John Baldessari, The Pencil Story, 1972-3
I love pencils. I have a potful on my desk given by benefactors or brought from holiday destinations. I inevitably have one behind my ear and I can’t really think without one in my hand or teeth. I carry a pencil where there is no earthly reason for it: why would I need one in assembly or waiting for the late lamented 0710? Pencils have become quite the accessory since the horrors of Paris and I applaud such a useful symbol. You never know when you might need to add something to a list, or gesture wildly.
Are you offended? Not my intention.
Free speech is a tricky one in school. We love it as a genuinely British value but spend a lot of time adjusting the young and foolish who use it unwisely. Your opinion is important! Be more articulate! we declare enthusiastically while simultaneously sanctioning those who express opinions we don’t like. In our model communities we train up our young people to be citizens of our liberal democracy, in a legal and civilized manner. Freedom of speech is a virtue, we tell them, but you can’t use this work, and certainly not that word, in school
I’ve worked in schools where a range of expressions were banned, on top of the obvious obscenities and abuse. One school banned innit, another (quite reasonably) your Mum. I taught in a school on the Durham coalfield which banned Pitmatic at the same time as you could buy nostalgic primers in lefty bookshops. Schools help young people develop a way of speaking which will help them prosper in life. Sometimes that’s at odds with language used at home. It’s hard to learn, harder to remember if the groundwork isn’t laid young.
We’re thinking about talking and listening this term at Tallis. The great education thinker John McBeath tells us that 60% of children at school never have a conversation with an adult. They hear content and receive instructions but never exchange deep thoughts or affable pleasantries, so we’re trying to chew the fat a bit this term. No problem for me. I’m from a region where not discussing every item at the checkout is just bad manners.
I went out at lesson change to nobble some passers-by. It was cold, windy and sunny and my aged eyes watered. ‘Are you OK Miss?’ bellowed a young person with a complicated hairdo so we talked a bit about the weather and waterproof mascara. I continued into block 2 with a loquacious young chap. We discussed the temperature and the perpetual controversy surrounding Tallis knitwear. We sniffed the air: ‘Someone’s burning something’ he observed sagely as we moved through DT. He carried on the conversation with himself as he dashed up to Science: ‘How can we breathe?’
Freedom of speech is really hard to understand. We run our schools as if it doesn’t exist and teach our children that there are things that may never be said. Through this, we hope that they will grow into adults who will protect free expression. It’s not as contradictory as it sounds. Free speech, like strong drink or violent films, is an adult choice informed by mature values and serious consideration. If it offends, that offence must be pursued through the law, and it is the law that acts as moderator for what may or may not be said. So as we help our young people to understand freedom we also need to understand about the law, citizenship, community, beliefs, history and democracy.
Adolescents need conversation like they need food and exercise. They need to be able to practice the words that build up democracy and community. They need to be able to verbalise really complicated things. The best we can do for them is to carry on talking to them, explaining again and again, helping them articulate and search, and listening, no matter how bizarre the tangents. It makes family life happier. It enables our young to grow into people who’ll talk to their neighbours and understand them. Who’ll understand that freedom is precious and nihilism is utterly useless to humanity.
Talk to your teenager. Talk about the weather or the pencils. Talk so that they’ll breathe freely as adults. Talk until the killing stops.