|Gestapo headqua...euhh, a French school|
"For me, the word 'shame' is synonymous with the swimming pool." "I couldn't give a damn about sport. I thought it was stupid." "They didn't let me play rugby because I was too useless." "The sordid universe of the changing rooms at 8 in the morning."
That is the tragic reality of how the majority of French kids see sport, but it isn't the kids' fault in any way. There are always going to be some children who do not like sport of course, but the generalised loathing it inspires today is extremely worrying because it is the direct reflection of shortcomings in the way French schools are run and, on a broader scale, the pressures that society places on children.
The grand paradox of the French educational system in modern times is that it is still rooted in outdated philosophical approaches and methods of thought which were abandoned many years ago in more progressive countries. The great irony is that the teaching profession here is majoritarily left-leaning, which means that egalitarianism is theoretically espoused and the very idea of competition is an anathema, yet in practice the system is solidly structured around the very principles of soulless abnegation, the fear of failure and achievement-at-all-costs which the profession ostensibly despises. The word 'capitalism' was banned from French school books for many years because it was thought to embody a dog-eat-dog philosophy, yet at the same time teachers would (and still do) spend half their time establishing hierarchies amongst their pupils via the daily use of grades, marks out of 20, and the humiliation of those who are not 'up to standard.'
Probably the most used and abused word in French schools is 'nul' - 'useless.' 'You're useless' is thrown around like confetti by exasperated teachers who use it as a form of discipline and punishment. Children are deliberately ridiculised in front of their classmates by teachers who somehow manage to delude themselves that it will inspire them to perform better. But it doesn't, and they don't. French children are taught to keep quiet, they do not have the right to express themselves or their individuality (in the name of 'equality' maybe?) the professor is God, and woe betide any child who dares to question what he or she is being told.
And so it is with sport. Largely frowned upon by a profession which considers that it promotes unhealthily competitive must-win attitudes, it is at the same time organised in a highly competitive manner. Children are given marks for their performances, these marks count towards end-of-year results, and coming last is often seen as a sign that the child is lazy.What happens if you don't get the desired grades at the end of the year? You have to do that year again, which means your classmates move onwards and upwards while you have to stay behind and study with children a year younger than yourself. The feeling of humiliation and failure that this almost always leads to can easily be imagined. It is well-documented moreover.
It is this fundamental hypocrisy which has led to the rise of a €2 billion a year legal market for coffee tablets and other stimulants to help children keep up with the frantic pace of homework, tests, exams and studies. Depression due to the pressures of school life is rife amongst French schoolchildren, many of whom go to school with a heavy heart.
And it's not as if the pressure and hierarchical approach gets results. Contrary to what many foreigners may think or believe, the French education system and the results it obtains are regularly criticised by OECD and E.U. studies and France is either in or just above the bottom third of results obtained in crucial subjects such as French and maths. Creativity is almost non-existant and both teacher and pupil absenteeism are abnormally high.
All that said, it's not just the education system which needs a shake-up, it's society's expectations of children. They learn early on that if your breasts are too large - or too small - or if you are overweight, in other words if you don't look like the skinny models used to sell clothes in childrens' magazines you are just one notch away from being considered as a freak.
You may say that things have always been like that and you would be right, but the onus placed on French children today to succeed is far greater than anything experienced in the past, and failure, unlike before when you could, say, get an apprenticeship or lower your sights, often means long-term unemployment in a country where unemployment rates for young people are higher than in almost any other major western country except Spain.
Some children are more competitive in nature than others. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but sport, like any discipline, should not just be about winning and getting good marks. Sport should be about doing one's best and trying to improve, whatever one's level of ability. It should be about fun and cameraderie and children should be encouraged and praised, whatever the results obtained.
That's how it was for me and for me to see the very idea of sport and intellectual endeavour reduced to the point where it's only the grades which count is a damning indictment of our times. If we can no longer teach children how to play sport without it being a source of pressure, dread and depression the teaching profession and society in general are guilty of depriving children of their basic rights.