Four hours of my christmas holidays were spent watching Barracuda, a box-set beauty I stumbled across on BBC iPlayer. The four-part drama is based on a book about Australian wannabe Olympic swimmers. It is set in the late 1990s, appropriately prior to the Sydney games.The story follows the rise of Danny from a working-class family and his subsequent fall. We can’t all be Olympians and Danny doesn’t end up being one of the lucky ones.
I loved the mini series so much that I begged my mum and sister to watch it; I couldn’t possibly contain my excitement alone! When they had complied to my plead, I asked for feedback. My mum responded with her disappointment in the ending; Danny didn’t make it. He screwed up and took it badly. And I could empathise with her deflation. But isn’t that what happens in real life? Daily disappointments haul us downwards. Dead ends threaten every path. And for every winner there is at least one loser. But no one tells their story.
I’m sure we all remember the motivational ‘Thought of the Day’s preached incessantly by teachers as if they were devout nuns reciting the Apostle’s Creed. We hear the heroic stories of Mo Farah, Maggie Thatcher, Nelson Mandela and even Lance Armstrong (before he was denounced an ungodly liar and cheat). We are told to aspire to their achievements and, if not, at least make it to university, for goodness sake! We are forced to the limits and made numb to physical and emotional pain as we reach for that final goal.
But it doesn’t always work. And then you’re left without a map to guide the way. Without an authoritative shove in the right direction. Without a flickering light in the distance. You’re left on your knees picking up the pieces whilst the rest of the world walk passed chasing towards their own flickering lights that they might never reach. No doubt you’ve been the passerby before too; we all have but have been too oblivious to notice anything but our flickering light.
In Danny’s case, he was an excellent swimmer but less excellent than the three other boys who took bronze, silver and gold in the qualifiers. He finished fourth. Albeit its fictitious storyline, reality certainly dishes the same dirt. My own school does it to the kids they’ve nurtured for 5 years. Results day determines whether you’re safe for another year or off to Southgate College. How many boys will be dropped by the Arsenal youth team this year? How distraught will they be and how many of them will cope with the failure and actually carry on to their full potential? And how many people will be rejected from their dream university by the fault of an A rather than the necessary A*? Will anyone be there to aid the bruises and fatalities of the ‘failures’? Mum and Dad maybe.
I don’t think it’s fair. This is not a ‘gap’ in the system; it’s a cliff at the end of the system waiting to devour you. We are taught how to succeed. The flaw is that we are not taught how to succeed when we fail. You can’t prepare for that.