Phones are still an open debate in my head but not the corridors. Let me dispense with this. Children talk. They have a range of volumes available to them and a plethora of topics. Some of the foregoing are more acceptable to the genteel adult ear than others. If they’re too loud this can easily be fixed by saying ‘shush’ while applying the finger to the lips. If their discussion lacks civility that can be dealt with by removing them into a corner to offer counsel and issue instruction. However, most of the time they’re talking at a reasonable volume about music, love, books, lessons, teachers, sport, gossip, animals, wars, food and Playstations. You might not tackle to their taste, but civil conversation is good for them and offsets all kinds of problems, from inarticulacy to isolation. Since I last ranted about this I’ve visited Roedean which I’m sure you’ll think is a model to us all. Their corridors sound like ours, full of children talking. What does silence bring? Control, is all.
Enough of this. I heard the wonderful Will Gompertz talk last week and he told a great story about children describing their GCSE results to each other. One told of a string of A*s and As, another chirpily claimed to be able to beat that because ‘I can spell BEEF DUDE with mine’. How I know that child and how I can picture them falling about with laughter and tears, clutching each other for support. What a racket, what a memory, what a lesson. Both men are successful now, the dude richer than the A, if that’s what matters.
But he also talked about the twin pillars of teen life: social media and exams. Both are solitary, isolating and largely uncontrollable, especially under comparable outcomes and the requirement of a third to fail GCSE. What are we doing to our children?
Anyway, back at Tallis, I was summoned into action by Head of Year 7. ‘I need you to finish off assembly. I have to go and teach and it’ll overrun because of the bees.’ Happy to oblige and make myself unusually useful, I started it off too. Depositing year 7 neatly in rows on the Sports Hall floor we started with coronavirus and the handwashing-Happy Birthday thing. One of the great things about year 7 is that they are young enough to be openly curious and uninhibited enough to prefer an answer to anonymity. A hand shot up. ‘How long it lasts depends on the person’s name, doesn’t it?’ Yes indeed. Let’s call her Eglantyne and practise that.
However, the bee man was unpacking his affairs by then and attention was elsewhere. He had bees, he had hives, he had boxes and he had honey. At some point I ended up holding bees while the younger element asked questions. Some got to hold bees too and some were rewarded with honey. Loads of previously bee-indifferent city dwellers asked detailed and imaginative questions. We frequently had to pause while they discussed bee-related issues with one another and when I finally handed my green parcels back and shooed them off to class the bee-debate was stretching from block 5 to the furthest reach of period 1. (Oh, the green parcels were the bees. Hibernating – do you think I’m mad?) As I remarked to the meeting I was 20 minutes late for and the phone call I forgot altogether until break – never work with children or bees. All your best lines are lost.
Mr Williamson, wouldn’t it have been a waste if the children had had to be quiet all the way to Art? They were so excited, astounded, bemused about what they’d seen they wouldn’t have been able to stop themselves talking. We’d have had to shush them and tell them off, some might have needed punishing, for talking, about an endangered wonder of creation. Who would have benefited? The bees lived again in the retelling as well as in the buzzing and flapping and the silly laughter as 270 11 and 12-year olds swarmed across the yard. Why wouldn’t you want that?
Well, I suppose that if you’re frightened of children, or if you’re not confident in your relationships with them, or if you think they have nothing to say or nothing to share, or if being in control is more important than teaching children a good way to live you might want it, but it still wouldn’t make sense.
And I suppose that when your corridors are silent you’ll never here the quiet admissions, friend to friend. I’m frightened to go home. I’m hungry again. I don’t want to stay alive. I know something dangerous. I don’t know who to tell. And you don’t get the friend’s advice: tell Miss, tell Sir, come with me and I’ll help.
It’s not just bees who hold us together. Children’s voices frame the world for some of us, and we count ourselves lucky.