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Who says?

John Mayer, an American singer, songwriter, and guitarist

'Who Says’ is the title of a 2009 song by John Mayer, an American singer, songwriter, and guitarist, which went straight in to ask the controversial question “Who says I can’t get stoned?” The song goes on to ask other similar challenging (even threatening and taunting) questions, in a tone that is often found in teenagers especially: “Who says I can’t do this, that or next?” Where does it say that?

It is a question that is not confined to teenagers though. At an inter-school athletics meeting a crowd of parents and school leaders were watching an 800m race when the boy who led by a long way coming down the finishing straight slowed down, turned round and gestured mockingly to his competitors to catch him. Who says he can’t do that? All who watched did and one leader had a quiet word with the athlete after the race. A little while later, a relay team, made up of the children of the parents sitting alongside the leaders, ran a superb race, though the leaders could not see the finish as the parents of the athletes got out of their seats and ran in front of the crowd, blocking the view. When the team won convincingly, the parents turned round to the leaders, raised their arms in the air, bellowed loudly and arrogantly in their faces, once, twice, three times. The same action was repeated when it was announced the record had been broken.

When they had settled down, one of the leaders calmy turned to one of the parents and said, “We all agreed the behaviour of the boy in the earlier race was inappropriate. Don’t you think what you did was exactly the same?” The parent turned to the school leader and said, “Who the hell do you think you are? I can do what I like. I can walk across that track and do whatever I want”, continuing in that vein for two further minutes. In effect, he was saying, “Who says I can’t do what I want?”

So, who says I can’t? Who says I cannot do what I want, when I want? For a schoolchild, the obvious answer is the teacher says or the head says or even the prefects; they tell them what they cannot do (more than what you can do, perhaps). At home, parents will say what we can and cannot do. In our workplace, the boss does; in society, the police do. In education, the ministry says while in general life the government says. At the athletics meeting, the school authorities will say keep off the track.

So, then, going back to the John Mayer song, who says he can’t get stoned, or, as other lines in the song say, “can’t be free”, or “can’t take time meet all the girls in the county line” — who says? The inferred answer is in effect, no-one can say that. Teachers, Heads, prefects, parents, bosses, police, government — none of them can say that. They cannot say people can’t do those things. So, we might be left thinking that ultimately no-one can tell us that but we would be wrong to conclude that. It is we ourselves who are the ones who say that we cannot do certain things. That ultimately is the purpose of education, to educate children to be able to make those right decisions for themselves (with others in mind, also). We are the ones to determine what we can’t do. We say!

We might also look at the question of “who says what we cannot do” in another way. We have considered it from the point of view of “who says that I am not allowed to do certain things”, but we need also to look at it from the perspective of “who says that I am not able to do them?”. Unfortunately, we may be surrounded by many people who say that we cannot do certain things, whose expectations of us are low and doubting. Yet as we have seen in previous articles, we are only limited by our own expectations. Who says a young lady cannot travel across the world to a far-off land and become a leader? Her parents, her headmaster, can say she can, sure, while many would say she can’t, but ultimately, again, it is the individual herself who will say she can do it — and she did it. Consider also this: as Rob Mendez asks in a powerful video, “Who says I can’t” coach football in America, just because he has no arms or legs. He has said he can and does, no matter what others might say. We ourselves say what we are capable of doing.

Are we those who say what others cannot do? Are we those who doubt their ability or deny their eligibility? Are we telling our children what they are not allowed or not able to do? It is not for us to say; however, it is up to us to ensure the children understand that they are the ones who say that they can or cannot do things — and that they do not need to be stoned to do that. Who says? I do!

  • Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.
  • Email: tim@atszim.org website:  atszim.org

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