“You might say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”John Lennon, Imagine
It is autumn. The late afternoon light lies low across the room, where windows are jacked open and the blinds do nothing to cut the glare. I’m not convinced Year Ten can even see the whiteboard in this light, although – admittedly – we have gone off piste again in our exploration of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men because Marwa’s kicking off. The Powerpoint hardly matters at this point. It is 4pm on a Thursday afternoon and my plan was to cover imagery and symbolism in the description of Curly’s wife; something bound to come up in their mocks after Christmas. I am not one for taking it easy during the ‘graveyard shift’. Everyone is pissed off at this point, so let’s just get some content under our belt and plan a lively debate for when I see you next on Monday morning, shall we? Marwa says no. In fact, Marwa brings the lesson to a halt altogether. It’s the same thing every time. “But Miss, what’s even the point of all this, though?” I am a politician. I bounce it right back, unanswered. “Marwa, don’t you think Steinbeck’s interesting?” “Not really.” “Okay, but you can appreciate the great language he uses, right? It’s a beautifully crafted book.” “Is it? Did he even mean for all these things we’re finding to even be there? Like, are we all wasting our time and he’s just looking down at us now and laughing?” And I don’t have an answer to this one. I adjust my notes to avoid meeting her bright, intelligent eyes. “Well, perhaps,’ I concede. “Perhaps.”
Schoolchildren do this all the time. What’s the point? Why are we covering this again? Who even cares about trigonometry? When am I actually going to need this in my life? They are not wrong to ask these questions although, in my day, nobody would have dared. Kids are brazen now. They want to know why. Sometimes I think that my subject – English – is the most difficult one to justify. Reading books. Only it’s not ‘reading books’ at all; it’s studying the craft of writing and speculating wildly on the intentions of playwrights and poets who never thought their work of art would be turned into an exam; something you can be right and wrong about. So, what does an English teacher say when asked: “What’s the point?” Because it’s a beautiful piece of writing (and what you read at home is trash)? Because it’s important to engage with the structure of the language and apply the correct terminology (thus reading for pleasure is meaningless)? Because it’s going to be on the exam (and, let’s be honest, this is the only thing that matters)? It’s not easy. And yesterday, I had a very different kind of question from my six-year-old, who wanted to know when lunch would be. I looked at my watch. “At least a couple of hours,” I said, looking up from deadheading the pot plants. “Good,” she replied. “Because I’m not coming indoors until lunchtime; I want to spend the whole morning in the garden.” And she turned on her heel. I could have asked her “what’s the point?” but I didn’t bother. Goals like this don’t require a rationale.
Discipline was never really my ‘thing’ and this, I suppose, allows room in my classes for sharp ones like Marwa to emerge as threats to the stability of the lesson. Because Marwa isn’t a bad kid; she’s right. But it turns the lesson upside-down, all the same. Now Dave and Santi are joining in, taking the debate to a new level by closing their books and folding their arms on the desk. “This is bullshit,” I hear someone say. And I’m wondering how to get them back on board. All options that could work involve abandoning the lesson plan and my barely-visible notes on the whiteboard which, tempting though it seems, is going to create ball-ache next week when I hand them over to the teacher I share this class with and they are not where I had said we would be in the text. Fuck it. I’m drawn back to remember my first interview for a teaching job; how I nearly lost the position altogether when, dumb postgrad that I was, I let slip that I didn’t really ‘believe’ in shouting at kids. That was a no-no. As was raising your hand during meetings to stir the pot with something unpopular like, “why are they all being made to study Literature anyway? Shouldn’t it be a choice?” Don’t get ahead of yourself, young girl! Suck it up and stay focused… I did. And, almost as soon as I did, I got promoted, and then promoted again. It felt ludicrous to be walking down the corridor with a veneer of authority when, deep down, I had the feeling it was all nonsense, too. I never found a home for these views until I began home educating.
No surprises; Marwa doesn’t take English at A Level, but her classmate Bradley does. His writing is strong and he reads avidly, so I’m fairly confident about the exam. Still, his results are spectacular and I shake his hand on Results Day, laughing at the wolfish beard that has appeared since June. He is one of the best. Which is why I am surpised to find him, five years later, working in a mobile phone shop on the high street. “Miss!” he calls out, and crosses the shop floor in a few short strides. He is even taller than he was at school and the beard is trimmed, but clearly a fixed ‘thing’ now; a part of who he is. He looks happy. I stoop down and pick up my toddler – the one who, years later, will want to spend all morning in the garden – and introduce her. “This is Brad,” I say, smiling. “He was one of mummy’s very best students.” He shakes his head. “No, it was all you,” he says, earnestly. And this makes me pause for thought. “How come you’re working here then?” I ask, a little awkwardly. “I assumed you’d be – you know – writing a book by now, at least.” We both laugh, but he looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. It is only as we leave a little later, that I spot him again behind the Genius Bar, talking passionately about a gadget he is balancing in the palm of his hand. Was it really all me? Does Brad really not care about Literature, after all that? And can Marwa honestly not see the point? Outside, it’s raining and I let my daughter splash a while in the puddles forming rapidly on the pavement. Sometimes, it’s hard to separate ability and purpose. Because somebody is good at writing essays, doesn’t mean they love the subject. Because someone wrote a beautiful poem, doesn’t mean it should be analysed. And because we are told to do something, doesn’t make it right.