'Ejiri in Suruga Province' also known as "A Sudden Gist of Wind' by Katsushika Hokusai
Teachers say that young people are excited by wind. Undoubtedly true, but they are also excited by chips, rain, wasps, blinds falling down and pheasants tapping the window in geography. You have to get your excitement where you can in school and being buffeted by elemental forces and shrieking as you bucket across to Art is more fun than walking with due care and attention to other yard users.
There is a cosiness to the warm and hardworking indoors while a storm rages outside. I love the Rolls Royce purr of an expert’s classroom and the happy immersion of young people tussling with something they’re just working out how to do, that’s just beyond their grasp. I love hearing teachers and children confident in technical language. I love seeing them seize really powerful knowledge, to understand the world and change it for the better. I especially love going to Maths and seeing young people chewing their pens and clutching their hair while they try to repeat something Sir made look pretty straighforward.
It was maths in the wind last week that stopped me chuckling. Looking up from upper and lower bounds through a lot of hair Child, 14, grasped her neighbour’s arm with ‘but what would it be like to be a LEAF?’ We looked through the window at the storm and the poplar trees swaying and the leaves swirling, then got back to work. I thought – but the world would make you a leaf caught in the wind. Unless we are very careful with you it would exploit you and measure you and design you with a template and scissors and hurl you from one expectation to another. I thought - we know a bit in schools about being leaves in the wind, about being at the whim of changing external forces so that we are blown hither and yon, castigated for raising a thoughtful protest as we try to protect you from the storms of change.
How different our lives would be without that wind beyond the window. If education was de-politicised. If there was a check on change that meant that no child could have his examination course changed mid-track. If the role and value of teachers and schools, of knowledge and scholarship and the needs of a good society could be decoupled from the election cycle. If a College – like the medics have – could be a gatekeeper for our training and development, and speak for us in a calm and scholarly manner. A check and a College – now that would be a change in the weather.
Poetry, like maths, usually has an answer. I never see a windy tree without hearing great Larkin challenging me to begin afresh, afresh, afresh. Our great good fortune in school is that we can do that with every young person who shares part of a life with us, and while they’re young they can experiment and make mistakes secure in the knowledge that we’ll help them to begin afresh. Yet young life is so complicated and unforgiving now. Mistakes are preserved in cyberspace in perpetuity making a fresh start harder. Poverty and debt makes it hard to feel free as a leaf on the wind. And the education system, which should give them a reliable and secure start is recalibrated annually, trapping young people in caprice and uncertainty.
What would it be like to be a leaf? I’d love it if she never knew.