As a left-hander born, thankfully, into an enlightened age, I never faced any pressure to use my other hand. I realised only a day or two ago that a change has taken place in thinking about this issue. I was listening to the popular BBC Radio 4 school drama, King Street Junior, now being repeated on 4Extra. In this episode, entitled ‘Left Out, Roped In’ by writer Martin Davies, kindly teacher Mr Sims ‘faces a big challenge’ when he finds a Muslim boy struggling to write with his right hand. Sims quickly realises that the boy is left-handed but his devoutly religious father is forcing him to use his right hand, because in Islam the left hand is ‘dirty’.
My left handedness had been discussed when I was young; I heard tales of children in the generation before me who’d been beaten into using their right hand. Some had endured having their left hand strapped to their body. The adults I knew were quite emphatic about the folly and dire consequences of forcing wrong-handedness: it was thought to lead to stammering, bed-wetting, anxiety, social withdrawal, poor concentration and sometimes a failure to become literate. George VI’s stammer was attributed to the cruel treatment he’d received for being a southpaw.
By the time I went to school, parents of every class had been made aware that left-handedness was acceptable. I encountered the archaic issue again when I taught English in a Polish university in the 1970s. Whenever I turned my back on students in one particular group to write on the blackboard (they still had those), I would hear tittering. It slightly unnerved me and I wondered if perhaps my bottom looked big when I was chalking on the board. A Polish colleague told me that some of them were laughing because in Poland left-handedness was associated with stupidity. As I was a teacher, they found it funny that I would have a characteristic of feeble-mindedness.
Unlike Mr Sims, my colleague was furious. He told me that in Polish schools some rural parents – peasants, as they were once called – had backward ideas about left-handedness but teachers had been instructed to tell them that there was nothing wrong with writing with the left hand. He said that the parents had fully accepted that. He was dismayed that those particular students were behaving like urban peasants. In fact it was just a form of low-level bullying. I was the same age as them, and they knew I was endlessly more advantaged by living in the West. At the time they couldn’t travel even if they wanted to. He soon put a stop to it and I didn’t have any more trouble.
To my surprise, Mr Sims at King Street Junior met his ‘big challenge’ by telling his pupil that he ‘wouldn’t bother him’ about it. It was a matter of carry on as you are, but try to be ambidextrous if you can. There was no question of taking the matter up with his parents. Mr Sims had no intention of telling the boy’s devout Muslim father that he was wrong. He could strap down his son’s hand and fill his head with fear and self-loathing if he chose to do so.
Instead Mr Sims asked in the staff room if anyone had any ideas about the boy. One teacher suggested teaching him a brass instrument, as some are played mainly with the left hand. It was thought that this might inculcate confidence in him, somehow without annoying his father. As if he might not notice his son suddenly playing the trumpet.
Not impressed by that, Mr Sims tried to think of famous people who’d been on the sinistral side, to use their prestige to bolster the boy’s confidence surreptitiously. He tried Leonardo, Picasso, Paul McCartney, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. Naturally the boy hadn’t heard of any of them – he was getting an English education, after all. It was decided to come up with some famous Muslim lefties instead. After all, it was accepted that the boy’s main focus had to be on Islam.
Sadly no gauche Muslims were found, but the teachers came up with another solution: a collective movement. They would form a support group for the ‘left-handed minority’. Once the problem had been labelled as a specific issue of identity it could be tackled without approaching the Islamic family. Quite forward thinking in terms of identity politics for a play first broadcast in 1995.
We didn’t hear whether the boy was allowed to attend the support group or if he gradually realised that there was no shame in being ‘cack-handed’, but while all that was going on we have to assume he spent quite a long time struggling to write with his non-dominant hand to please his father. The consequences for him of being forced to do this were not discussed. It seemed from this play that putting the needs of the child first had been superseded and for the last twenty years we have become increasingly post-child centred. We were now community centred, with the needs of the group and its particular identity, particularly if it is ethnically based, coming before any possibility that a child might be damaged.
I’m glad my childhood coincided with an age of post-war enlightenment, actually before child-centred education arrived. Post that, the new paradigm says that in childhood you will get whatever your particular community says you require; it could be quinoa and gluten-free bread and no sugar, having seven bells beaten out of you because your stepfather says you are possessed by demons, or getting your left arm strapped to your back. Child abuse is now culturally relative, but if the situation gets too difficult, you can always take up the bassoon.