I was working in a primary school when England lost a World Cup football match. The children were miserable. A teacher told them that they shouldn’t feel sad for themselves, but happy for all the children in Brazil. They stared at her. Maybe it was just me, but they didn’t seem to feel much better. I suppose it’s not easy to imagine people on the other side of the world, or the other side of your own city, if you’ve hardly travelled three miles from home. As to understanding how others feel, can you do it with the person next to you?
The teacher meant well. It was an ad hoc lesson in empathy. It might have worked if she’d empathised with the children in front of her. Teachers tend to come up with this line: the most important thing is not to win, but to participate. Children don’t take this seriously. All around them they see the emphasis which is placed on winning. They know it’s the most important thing. They can feel it.
The best way to deal with failure is to try to avoid it in the first place. At school or university, if you’re not very clever or don’t want to waste time studying, there are still things you can do. We heard this year that one in three students wears lucky exam underwear. Think about that for a moment. Lucky exam underwear. One in three. Surely, of all the articles of clothing worn by a human being, underwear is the most unlucky, at least from the clothing’s point of view. Even socks, even my own socks, can’t feel so bad.
For most of us, exam day is the worst day of the year. We need to prepare for our biggest test. Exam tips have always been popular, and we got them again this year – take a spare pen, for example. Although this advice came from a pen manufacturer, it was still good. We were told about the “stomach-churning angst” of exam day, and heard how over half of all candidates change their diet just before exams, gorging themselves on oily fish and fruit. It’s not surprising, then, about the stomach. Do take an extra pen, but nervous students might also need a change of lucky underwear.
Of course, stress begins long before the first exam. Nursery teachers in the UK are complaining that more and more children have to be toilet trained when they start school. That’s right, four-year-olds. While most parents are relieved to get the little beasties off their hands, so to speak, mothers still proudly pack their children off to school. They still say things like: “Not too tight, is it, darling?” Once they meant Jonny’s belt or Jenny’s shoe. Now they’re pinning on a nappy.