Strange times when excellence is a problem

When you get to a certain age, you are likely to do certain things that were unthinkable at a younger age. For example, you begin to reminisce a great deal and make comparisons of different periods and draw analogies from them quite a lot.

When you get to a certain age, you are likely to do certain things that were unthinkable at a younger age. For example, you begin to reminisce a great deal and make comparisons of different periods and draw analogies from them quite a lot.

Some say that is evidence of the wisdom that comes with age. Others that it is a definite sign that one is becoming a dotard (a word brought back into use courtesy of two men of intemperate character and uttering).

I think there is some value to this linkage of the past and present, perhaps because I am doing it a lot these days. Anyway, I’ll let you judge.

There used to be a practice in schools where the best performing students were called to the front and presented to the rest during school assembly. It probably still happens, and I am sure there are good reasons for it.

It was meant as reward and public recognition of excellence, and encouragement for more of it.

It was also to hold up the outstanding students as models for others to emulate if they wished to earn stardom of this sort.

One thing, however, the practice definitely was not. It was never meant to put ideas of superiority or arrogance or other forms of snobbishness in the minds of the star performers.

On the contrary it could be very humbling. Actually, most of those called to the front did not crave public attention, but they were shy individuals who would have gladly traded places with their more attention-seeking classmates.

Reactions to these good intentions were, however, sometimes different from what was intended, especially the model-to-emulate bit.

Of course, some cheered and clapped enthusiastically, while others did so out of politeness. A few more couldn’t even bear the sight of the excellent students and cursed at the sound of their names, muttering all the while, ‘no, not those fellows again”.

And so, instead of being the standard for emulation, the brilliant students became objects of envy, jealousy and derision. Their achievements were dismissed with remarks meant to diminish them.

You heard things like: “That’s all he can do. He is no good at anything else”. Or: “He is a bookworm. What else do you expect?” In other instances, it was: “That’s not the result of his own effort. Teachers favour him.”

They might even add something about his family being poor, living in a small house or having a small shamba or something. Anything except to acknowledge their stellar achievements.

In extreme cases, the bright students were subjected to a lot of abuse, apparently to put them in their place. They were insulted, bullied and even beaten. Their books were stolen, torn or defaced. They were set up and then reported for wrong doing. Occasionally the support of a bigger bully was enlisted to help administer the appropriate punishment.

The most vicious attackers were often those who aspired to similar excellence but whose ability could not permit it. Or they were the ones who had previously occupied those positions but for whatever reason had declined and were unable to climb up again.

In my dotard moments or flashes of wisdom, whichever you decide is the correct one, I have noticed similar behaviour in this part of the world where we live. Apparently it is not restricted to school children only. It persists in adult life, even among the powerful, some of whom are in charge of public affairs.

Only this time it is not childish pranks or fights with tiny fists, or brooding, but very serious and dangerous stuff.  It involves deliberate actions of fully grown and conscious adults, with a lot of power to do themselves and others harm.

Schoolboy attitudes and intrigues can be outgrown. Not so adult ones. There is no more growing to outpace them but rather a hardening of positions and keeping of grudges for life.

In one sense, however, they are similar. They are both driven by the same selfish and vengeful urge: you have no right to do better than me, and if you do I’ll punish you for it.

These are the strange times we live in – when excellence is a problem.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.

ADVERTISEMENT