"When you lick the lollipop of mediocrity, you suck it forever"
Kia ora e hoa,
End-of-year prize-giving evening was their last time. Final year students and teachers fill the Ian Colquhoun Memorial Hall for their last opportunity to say thanks and goodbye.
Where time at school would end, this very same hall was the rendezvous of day's start for every Palmerston North Boys' High School (PNBHS) student.
Every morning after form class, students noisily congregated for the school assembly. Chatter turned into pin-drop silence with the Head Boy's signal, "School stand". Well-rehearsed, all immediately launched from their benched seats, the School's principal man has arrived. Approaching the lectern, the Rector lead the Lord's Prayer. In perfect synchrony, the battalion of students bowed their heads. In keeping the ritual, the Rector addressed the school with daily business, the tirade of achievements, but also the parade of disappointments.
This was life as a PNBHS student. Every morning. Every day.
Overall, Palmerston North is a mediocre sized town in the middle of the Manawatu. On the other hand, PNBHS exceeds the definition of the city. The School produced worthy businessmen, notable academics, and elite sportsmen. The teachers were and still are extraordinary. The Palmy Boys' legacy stays with students even after leaving the School. Cut me open, and you will see my bleed former PNBHS student rather than University of Auckland alumni.
That's good, but what about the questionable?
Most school assemblies blended into the day-by-day monotony. I was a young 'lad'. Whatever was said by Rector or senior staff went straight in without a second thought. My mind was malleable. However, my time at PNBHS was over a decade ago. Now, I have gained some life experience. Time away is time to reflect. In their effort to "develop educated men of outstanding character", was what the Rector and his communion said entirely appropriate? Or was it regrettable?
Mediocrity is not OK
Whether it be fear of appearing less masculine in the opposite sex's eyes, a competitive atmosphere, or teachers catering to gender-specific learning styles, "single-sex schooling may mitigate the male disadvantage in educational achievement" (Gibb et al., 2008).
PNBHS had a war against the average and not just beat the average. The goal was to demolish the competition. Even if the other team was staring down the barrel of defeat, the only acceptable action was to put the "foot on the throat".
After all, nothing is achieved without hard work — Nihil Boni Sine Labore.
And now we are introduced to the humorous innuendo for the hormone-filled imaginative teenager: "When you lick the lollipop of mediocrity, you suck it forever". Mediocrity is a sickening addiction. Excellence becomes the norm.
What does this tell our young men? Win at all costs. And anything less is failure and an unfathomable sense of shame.
This works well for the winners in our society. Unfortunately, there is limited space on the podium. Does that mean the rest are failures?
Does "outstanding character" encompass ruthless competitive behaviour and results-based self-worth? When we focus on objectives beyond our control and compare ourselves to impossible standards, life turns into a slippery slope.
When life doesn't go our way, slamming the accelerator is rarely going to work. Instead, self-reflection changes our gears, allowing us to find our passions, our values, what is important, what is our control and what isn't, what is worth caring about and what is worth forgetting.
Young men need to know the importance of hard work. It's not aimless painful coal mining, but trying lots of different things, being okay to fail at these things and trying something else.
Once we find what is worth pursuing, we point the needle to our newfound North star and work hard towards that. If our passions align, it won't feel like hard work.
"The lollipop of mediocrity", "foot on the throat" — saying this to children is questionable. Our School's darwinian approach works well for those near the top, but this tells the rest are failures. There is life beyond sports, academics, and trophies. "Outstanding character" is growing up to become a productive member of a community, to be a husband, to be a father, or what every life script one decides to take.
It's time to open up, not man up
PNBHS was serious business. Grooming checks were regular. No facial hair. Hair was not to be styled or dyed. Hair wasn't allowed to touch the shirt collar nor go over the ears. Walking past rubbish sacrificed an evening with after-school detention.
And when performance dipped below the impossible standard, the answer was always man up and work harder.
"Man up", the translation is often to discard your feelings for the task at hand. Thus, sadness, anger and despair swarm in an internal holding pattern of one's mind and outward display of compassion, happiness, and excitement is discouraged.
My life in the real world has shown me how important it is to have empathy for others. In my job, with my friends and family and even in my community.
Even large firms like Microsoft see the importance of empathy in their workspace (Ray, 2019).
Intelligence is only one part of success. A character also requires emotional intelligence through empathy (Ioannidou & Konstantikaki, 2010). This is the ability to put yourself in others shows, building better cooperation rather than competition.
To have good emotional intelligence starts with understanding one's own emotions. And with the "win at all costs", "man up", and "foot on the throat mentality" being delivered at PNBHS, the emotional maturity of students suffers.
When we look left, and when we look right, the people standing next to us are not our competition to stomp out. They are members of our community.
To a certain extent, "survival of the fittest" is part of nature. But the key to the human race's success wasn't an outright race to the top; it was the ability to work together, to understand each other.
Instead of telling our boys to man up, we should be saying that it is okay to open up. The world is abundant and full of kindness if we choose the find it, not scarcity and sadness.
Palmerston North Boys' High school is a traditionalist school of the Manawatu. School assembly, for the most part, went unnoticed. However, there were glimpses of interest provided by the Rector's questionable lecturings.
Mediocrity was frowned upon, akin to an addictive "lollipop". One taste and the unfortunate victim accustoms to a life of unspectacular-ism. The only option was to put the "foot on the throat" and be a winner. And if we were not winning, then we were losing. The only problem was that life isn't a competition.
On top of this, the man-up culture voided boys to open up emotionally. This is destructive for the individual. Understanding the emotional self is the first step towards developing empathy.
The win-at-all-costs mentality steers away from building "outstanding characters". Boys leave school to join a cooperative humanity and not a spartan gladiator ring.
Now, I'm interested in your thoughts? Was it a sign of the times? Do you think this is all normal? Or, do you think the Rector should answer to what he had said? Please let me know.
Did you find this helpful? If you did, please forward this on to family and friends so they can find it useful too.
Thanks for reading and all the best for the week ahead.
Ngā mihi nui,
Gibb, S. J., Fergusson, D. M., & Horwood, L. J. (2008). Effects of Single- Sex and Coeducational Schooling on the Gender Gap in Educational Achievement. Australian Journal of Education, 52(3), 301–317. https://doi.org/10.1177/000494410805200307
Ioannidou, F., & Konstantikaki, V. (2010). Empathy and Emotional intelligence: What Is It Really about? International Journal of Caring Sciences, 1(3), 118–123. http://internationaljournalofcaringsciences.org/docs/Vol1_Issue3_03_Ioannidou.pdf
Palmerston North Boys' High School. (2021). Academic Results. Palmerston North Boys’ High School. https://www.pnbhs.school.nz/at-palmy-boys/academic/academic-results/
Ray, S. (2019, February 13). Empathy and innovation: How Microsoft’s cultural shift is leading to new product development. Innovation Stories. https://news.microsoft.com/innovation-stories/empathy-innovation-accessibility/
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