Cameron Wyllie: Hey! Teachers! Leave those (cool) kids alone

Actor James Dean, who died in 1955, is widely regarded as embodying the epitome of cool
Actor James Dean, who died in 1955, is widely regarded as embodying the epitome of cool
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Teachers should be relaxed about some pupils being ‘cool’ – it’s a quality like being good-looking or charming, if not actually one of the big virtues, such as honesty, loyalty and kindness, writes former headteacher Cameron Wyllie.

Five years ago, I was on an October Week trip to New York City organised by the art-and-design department of the school where I was a senior manager.

The party consisted of me, two lovely pals of mine who taught art and design, and 25 students from the senior years.

We did a little bit of NYC tourist stuff and toured the Metropolitan Museum, The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. We saw a show. And, of course, we shopped. The hours for shopping were strictly regulated but we all got our fix and, let’s be honest, the typical pupil of art and design does like a nice outfit.

Thus I found myself in the flagship store of Uniqlo on Fifth Avenue, while the young people threw themselves at arty T-shirts, puffer jackets and unusually patterned footwear.

I, being approximately 18 times their age, contented myself browsing among the astonishingly cheap cardigans. Then I tried on a hat – a simple old-fashioned trilby in grey and burgundy.

While I was considering the crumbling view in the mirror, one of the kids wandered past and said, “Good hat. You should buy that.”

Now this was one of the seven boys on the trip, a young man of definite style who, like many of them, dressed with the easy detachment of fashionable youth.

So I did buy that hat (in the sale, $12) and every time I wear it, someone will say “I like your hat” or “great hat” or “Where did you get that hat?” or “You suit that hat”. It doesn’t matter what artfully contrived combination of other clothes I have on, the blooming hat gets the praise, the one thing that I didn’t really pick myself.

I don’t know whether to be grateful or irritated.

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The truth is, some people are cool and most of us are not. A common complaint about young people in schools is that they spend way too much time trying to be cool – in the staffroom, wise old heads nod together and say of some errant child, “Aye that one’s too cool for school.”

It isn’t completely clear to anyone what ‘cool’ really means but essentially we all understand it – at a school leavers’ function some years back I used the word ‘cool’ in praise of one of the other young people there, which led to a discussion about who, exactly, was ‘cool’ in this group of people they had been with for years and years.

They unanimously identified five or six people who combined some of the necessary characteristics and I could only concur with their selection.

There were no hard feelings – only a few are chosen and the rest of us just have to get on with it.

What teachers need to accept is that there’s nothing wrong with being cool – it’s just something that happens, like being very funny or having good hair.

We need to stop railing about ‘coolness’ like we rail about smoking or idleness (it may be that some cool kids smoke and some are lazy but it’s not a necessary part of the conidition).

One school I know of went through such an ‘anti-cool campaign’ that it enlisted children to wear ‘Glad To Be Sad’ badges, which I personally felt to be going a bit far (though I imagine the badges themselves are now collectors’ items).

This kind of approach towards a particular kind of teenager only encourages all teenagers to exaggerate the gulf in attitudes between themselves and their teachers; heaven forfend, it may make them think that some of their teachers are a teeny bit jealous because they themselves were never cool, and never will be.

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Incidentally, make no mistake – when a 16-year-old says “I think Mr Smith is cool”, it probably just means that Mr Smith does not impose the regulations regarding late homework, not that the young person would let Mr Smith choose their hair products.

So let’s try to view ‘cool’ differently. Let’s see it as a desirable personal characteristic that some people have and let’s look at it positively.

In educating young Scots about the state of the world they’re going into, let’s talk with them about all the different characteristics humanity shares, and instead of sneering at this vague but desirable state, let’s praise them all for what they give the world. Of course, there’s a big range of personal virtues to choose from and ‘cool’, given its temporary nature, goes in the column with ‘good looks’ and ‘charm’, rather than being a big hitter like ‘honesty’, ‘loyalty’ or, biggest of all, ‘kindness’. Instead of being so negative and taking the risk of alienating pupils who, let’s face it, are usually popular with their peers, let’s accentuate the positive and gently point out what really matters in the long term whether you’re cool or not. The American singer Courtney Marie Andrews puts it well: “And if your money runs out/And your good looks fade/May your kindness remain.”

Heidies – there’s a good message for the first assembly of term!