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Flunking Toddler Idol: A nightmare morning at the B4 School Check

When Simon Sweetman took his son Oscar to the B4 School Check, it did not go well – and what’s worse, it seemed like Oscar was failing the tests on purpose. A typical toddler tantrum, or something else?

I’m not a religious man. If you want to put your faith in, well, faith – good on you. Whatever gets you through the day. It’s not for me. But I’ll tell you, the difference between a four- year old and a five-year old, specifically the end of that wee gap, the light at the end of that tantrum-tunnel – it’s a godsend. No other word for it.

Half a year ago we had a kid questioning anything, challenging the lot, bargaining for one more of everything. It was occasionally funny – often we’d acknowledge a certain sharpness to his reasoning – but it was frustrating. It was annoying. It was sometimes debilitating. All of a sudden you’re back to the feeling of a late-in-the-night hangover that arrives out of nowhere, the early morning drudge, dead on your feet, wanting to put a hammer between your eyes just so you can feel something other than annihilated rage. You know, all those feelings you’re so grateful for because, with kids, your life has real meaning.

Oscar’s a good kid. He’s a smartass – we always said we were happy to have a kid ‘with character’. He’s got more than his fair share of that.

Things have settled into place now he’s a couple of months into school – but there was a time, one day in particular, when I thought he’d never make it that far, we’d never make it that far. That day, cue ominous music, was the day of the B4 School Check. It’s a thing. It’s even spelled ‘B4’, which is probably ironic. But I was so tired at the time I likely mumbled something about it being cute. By the end of our session I was so bamboozled I had no idea there was any other way to spell the word.

Photo: Getty Images

First, let me say that obviously the B4 School Check is a good idea. It aims to identify any health, social, developmental and behavioural issues that could affect a child’s ability to get the most from school – it checks hearing and basic play/coordination as well as basic awareness of colours, numbers and thinking and it’s – totally – a good idea. Until you arrive there on the day, lining up and taking a number like it’s some Toddler Idol competition.

Holy shit did he perform.

The puzzle that was placed in front of him to determine basic hand-eye and thinking was tipped upside down. He laughed. Then he stopped laughing. Then he mumbled to himself. Our examiner said nothing, started writing notes. I went into overdrive suddenly, “Hahahaha – he does puzzles all the time!” I said, pausing to wipe the first beads of sweat on my brow.

“Mmm-hmmm,” came the reply.

Asked to run to the end of the room and back, Oscar walked, then crawled, then staged a pratfall. Then hopped. Then walked backwards. His shoulders were locked in a perpetual shrugging match as if he figured he might “s’pose?!” his way through any question and every task.

Suddenly I’m reaching for my phone in case I need to play a video of him dancing, or flash a picture of one of his very best paintings! I fucking hate myself and this test. In that order. No, maybe it’s the other order. Anyway…

The ordeal goes on. It’s suggested that we “book another time” but no one really has time for that – not me, not Oscar, not the examiner who made the suggestion. She starts writing a bit more furiously. Every time she has her head down – every time – Oscar looks at me and smile-smirks. At one point she looks up just as I’m gritting my teeth and whisper-shouting “BEHAVE!” I even think, for a second, that she thinks it was directed at her and not him.

Oh god it’s a clusterfuck. It’s the actual worst. Flunking the B4 School Test. On purpose. For larks. For shits. And/or giggles. Fuck’s sake.

I plea-bargain with the examiner: it’s obvious he can do everything she’s asking, if only because he refuses to properly attempt anything at all. It’s flimsier than that time I talked my way into a university exam after not attending any tutorials by announcing that I had a rare condition known as “Exaggerated Nausea”. And then – the realisation: ‘Oh shit, this problem right now started back then! Fuck. Double-fuck. Shit.’

The examiner waits until I stop swearing and tells me that – all things considered – she’ll be happy for us to do the hearing test and “if there are no red flags…” she’ll make her decision. No red flags? I’m basically seeing nothing but red. Feeling it all on my face too. At least a flag might cool me down if someone could wave it at me.

We do the hearing test. Which means Oscar does the hearing test. And I sit there digging what’s left of my fingernails into the vinyl of the chair.

We’re given some forms to pass on to his daycare – they’re going to sign them and add their notes. And then we’ll get a certificate or something. A tick. A badge of honour.

We leave the room punch-drunk. The cool breeze as the door swings back has me tasting a special type of freedom. My mind puts on its best Morgan Freeman voice and I hear that yarn about Andy Dufresne being someone “who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side”. Of course I don’t hear the name Andy Dufresne, since there’s no chance Tim Robbins could have acted as cool/uncool as I did in there. No. I hear the name Simon Sweetman. I hear “Simon Sweetman crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.” I pause to drink in Morgan Freeman’s kind and knowing assessment of just how tough it was for me in there. And then I buckle Oscar up in the car-seat, mumble something about being disappointed, and get in the front seat to head home.

“Daddy”, says Oscar timidly.

“Yes!” I snap.

“Can we have some food now please?”

I look at the clock in the car. It’s after 1pm. I think about when he last ate. Sometime around 6 or 7am. In the panic to get to the test, to be ready for the test, to ace the test, to show off at the test, to clock the test, get the best results ever at the test, maybe even get a special mention at the test – you know some sort of acknowledgment that I stopped work for the day and turned all the cartoons off and was clearly Father of the Year, and that the kid, as a direct result of my parenting, would be an asset to any school and, so, ‘good for him’ but mostly, you know, ‘good on me’ – I HAD FORGOT TO FEED MY CHILD!

His acting up, his lack of interest, his inability to care, to focus, to understand, to try…none of it was because he was secretly Stewie Griffin or Hannibal Lecter. And all of it was because Useless Fuck-Dad (me) had forgotten to feed the boy.

We fuelled up. He flicked the switch – straight away. Reverted to being a great kid bursting with character. That burst, of course, was due to some energy actually going in.

A week later a certificate-thing arrives, giving “us” the all-clear, the tick. He can go to school. Which is just as well, because so long as I pack enough food into a box at 7am I can now forget about having to feed him until several hours later and never feel guilty. Something I hadn’t ever thought about B4.

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