Sunday, 8 March 2015

What Will We Teach Our Children?

What Will We Teach Our Children?

John Harmon entered, brylcreamed hair, shoes shined army standard, the Senior Service cigarette stubbed out. A small man, the birthmark that covered one cheek throbbed and we feared. Harmon’s frequently foul mood was clear and the first to fall was Mulkearns who put up his hand in the timid manner of the hungry Oliver Twist to stutter that he felt sick. Harmon gave him the waste paper bin, waited a few moments and asked him to spell circumlocution. It's an easy word but Mickey messed it up. Harmon summoned him to the front and belted his backside with the whack - a bone shaped piece of leather. The alphabet took over. Oakley was beaten next; O’Gorman got the same, followed by O'Neill and now the room was spinning. I doubt I could have spelled my own name as I became the 5th 12 year old in a row to get whacked in front of the class. I was never aware of how many followed me that day but I do know that I have never used the word circumlocution in any other context than this.

John Harmon was a bad man. 

Three years later he gave us a poem to read - and my life changed forever. Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” gave me my first insight into the beauty of words, although those words describe the horror of soldiers in a gas attack in World War One:

“Dim through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” 

An education leader who has given hope to hundreds of schools hounded by the current government, and probably the next one too, Sir John Rowling, asked me to write, “Something, anything you like using poetry.” Hours later the world was thrown into turmoil around intolerance, fanaticism and freedom of speech. I came into education in 1978 to empower children through literacy and the “Je suis Charlie” response to the slaughter of journalists endorses the vitality of language. This blog is an expanded version of the article published in PiXLis ((January 21st 2015) as “The Beauty of the Word.”

This time I get to use some rude words.

In search of the beauty of words, targeted at those obscuring faith with murder, perhaps for discussion in a multi-cultural classroom if one is allowed to discuss Jihadi John:

“You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a God.”

Leonard Cohen “Story of Isaac”

Harmon called me “Thick Irish” around the time I discovered Yeats questioning in “An Irish airman Foresees his Death” why his friend’s son fought for the British. 

“I balanced all brought all to mind
The years to come seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.”

I was beginning to learn a bit about other people from poetry. Much later I found Yeats’ love poem, “Aedh Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven” on a scrap of paper. Sadly, the lady was quoting it to the next in line. I hope he was impressed.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

One day in 1991 I was transfixed by WB’s brother, Jack Yeats’ painting, “Men of Destiny” in the National Gallery in Dublin. I was forced to travel with a previously unfelt hunger to Sligo to look for more of his work. With a curriculum obsessing on correctness, chronology, rote learning and interminable practice for timed tests of memory, poetry, music and art have little place in meddling politicians’ ideology of education. But the beauty of words will stun, challenge and change the way children learn and understand the world. With 80 days of dull electioneering ahead, and at least one world leader afraid to debate his policies:

“I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you.”

Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street”

I giggled when Polonious was stabbed in “the arras” and I came across “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” in “Hamlet” and then advice on decision making in “Macbeth,” “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.” I have taught Shakespeare to thousands of children – sex, drugs, murder, revenge, greed all done better than Eastenders. What’s not to like?
I hope you all have at least one song that stops you functioning for a few moments. Mick Jagger wrote, “Wild Horses” to stop Marianne Faithful leaving him. I still can’t listen to “Leaving Nancy” by Eric Bogle nearly three decades after my mother died. Many will know him for, “The Green Fields of France,” so dreadfully mauled for Remembrance Day, alongside that bloody Sainsbury’s football nonsense. “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” on the terrible Galipoli battle tells of the ship carrying the wounded home:

“I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve, to mourn, and to pity.”

I see our work as teachers as a snub to the ideology of working class failure lazily embraced by seemingly all our political parties. Labi Siffre was happy that his “Something Inside So Strong” was used as a rebel yell beyond its original South African context. So simply,

“The higher you build your barrier
The taller I become.”

With Mr Cameron declaring major reform of education within 50 days of a new conservative government there must be teachers everywhere wanting to adapt Dylan’s,

“Stand upside down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I’ve had enough, what else can you show me?”

(It’s all right Ma I’m only Bleeding)
Taylor Dupree’ s "Who Do You Think You Are?" adds over-confident bite as we tackle the next mess of promised educational reform:

"You do not scare me, mistake me not for weak
You can dig a hole for me, but that doesn't mean I'll sink."

But with young teachers leaving teaching because of the tedious insanity of exam factory life there will need to be, in the words of Father Ted’s placard of protest:

“An end to this sort of thing.”

I'm not sure that the teaching profession, and particularly its headteachers, is up for any sort of fight.

Who would teach English today? I watch young, talented idealists building careers on the conversion of D1 grades into C passports, needing to build upon accurate use of highlighter pens rather than a deeper understanding of words, thoughts, feelings and ideas. If they don’t, of course, the headteacher that I am will move them from teaching these students. Careers now built on sand.

All alert assembly-givers see that glazed look on the silent faces of compliant, disinterested students when we rise to tell them how we won the war, the runs we used to score and other dynamic autobiographical wonders. I read Mo Foster’s poem “Boggerel” to Year 11s one sleepy afternoon:

“I wonder why men piss on the floor?
Is it down to aggravation?
Neglect or lack of concentration
Are they lost in such abstractions
That they lack mundane reactions?
Is it simply they don’t see
In which direction that they pee?
Do they do it to annoy?
Do they practise when a boy?”

There is more, of a feminist slant, to the poem if you wish to look it up.

Free speech, the right to offend and the use of succinct language to express oneself – the poet’s license – and you can do this in a lesson. In “This Be The Verse” the childless Philip Larkin spat :

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.”

I suspect Seamus Heaney may have been merely full of fine nationalist rhetoric, but when the BBC announced in 1982 that a British poet had won the Nobel Prize for poetry my heart sang as he replied:

“Be advised my passport’s green
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen.”

One does not need many words to provoke thought; here's a few found on a pedestal by Shelley amongst ruins and decay:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

A lesson for history: all become dust, even the grandest, the mightiest and the most powerful and not necessarily in strict chronological order.

Ted Hughes’s “Hawk Roosting” isscarey, but I loved watching realisation spread across a classroom possibly discovering a dictator’s love song to himself?

“There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads -

The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:
The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.”

Auden’s “I have no gun but I Can Spit” could be a clarion call for free speech, perhaps in opposition to Al Capone’s,” You can get much further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” I am worried, now, that the government say that radicals should not be left with children, unsupervised. Bloody hell, do I count?

Should those of us disgraced by politicians in education, rage with Dylan Thomas against inevitable defeat, although he was literally bemoaning blindness:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

How about teaching the wonderful, “Warning” by Jenny Joseph?

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.

Or if one fears age and death as Dennis Potter’s “Singing Detective” one can cry along to the Charles Aznavour Song, “Yesterday when I was Young” with the searing,

“I ran so fast that time and youth at last ran out
I never stopped to think what life was all about,
And every conversation I can now recall
Concerned itself with me, me, and nothing else at all.”

I can sit for minutes beside Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken:”

”Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Was Stevie Smith lamenting or declaring:

“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”

Decades ago, I taught alongside some awful English teachers who wouldn’t recognise a semi colon or an extended metaphor no matter what shade of highlighter was used. Teachers are better by far today but increasingly denied a part in a wonderful, joyful journey of discovery and enlightenment, of provoking children to look at their world through others’ eyes whilst discovering the beauty of words, of pictures and of music.

None of this seems to be in any part of our new curriculum for a tedious age of insular nationalism and British values.

Blog 30, 55,000 words in, a very different piece of work. But don’t blame me, if Sir John can help “failing schools” succeed with young people whose dignity and ambition are then kindled I can at least try to show that there is a little more to school, English and learning than the times tables school of education.

But, Dylan again:

“Ain't no point in talking to me
It's just like talking to you.”

Dennis O'Sullivan
Sunday 8th February 2015

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