Monday, 28 July 2014

Child Genius

I watched only part of this programme last night but it was sufficient to get the general idea - lots of children believed to be overly intelligent by their biased parents being forced to participate in a ridiculous competition of pointless memory tasks and Mensa questions. (Unless memorising the order of two decks of cards will enable them to win millions of pounds at poker in future years - that makes it more useful.) The poor children had been taken away from all their friends and the chance of living a normal life with some degree of social skills. And the whole thing caused them huge amounts of stress and humiliation and annihilated their self-confidence, at an age when they should just be kicking a ball around the yard and learning to ride a bike.

It was all a lot more unbearable seeing these poor kids struggling on national TV than watching them performing an excruciating solo in the Christmas concert, the maximum ritual humiliation most of us faced in our own school days. And that was bad enough.  It was even more horrid to see the blame for their mistakes poured on them by their disgusted parents. There is nothing worse than a competitive mother who forces her fantasies and own lack of achievements on to her child with the assumption that they will succeed where she has failed. People need to accept that our children, just like their parents and our parents, are merely human. These mothers are the sort of women who see Amy Chua, the Chinese Tiger Mother my book group learned to loathe, as a desirable role model, where there is all work and no play and only a very dull empty shell of a child left to parade about at the end of the day.

What caught my eye on the television screen was the backdrop to the competition. Watching the children revise their decks of cards in a library, I looked more closely at their surroundings and said, "I know that room." I'd been in it myself aged 14. They were in the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street in London. Suddenly I was experiencing a horrible flashback. Very much not in the guise of child genius, I had spent every Saturday morning there for half a term, attending a series of Maths Masterclasses. I still have no idea to this day why I was picked by my school to be subjected to such torture. I think it must have been someone's idea of a sick joke. The school had sent some proper Maths geniuses (genii?) the term before but then must have run out and picked names out of a hat from the rest of the class to fill the remaining quotient. Or twenty other girls had said "Not on your nelly" before they reached me on the list and my parents said "Ooh, a trip to London every weekend - yes please."
I am not a maths genius

Now, I had been sent with a friend, who may read this and think, "What do you mean, they sent us as a joke? I AM a maths genius, thanks very much." So I can only speak for myself. But I was very grateful that said friend had been sent with me as it meant we could make exactly the sort of mischief that the children on that programme should have been up to, instead of swotting away their lives. For example, the tables in that library are very good for dancing on, I can reveal. We were sent to that room to solve reams of sums after an hour's lecture which I had usually ceased following somewhere between the middle and end of the first sentence.

There was a genuine genius on the front row of every lecture, however. He wore massive old-style NHS glasses and a bowl haircut, never took his coat off, and had a gigantic calculator that could print out on paper. This was the height of technology in 1987. He would not only make it to the end of the first sentence of the lecture but would, after about twenty minutes, raise his hand and wheeze out a question that would stop the lecturer in his tracks, if not stump him entirely. And then they would go off on some glorious tangent together, the way that some of us flit off on a gap year, without a care in the world for the poor souls left behind.

And yes, it was a trip to London every weekend for our parents. Obviously we were far too young to be trusted to go by ourselves. My mother was probably terrified something would have happened to us in the hands of all the "scary foreign perverts" that she believed were London's sole inhabitants until I went to live there myself ten years later. But the truth was that - left to our own devices - we would no doubt have not gone within 200 yards of the Royal Institution but turned the opposite direction out of Bond Street tube onto Oxford Street instead. Though I don't suppose my pocket money would have got us very far.

Anyway, I have no idea what my parents got up to after we had been safely dropped onto Albemarle Street, but they usually took us somewhere fancy in London afterwards, which made up for our morning of misery. I am glad they had the decency to feel guilty, unlike the parents on Child Genius. These few weeks were my first introduction to Fortnum and Mason's on Piccadilly, Fenwick's on Bond Street and the Ceylon Tea Centre on Haymarket, an early taste of how the other half live and breathe in the capital and enough to make me want to go back for much, much more. I only hope that the kids on this TV programme are allowed to have a bit of fun at the end of the competition - I fear not.

(This blog was written during an episode of Topsy And Tim. Thank you, dear twins.)


  1. Ha ha, I think we can accept that I'm NOT a maths genius, although I do love stats. You always had far more idea of what was going on in those classes than I did. I was just in it for the stickers at Fortnum and Masons.

    That programme sounds truly scary. I think they should do a follow-up in ten years' time to find out how many of these poor, hot-housed flowers are actually flourishing in life.

  2. I had NO idea what was going on, trust me... Had forgotten about the stickers though!