This week, I was running ‘Tales from the Deep’ with youngsters at Battle Library. As usual, I set out my little booklets for the kids to write in, my octopus colouring pictures, my origami paper, and waited. Within five minutes of opening, I had seven children, and would have ten over the course of the whole session. What interested me about this group of kids was how incredibly quiet they were. They looked at me with huge, terrified deer eyes. They spoke very quietly, leaning into their parents, watching me as if I was something unpredictable. They coloured very carefully, staying between the lines, yes, but adding their own quirks to their octopus pictures. They added spots, stripes, hearts, stars…and my goodness could these kids write! They wrote about sea creatures so bright they were unmissable, about brave octopuses who rescued mermaids from sharks. Their stories were phenomenal, but they barely spoke a word.
There was one exception to this rule, a very enthusiastic and clearly well-read young man of about nine who, for the purposes of this, we shall name Felix. He talked incessantly. I’m certain that most of what he said was made up, but who am I to judge the reality of a small child? He told me that he and his father had once caught a squid the size of that chair and his favourite snake was a blue one that could hypnotise you to death! I made him an origami fish, as I do for all the youngsters in the workshop, and asked him if it was going to be a regular fish or a flounder. He looked at me suspiciously and said, “what’s a flounder?” I explained it was a fish as flat as a pancake that lived on the ocean floor and hunted unsuspecting sea dwellers, like the octopus. Its scales were so similar to the sand that it was almost invisible, a brilliantly camouflaged fish.
Felix’s excellent response was “don’t talk to me about camouflage! We found ten flounders under the sea…” he then went into another marvellous submarine adventure in which he and his father had caught a flounder or saved an octopus or wrestled an octopus or caught a ten foot shark. I can’t remember. I was trying too hard not to giggle. Meanwhile, Felix’s younger sister, sat with their mother, was quietly colouring her octopus, writing a story about a mermaid. Despite Felix’s protestations about his familiarity with camouflage, it was every other child around that table that was expert at blending in. This was not Felix’s fault. In fact, he was another kind of different. Later, his mother confirmed that Felix had an alternative learning need which meant he did not really care to fit in. He was who he was and I have a great deal of respect for that. I hope beyond hope that Felix remains as much himself as he can, and that the nastiness of other human beings does not make him lose this.
For the other children, it was obvious that camouflage was a way of life. In this sense, they were very much like the octopus; adapting, hiding, tucking themselves away into imaginary places no one would think to look. They were—and are—a generation stripped of their individuality, boxed into a don’t-think-don’t-speak-don’t-question lifestyle through a schooling system that focuses on ‘comprehension’ rather than ‘ask’. In a social set up that favours the extrovert and looks down on the shy and silent as ‘weak’ or ‘unfit’, these are children whose own imaginative power is being suppressed. Much like the octopus, they are ridiculed and sneered at rather than respected.
I watched these children create. I recognised the strength of their minds, the way they stayed within the confines of expectation but only just, the way they never broke the rules, but bent them into such obscure shapes they were barely recognisable. These camouflaged are children with power. They are the cast aside, the bullied, the ignored, the forgotten. But they see everything. And Felix? Well, he was hardly what I would call a conventional child, but he will be brilliant one day. They all will, if we let them.
In the backs of our classrooms are children like these, quiet with their eyes cast down and their minds screaming, if only we could hear the frequency they’re talking in. They are transmitting electro-pulses more powerful than we can possibly understand. The sharks can sense them; the cruel, the manipulative, the greedy. But the ones they need to hear them aren’t listening.
These are not weak children. They have a power that our world will need in years to come. They will be the ones that save the planet, that shelter the homeless, that heal the dying. At least, they will if we don’t crush them first, if we don’t leave them in their hiding places so long they convince even themselves that they don’t exist. Every ocean is a game of deception and revelation. Now it is our turn to be surprised by the incredible things our children can do, if only we will let them be, if only we can appreciate them for all their quiet brilliance, their gentle genius, the breathlessness we will all experience when the silent force of them finally hits us. These are the children the education system will suffocate, the children that some people do not want to grow up to be brilliant. It’s our job to protect them, provide the camouflage, respect their hiding places and listen to their electricity. The fact is, we need them.