When it comes to education, the free-market mantra of choice often proves to be illusory. In many UK cities, the shortage of school places is such that the closest school is the only realistic option – and if it happens to be a good school, you’re either very lucky or sufficiently well-off to pay over the odds for your house. But in a consumerist world where state schools are run like small businesses, we have to pretend that families are able to pick and choose. That’s why it’s no longer enough for a school to provide a good education: it must also have a mission statement and a set of values.
At my sons’ school, one of those values is ‘respect’. The other day, the school sent out a form asking parents for examples of when their children had been respectful at home. I attempted to complete mine against the backdrop of a charming breakfast tableau in which my elder son (let’s call him Thing 1) claimed that the younger one (Thing 2) had farted in his porridge. Thing 2 promptly dropped his pyjama bottoms to demonstrate that there wasn’t any porridge on his bum-cheeks, whereupon Thing 1 performed a slide tackle and sat on Thing 2’s head. Curiously, I couldn’t come up with a single example of respectful behaviour that morning.
The problem runs deeper than my slack parenting and out-of-control offspring: I don’t really understand what’s meant by ‘respect’. In the past it signified a feeling of deep admiration. My sons have boundless admiration for Neymar and Ronaldo but I suspect that’s not quite what the school was getting at. In its modern incarnation, ‘respect’ is often used as shorthand for discouraging yobbish or racist behaviour on the football pitch, or, more generally, as a streetwise and often-parodied way of referring to inclusion and equality. To me, on the other hand, it encompasses lots of things – being open, accepting, engaged and interested, while maintaining (and this is the crucial part) a polite distance and an observance of personal boundaries.
People are increasingly bad at this last bit. Take the charity fundraiser on our local high street, who wiggles his hips at me as he hollers, ‘Hey, lovely,’ or, ‘Give us a smile, sweetheart’. He doesn’t know anything about me. I could be a surgeon or a High Court judge. Perhaps I’ve just been made redundant, or maybe I’m on my way to my best friend’s funeral. In any case, it feels uncomfortable to be flirted at by a stranger who’s young enough to be my son. It’s just as well for him that – unlike certain middle-aged men of my acquaintance when approached by an attractive younger woman – I’m not so self-deluded that I imagine he’s interested in anything more than the contents of my purse.
Another example is the waitress who hunkers down by the side of our restaurant table and asks, ‘Okay, guys, what do we fancy tonight?’ She’s probably just following management instructions, and I do understand that it can be a tough job. The pay is appalling; the customers are sometimes ignorant, rude and sexist. As a nineteen-year-old waitress working in a Manchester hotel, I was once asked by a diner – a well-known trade unionist attending a weekend conference – to sit on his lap. I told him it wasn’t in my job description. The point is that it would never have occurred to me to display chummy over-familiarity with any of my customers, even the nice ones. It would have felt wrong.
I accept that my advancing years signal a slow descent into obscurity, so on the rare occasions when hip young types deign to address me, I feel they should at least have the decency to be polite. I’m aware that this makes me sound rather old-fashioned. The problem is that, for my generation, ‘respect’ calls to mind the dreaded injunction to ‘respect your elders’. You can attempt to re-brand it all you like, but for us, it’s up there with other parental pearls of wisdom such as ‘because I say so’ and ‘eat your greens’. How can one little word carry so many nuances of meaning? According to Ali G, ‘There is so little respek left in the world that if you look up the word in the dictionary, you’ll find that it’s been taken out.’ As far as I’m concerned, deleting it from the dictionary would clear up an awful lot of confusion.