I didn’t play footy or dance at school but I did act and speak and I remember very clearly the excitement of participating and cooperating and the uncertainty of the unique performance on the night, of triumphing over the unknown. It’s completely different to the classroom experience.
A person who qualified in the same decade as me came calling and we reminisced. She said, rather tentatively, ‘you know, I don’t think it was all bad, in the old days’. Of course it wasn’t. Her comment transported me to a meeting room next to a canal in Sheffield four years ago where a Young Thing gave a group of us to understand that the past was such rubbish that it effectively needed to be erased from the history of education.
I had a few words in response. It wasn’t perfect, but then we’re not perfect now. Children went to school, teachers worked hard, stuff got learned, art was made, cups were won and exams were taken. What is this trope that schools are uniquely culpable for being the product of their times? Do we blame the Army for not having the right boots in the Falklands, and insist they’re sorry about it all the time? Do we say to the NHS ‘why did so many people die in the 90s, what were you thinking of?’ Not so much. So why do it to schools? Times change, things improve or get worse, we reflect the society in which we are situated, for good and ill.
Oh, and we talked about chalk. There are fewer of us who remember that quintessential teaching skill and the challenge of looking after a beautiful diagram you’d drawn and coloured nicely (I was talking to a geographer). I told her about the old soul I worked with who hoovered up the school’s chalk stocks when the whiteboards first arrived, hoarding it against an upturn in the market. He may have been a mathematician but the gamble didn’t work and when he retired he was offered the chalk to take home. One of our own Young Things was in this conversation with us. She’d had a terrifying and entirely unexpected encounter with chalk in rural Yorkshire, this decade. Taught her a thing or two about thinking on her feet.
Which is what the young people in the exams have already started learning quickly. The language speaking tests are situated near me so I can see them sitting mouthing the phrases, going over everything they’ve learned and worrying about facing the unexpected. The value of examinations is arguable but one of the useful things they promote is the development of confident and lucid responses in uncertain circumstances. There’s value in that experience which our obsessive high-stakes culture has dissipated.
Life is both untidy and unpredictable so schools have to prepare young people for that too. Learning to face things when you’re not ready is also a life skill. Even the young people who struggle against the exam hall tractor-beam know that.
Mind, some embrace uncertainty early. I was emerging from a difficult conversation when two small boys accosted me politely. In a conspiratorial whisper, one with sticky-up hair asked ‘have you got the rugby ball?’ This I could answer definitively. ‘No.’ ‘Someone’s taken it off us’ ‘Who?’ ‘We don’t know’ they chorused. We looked at each other for a moment then parted company, none the wiser on either side. I await developments.
A larger boy stopped me abruptly, silently, later on the bridge. I laid some groundwork for the exchange. ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m good’ (not strictly true). He investigated my habits. ‘Have you seen Endgame?’ ‘No, is it good?’ ‘I can’t tell you, it’ll spoil it’. Once again, none the wiser. He has some distance to travel before work as a film critic puts food on his table, I fear.
And a man from Australia who joined the school in 1971 wrote to us. He wants to contact his English teacher. With the benefit of many years, he recognised those whose creativity and relationships formed him and made him. That’s what he remembered, and that’s what we try to do in every age. Knowing things and getting qualifications are important. Knowing that life takes unexpected turns is also important. Learning it in a positive community is priceless.