King and queen of fifth class

Competition is healthy, right? The will to win pushes human beings to excel and for those with the right attributes and drive, the reward is the sweet taste of success. But too much emphasis on competition brings out its destructive force. It can distort and poison relationships, even society.

Here is an example of what a regime of competition did to a class of 10 and 11 year olds in Dublin in the 1980s. Our teacher was an old-fashioned disciplinarian who clearly missed the days of corporal punishment. He used to stalk the classroom with a metre stick and bring it crashing down on the desks of chattering children, shouting “watch out” just before he made contact.

The teacher had what Catholics call a “special devotion” to St. Teresa of Avila. Beware of anyone with a special devotion. We heard stories about her wonderful qualities – purity, humility, and obedience – ad nauseum. Enough already we would have shouted only that particular Americanism hadn’t yet reached Irish shores (nor had insubordination in the classroom).

Our school master imposed a system of continuous tests on us. Not a day went by without tests. On the wall he had meticulously put together a detailed chart where he recorded every pupil’s name and score in every single test. On a separate sheet there was a ranking of the running totals. At a glance we could see the order of achievement for all 28 children. There was no escaping it. So what did we do in this oppressive atmosphere? We became very competitive. More than that, we developed our own feudal society based on our rankings.

At the top of the pecking order came the King and Queen – the two brightest children in the class who alternated first and second place between them. The next half-dozen kids on the list were the Knights and their job was to defend the King and Queen whenever the teacher left the room and we all slipped into open animosity, expressed through ruler fights. The rest of the children were Commoners. When the teacher unwittingly seated a Commoner in the Knights’ section, he or she became a slave and had to fetch milk at break time, sharpen pencils, defend the royals and so on. Interestingly all the roles disappeared when we went out into the yard to play at lunchtime.

But inside the classroom, we stuck rigidly to the social order we had spontaneously created. Not quite Lord of the Flies but King and Queen of Fifth Class.

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