head out on the path to exclusion. But the ones we really need to worry about, generally (though not exclusively) male, are the ones who will learn to model such behaviour, becoming desensitised to the point that they may in future become obedient killing machines, like the handsome young Nazis who paraded in the Prague town square in 1939. This is an outcome too terrible to contemplate. As such, I hope that OFSTED will urgently investigate these allegations, and find that they are not accurate; and most of all I hope that the Galaxy in which Mrs M. grew to adulthood is still a very long way from here.
Dr Pam Jarvis is a chartered psychologist and a historian. Her key research focus is the well-being of children, young people and their families, and the development of social policy to support this. She has three young grandsons, and is currently Reader in Childhood, Youth and Education at Leeds Trinity University. She is an active campaigner for 'developmentally informed' policy and practice.
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