Wednesday, November 29, 2006

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (find out what it means to me)

My hero is Stephen Sondheim, composer of the musicals Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, to name a few. Some years ago I had the great joy of attending his master class on composing for musicals. It remains the single most inspiring day I have ever had. I doubt that I will ever forget a word that he said.

I particularly remember his generosity of spirit, sharpness of perception and thoughtfulness towards the opera students who were lucky enough to come under his direction that day. They were in complete awe of him, quite rightly. His singular skill in both recognising the esteem in which he was held and using it as a tool of co-operation, as opposed to a blunt instrument of power, is all the more admirable for its rarity. He paid them the greatest compliment they will ever receive from a person of his great stature by treating them as collaborators of equal importance. I am willing to bet that not one of those students who worked with him that day will ever forget just what a lovely man Stephen Sondheim is. He is someone who truly understands the meaning of the word ‘respect’.

Despite ameliorative comments from both Ms Baroque and Fringepoet on yesterday’s post, I feel I bit off more than I was able to chew satisfactorily. So depressed am I becoming about the apparent hopeless of our society to give kids a solid start in life, that it all seemed to become one massive jumble of fools, half-baked concepts and sad futures only relieved by the odd inexplicable miracle. No wonder our kids have the highest incidence of mental health disorders in Europe.

But I don’t want to be yet another idiot contributing only to the confusion so, I have decided to take my own oft repeated advice and separate the problem out into all its component parts and see if I can’t offer a reasoned and sensible perspective to the debate.

Let’s start with ‘respect’. This is a perfectly sane notion that is both a useful emotion and a social construct. A feeling of respect for someone is a recognition of that person’s good qualities. Respectful behaviour is an enabler to social interaction, a set of rules that govern the transactions we have to make every day of our lives. The important thing about respect is that we can feel it and express it quite naturally without any direction from Government.

Now that they have managed to turn it into an ‘agenda’, it has been debased to the level of a marketing technique – a weapon to be deployed when Government wants us to obey its instructions. This makes it less easy to understand because it strips the concept of its consistency. The requirement for ‘respect’ is now being applied randomly and it makes no sense to most people, especially children.

As kids navigate their way through the complexities of trying to understand the adult world, the thing they look for most is regularity. They have a heightened sense of ‘fairness’ and are always looking for inconsistencies. They are not just being a pain in the arse, they are mapping and trying to establish where the boundaries lie. It’s a mistake to think that children who ask apparently rhetorical questions or repeat what they have heard are necessarily seeking approval. Rules need to have tests applied to validate them. Children know instinctively that they must develop their own capacity for analysing what happens to them so that they can distinguish between fair and unfair treatment. When we as an adult society are unable to adequately describe the parameters for a concept as simple as respect, we have failed in our duty to provide a framework to children for negotiating the adult world.

When television shows like The Apprentice establish a figure as base and reprehensible as ‘Sir’ Alan Sugar as someone holding a position of respect – which he maintains by wielding a giant club – we are setting young people a very bad example. To see adults debasing themselves in order to win his favour, just looks wrong. Anyone with self-respect couldn’t work in this kind of environment, surely. Yet Government reveres the likes of Alan Sugar (claim to fame? He made the world’s crappest computers and stereos and rendered Britain a laughing stock in the field of technology for at least a decade).

One of the few coherent points I managed to make yesterday when reviewing the Venezuelan classical music programme was that it doesn’t matter what system you use as a framework for teaching kids about life and giving them the confidence to live it, what matters is that it’s consistent and of high quality and allows them to develop as far as they are able to go.

Stephen Sondheim told a story to the master class I attended about the person who mentored him, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (Sound of Music, Showboat, Carousel, King and I, Oklahoma!, South Pacific and many others). Sondheim might have fallen into the ‘at risk’ category in his youth if modern standards were applied. The only child of a single parent, he had a lonely time with a vulnerable mother until he had the great fortune to move next door to the Hammersteins. Sondheim told us he loved Hammerstein so much that ‘if Oscar had been a geologist, I would have become a geologist’. I imagine the world of geology is the poorer for the absence of both.

I often wonder, given the obvious resilience of children and the fact that they are wired to develop their own interests, why it is so hard to match them with the opportunities that would allow them to thrive. It can’t keep on being a postcode lottery for ever, can it?

Photo from


Fringepoet said...

I put the comment on the post yesterday because I thought it made perfect sense. Today you're on even better form. One of my children became a professional artist and she was determined to find her own way. It's as if she always knew where she was going but at least we as her parents were able to guide her because we possessed a basic grounding in the arts. But well done. I think you are progressing the argument.

Penless Artist said...

All children should be so lucky to have a thoughtful model for life to reveal/support their potential. Not every one of them would end up a Sondhem, of course, but growing up with a strong sense of self-worth is something I'd wish for everyone. It's possible to do so, but it's a damned hard thing to develop later on in life. As you've been pointing out recently (in some well articulated entries, btw), kids have pretty uneven access to such souls. No answers here, unfortunately. Anyone else?