The Fonz did not free the slaves
I was recently doing some kids work with a group of fifteen 7- and 8-year-olds. The group leader decided to play an icebreaker game for my benefit, where each child would impersonate an animal through sound and action; a good opportunity for me to learn their names. A lot of the children entered into the game, but a good number could not come up with an animal or do a sound. After being with the group for a while, I realised that it was these kids kept resisting activities in different ways – but the result was always the same: they were busy preserving their cool. They were concerned about how they appeared to those around them. They did not want to be seen as enthusiastic. This, of course, is the same issue that teachers face in school: where it is not cool to be clever or even to be seen to be trying. I was just surprised that it was affecting children so young.
Now let me be clear when it comes to cool: I have always been an outsider looking in. I really have never had any cool. Well, there was one time, when my wife and I were first married, where a teenage daughter of some friends of ours asked if she could hold her 16th birthday party at our flat; but it’s pretty much been downhill from then. Thus, I recognise that, coming from a deficit of cool, it can appear as sour grapes when I criticise its pursuit by others. I have no defence other then that I believe I still have a valid point to make.
So why does this matter? For me, cool is about splendid inaction: making a virtue out of not doing anything, certainly not being bothered, and never breaking a sweat. The truth is, no great thing was every achieved by inaction. It was William Wilberforce whose tireless effort helped achieve freedom for the slaves. He was hardly a cool character; in fact, if the accounts of his life are true, he turned away from being the leader of the in-crowd to pursue faith and his crusade for the freedom of slaves. Unlike many of the role models that young people are fed by the media etc., those who have made a difference to the world we live in had to break a sweat. They were not cool.
So let me turn to The Fonz, the epitome of cool from a certain US TV series. I can understand wanting to have his appearance; however, it is those who ‘have a go’, those who participate that I find inspiring. Better to have a dream and to fail than never to dream at all. Maybe it is the difference between idealism and realism, significance or normality. I hope I will choose the awkward dream of Wilberforce rather than the cool mediocrity of The Fonz. I intend to encourage those 7- and 8-year-olds to do the same.