Slugs and snails and puppydogs’ tails

Little boys are horrible. Six year olds, specifically. Snot, fighting and being awful to each other.

Little Raphael is a case in point. When he’s not paying attention, or when he’s paying too much attention, he blows spit bubbles. It’s my least favourite thing of anything my students do, which is impressive as they’re often quite repulsive. Every time he does it I tell him to stop and tell him I won’t give him a sticker at the end of class. Sometimes this goes in and sometimes he just stares at me, spit bubbles ballooning out of his chubby face. Then I say “goodbye sticker!” and out of his unfortunately slightly gormless face comes a confused and slightly wronged face – what did i do? He reminds me of a small drunk, a miniature McNulty, barrelling about agape at the injustice in the world.

Raphael would love, more than anything, to be one of the cool kids in class. He tries so hard to be part of their gang but never quite manages it. Recently we were discussing dinosaurs and we all agreed that dinosaurs are very cool.

“When I grow up I want to be a scientist!” announced Raphael, proudly. “I want to discover things about dinosaurs!”

One of his classmates started laughing. “As if you could ever be a scientist!”

And all the other boys laughed.

This class are off to primary school this week. Chinese children start school at 6 years old and are often extraordinarily ill-equipped for it. A nation of only children brought up by their grandparents, these children are fitted on from a young age. The parents work and the grandparents (sometimes 4 to 1 child) give their little precious everything they never had. I see children being fed like birds, opening their mouths and waiting for grandma to stuff more food in. I see grandfathers trailing their grandchild, praising every tiny thing. “You’re the best! You’re number one! You’re better than all the other children!” (about being number one… I’ve had fights break out in my classroom over it, and every child I’ve taught would rather rush their work and finish first than do it all correctly). I very frequently see 4 or 5 year olds being carried like babies. 

Chinese children spend six years being told how amazing and special they are, allowed to rule the roost (bar the occasional violent beating), running around causing havoc in restaurants almost as bad as in middle class parts of London, unable to feed or dress themselves. And then… primary school.

40 or 50 students per class, intense competition and years of rote learning lie ahead.

Raphael, of course, doesn’t know quite what his future holds. He’s always seemed slightly carefree, either impervious or (more likely) oblivious, confident that he is NUMBER ONE despite any evidence to back this up. He looked puzzled when my Teaching Assistant stopped the other boys laughing at him by saying that everyone is allowed to have a dream, like he’d suggested he wanted to grow up to be a panda instead of the number one scientist…

At the end of class I gave all the students lollipops and wished them well at primary school. They rampaged about one final time while I led them out of class to find their parents. All the children scampered off until I was left with just Raphael. His grandma hurried forward and checked he wasn’t cold (grandparents fight an endless battle against their grandchildren being cold, even in the Shanghai summer) and asked him how class was. He showed her the lollipop, clasped in his sweaty little hand. 

Then the smile fell from his face. He stood completely still. Grandma asked him what was wrong. He appeared to get smaller by the second, then turned to me, his face hardened by resolve and sadness. “I’m not allowed sweets anymore,” he told me. “Mum says I’m fat.” He handed back the lollipop and, downcast, walked off, ignoring Grandma’s pleas that he was just perfect.

Welcome to the end of your childhood, Raphael.

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