Actually, it was a wonder I spoke at all. While I was waiting to perform I took the radical step of checking my notes, a single page printout of nine slides. Upon reading, I was seized with panic that this was the day when I was finally exposed as having comprehensively lost it. Excellent individual points but joined up randomly, conveying no sense even to me. Struth, what to do? It was a 20-minute ‘provocation’ slot so I could potentially do it slide-less, but incoherent ramblings seemed unnecessarily provoking for an outfit paying Tallis for my services. Taking a last despairing breath I shook myself and looked again, just to discover that the printout was vertical but I’d been reading it horizontally like an idiot. It now made perfect sense. Revival of stout party.
I tell you this as it took me right back to being in exams at school, reading something that I thought I knew but actually didn’t recognise at all. It is absolutely terrifying, and I was filled with admiration for the fortitude of our young people walking calmly into so many exam rooms this last six long weeks rather than screaming in terror and fastening themselves to the banisters, which I very nearly did.
It was a joy, therefore, next morning at Tallis, to chance upon 5 questing chaps who introduced themselves as four astronomers and a Russian speaker in search of exams. I found the room, they thanked me gravely and unflappably and went to face their foe.
Back at the Opera House, I told them about visiting the RA Summer Exhibition last Saturday where himself and I engaged in pointless bickering in the shop afterwards. He concluded with a flourish, declaring ‘your trouble, Carolyn, is that you’re a conformist’. This stung, and despite many witty ripostes in the following week it repeats.
Thursday I found myself gladly introducing and welcoming five visiting academics to the inaugural Tallis Philosophy conference in partnership with the Royal Institute of Philosophy. I said that it was often frustrating to children to discover that what we teach them, especially in exam years, is partial and not the totality of human knowledge on a subject. What about all the other stuff they might be interested in? I found myself saying that schools are essentially conservative institutions and that’s why we need close links with the academy, to keep in touch with what’s new, to keep in touch with professional thinkers.
It's odd to be conservative, liberal and radical at the same time, but that’s what we try to be at Tallis. We fulfil the role of a school (a bit conservative) but we allow a lot of freedoms within that boundary (liberal) and we challenge outdated views as we try to change the world for the better (radical). You need your wits about you to manage all three. Getting your slides in order would be a start.
People are therefore kind enough to give me leadership books from time to time and I’ve been amusing myself by opening a volume on the transferable lessons of commanding a submarine, when I write the staff bulletin every week. This week was about ‘maintaining the tickler’. If you don’t mind me asking, how’s yours?
Returning to the arts, last year someone gave me a beautiful edition of Philip Larkin’s poems. Larkin has been quite in the news, having been excised from exam board OCR’s GCSE Eng Lit specification, so that the assigned poets might be more representative of global writing. The Secretary of State, among others, is furious about this, saying that Larkin was his gateway to poetry and that all children should read him, that to deny him was denying great art to students who might never get it otherwise.
Hmmm. It is the gateway that’s the thing. Teachers always ask themselves: what do we want children to learn and to know? What do we want alongside them as they leave the room? All other arguments notwithstanding, what I want is for children to love poetry and to want to read it, to find within it an expression of their unspoken feelings, fears and worries, hopes and dreams. Therefore, it has to make sense to them at the time. It has to be readable and speak to their condition.
Larkin’s poetry will survive whether or not every sixteen-year-old is forced to read it and, crucially, more of them might seek him out as adults if they’ve been introduced to other poetry that seizes their souls when they’re in school. Teaching poetry at all might be seen as a conservative or radical act by some, but engaging with art in any form should never be about conformity. We don’t all have to read the same verses, but the verses that open the doors to the child, at that time. Enabling children to see something of themselves in the curriculum choices we make should help them, to make interesting choices for themselves as adults. We are laying the foundation to build a better world. Or, as the man says, in his first published poem, a different ship:
But we must build our walls, for what we are
Necessitates it, and we must construct
The ship to navigate behind them……
Remember stories you read when a boy
-The shipwrecked sailor gaining safety by
His knife, treetrunk , and lianas – for now
You must escape, or perish saying no.