On the way back I thought about all the children in the history of schooling who have been surprised by tests. I was one myself in younger years. What is it that makes some children so well organised but puts others perpetually on the back foot? I couldn’t even reliably bring a pen to school until I was in the sixth form.
Meeting with a group of youth never surprised by anything, I ask their advice. What can we do to improve? Lots of ideas, from class organisation to decolonising the curriculum to lunch queues to extra-curricular philosophy and the perennial problem of rewards. Anything else? One seized the edge of the table ‘I can’t word it. I can’t get it from an idea in my head to my mouth making sense. I’ll have to come back to you.’ I look forward to it. I’m more of a splurge-and-then-sort-out-the- words-as-they-emerge sorta gal. You know how some people used to have wristbands that said PUSH (pray until something happens)? Mine would be ‘talk until something happens’. I make no remark about the political conference season. Tush tush.
It is wise to think first. Yard duti-ers are perpetually troubled by what might be the best form of words to stop children kicking footballs or bouncing basketballs as they return to class, or to get them to put them back in the sack. Try out some of those instructions for yourself. See what I mean?
I struggle for the right words with a group of people who’ve come to leaflet the children against vaccination, after school. We’re not anti-vax or conspiracy theorists, they say, while handing me leaflets against this particular vaccination because it has been ‘rushed through’. ‘We’re just educating the children about their human rights’. I tell them that we do that pretty emphatically in any case, to put their minds at rest. Others appear, and, knowing I have no power to move concerned citizens from the public footpath, I decide on a tactic. One calls me ‘my darling’ and I ask her not to, then I just talk at them, arguing every toss, until I notice from the corner of my eye that most of the children have gone. ‘I don’t know what your point is’, one of the protestors says to me sadly. I do. It was a filibuster. I’ve talked until something happened, or in this case, didn’t happen. Tush to you, mate.
It’s my turn to have a door held open for me on my return. I say thank you and the large youth reassures me that it was no problem. He means well, but I sigh as I round the corner. What does that mean? If it was a problem he wouldn’t have done it? That it might be a problem in the future if I make a habit of going through doors? I used to say ‘don’t mention it’ when I was thanked until someone said that sounded as though I didn’t care. And once when I asked how I could help someone who’d rung me up, they said it put them in a subservient position. Manners are a minefield. What to do? Outlaw ‘no problem’ and insist on ‘you’re welcome’? Schools appear in newspapers when they try to adjust language.
Not to despair. Human relationships can be difficult and adolescent ones triply so. Schools are perfect places to try out stuff which oils the wheels of the human journey. I met with another group for children today, ten boys who felt aggrieved. They expressed themselves beautifully, concisely and with immense dignity. They were truthful but without rancour or grandstanding. That’s a model for a better world. I was quite moved by the experience – and I’m hard to move. Dear me, yes.
And that was the second time on a day which started with the terrible death of a former student, the second in six months. So many young lives ruined by adults or circumstance, so little hope for some while others find life so easy. ‘And what about those in the middle?’ one of the earlier young people said. Who notices them?
It National Poetry today and I find myself thinking again about a poem I discovered recently. It was written the year I was born, by a poet who left teaching, Daniel Huws in his collection Noth. It is almost unbearably eloquent. Here’s the last verse:
And a friend offers congratulations, echoing
Complaints I should have kept unsaid:
‘My God, you must be glad to leave.’ My children,
For his ignorance I could strike him dead.
It’s been a difficult day, but I wouldn’t be anywhere else. Sometimes words don’t make sense but yet they’re all we have. And with that, I’m off to address the parents of Year 11.