Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man. Depending on who you ask, this quote is either a Jesuit motto or a statement attributed to Aristotle. It’s also the byline for the excellent 7 Up documentary series, which was a social experiment in which British children were interviewed at age seven, then again every seven years throughout their lives. (The latest, 63 Up, was released in 2019.)
If we can overlook the gendered language of the quote (and it’s not as if we haven’t had the practice), what do you make of it? Do you agree that the seven-year-old you was a fully formed, if shorter, version of your current self? Were your morals already set? Your tastes already developed? On the path to becoming the person you are now?
I’ve been pondering this lately after coming across my primary school report cards in a long-forgotten cupboard. It felt like unearthing a time capsule. I marvelled at the teachers’ looping handwriting, carefully contained within tables whose subheadings ranged from Phonics to Sums, Music to Phys Ed, Behaviour to Special Strengths and Weaknesses.
I was curious to learn if those ancient teachers (they seemed ancient at the time and must be even more ancient now) had got it right – and by that, I mean if they had got ‘me’ right. Did they recognise the me I turned out to be?
It’s hard to believe, but the answer is yes. I don’t know how these women (in my primary-school years, teachers were always women) knew me so well – almost too well. Somehow, they managed to see through my good-girl exterior to the foibles beneath.
For though the seven-year-old Amanda “tries hard and achieves good grades”, she also “has a tendency to daydream” and “would benefit from showing more courtesy when listening”. While she is “good at working independently”, she “could be more considerate when working in a group”. And the kicker? “Amanda shows initiative when the mood suits her.”
Even now, I feel the adult-me rising up to defend mini-me. Of course she showed initiative when it suited her! She was a human, not a robot. She got excited about some things, but not about all things!
But, the truth is, the comments were right on the money – then, and now. I continue to be a distracted listener. I still prefer working alone. And I’m pretty good at getting things done – when the mood suits me. However, I don’t see these as weaknesses but strengths, and part of me wants to find the ancient Mrs Morris (Year 2) and Mrs Digman (Year 3) so I can tell them this. My tendency to daydream, for instance, has led to a career as an author: every day, I dream up people, places and stories that didn’t exist before, but feel like they need to. In every (real) conversation I’m involved in, my listening skills fluctuate as my thoughts drift on unseen currents, wondering what else might be possible.
These teachers couldn’t have known how enduring their cursory remarks would be, or how special.
I doubt those teachers would remember me, let alone recall the reports they wrote 40 years ago. At the time, they weren’t trying to capture profound psychoanalytical insights of the kind that would eventually prompt grown students to have mid-life soul-searching contemplations. They were simply trying to get through their pile of eight-page booklets while also juggling all their other responsibilities and perhaps a meaningful hobby or two.
I should clarify that the other report comments weren’t all bad. Apart from the predictable notes about my swimming (“needs improvement”), everything else sparkled with promise. Because at seven years of age, I had a “very expressive vocabulary”, “excellent spelling” and a “good imagination”. I read with “fluency and great expression” and had “an appreciation of all forms of literature”. I’m not sharing this to boast (though it does feel good), but to draw a straight line from my shy younger self to my less shy, older self. Forty years on, as an author and teacher, I continue to pride myself on the qualities I valued back then.
So, thank you, Mrs Morris and Mrs Digman, for being honest. Thank you for ‘seeing’ me, regardless of my shyness. I’m sorry I didn’t (couldn’t) listen better. And, by the way, my swimming never improved.