Flung, clung together they fit in the classroom, collect on a slide-show from corners of Acton, the wide road of Greenford and cupped lanes of Wembley, to perch, preen and posture, to squawk and stay silent, observing in envy the new force or fineness of friends who steal onward, under cover of chatter, to woman and man.
On the other side of the river
these faces have tumbled across:
laughing and wet on the bank
they cluster and gossip together,
discuss their sixth-form course.
What breeze, what light now has them
turning to what far fields?
As I speak of plays, of novels,
of writing fast in exams –
the wider reach of water
that they will find at A-level –
I know my role is double:
to lead them and mislead them,
to lighten, and to load on
the almighty unnecessary guidance
tendered to every traveller
that enters a new country.
She sits, eyes gleaming
as I talk of India.
She knows of the many gods,
she knows of holy elephants,
she has a friend from Acton High.
Later in the lesson
this girl from Ghana
screams, sinks on the floor
as I read out the choice bits
of a holiday report:
these boys chirped her,
that boy followed her,
this got her phone number.
Her life is on fire,
she swaps homes, fakes beatings
and epilepsies, runs blindly
about the school corridors.
Already I love her
after one lesson.
Will she stay, will she settle?
Can she be found by
a place for a time?
He works part-week,
a bulking height of learning,
ex-rugby prop for the Army.
“When we played the Navy
we showed them who were the men.”
Now a dyslexia expert
and all-purpose classroom “supply”
he offers a kind of chivalry
to the children, with tales of epic war
right out of the comics. He is part
of the real but noble past: like a Knight of the Shires,
or an Honorary Lieutenant
of the Conservative Party, knocking
at the door of the individual,
not often heard.
Books of his on Africa
still sell, and the geography of England;
anecdotes of Empire
still amaze. As true a family man
as may be . . . so he soldiers on
as if part of a great deed,
this Dunkirk survivor,
this Christian man.
Call it a detention, I am not exaggerating Headmaster, I am not exaggerating a jot when I say there were three Coke-cans, three Coke-cans in use, and do I need to tell you who was drinking from one of them? Do I need to say which member of the Management Committee was drinking Coke, buying it for his detainees, writing joky letters to a boy’s parents in front of that boy’s nose, then ripping them up and throwing them away? Do I need to say who takes his position so irresponsibly that he mocks a pupil mercilessly for his failure to understand the operation of the Coke-machine? Cheap laughs, Headmaster, cheap popularity at great expense. The expense of undermining the fabric of the school. The detention system must work and must be seen to work. These boys have to learn that a punishment is a punishment, not a happy half-hour in a bar for juvenile delinquents. What? How do I know what was in the letters that were thrown away? I went in afterwards, didn’t I, and looked in the bin.
Half the class, what a farce – can’t sit down, act like crazies, take ten minutes to find their places, haven’t done homework, haven’t brought books, a sea of giggles and cusses, bad looks, insults spewed in little closed wars, fighting a second away – no cause it seems as suddenly they’re guffawing in unison. I’ve started roaring at one who blithely disregards each word I’ve said. A deck of cards appears – I snatch it – bull-doze down the boy who’s risen – he plays the clown, protects his ears against my voice; the milder part of the class rejoice, they love this, work’s as good as gone; the whole room is an idiot zone; I change the temperature, turn the dial – I want to make them feel the bile of their untrained inadequacies: slow words of ice begin to freeze all that the class knew of goodwill before for me, for work. The chill my words of scorn, almost of hate have made, itself seems to create a death. A kind of silence holds in which the listless hour unfolds of desks, of slumped and mindless scribbling. I long for jokes, passed notes, a nibbling at early lunch, a sign of thought, of life . . . they’re doing what they ought.
8 a.m. POSER
I bathe, bathe in air,
a light chill river of freshness,
one of a group,
a box of all the opposites,
youth and maiden,
a seasoned warrior,
an innocent, pre-school yearling,
and random dark lines
in a globe of blue, white, green
a light year from the noise
of early games of football,
recording only the passage
of air, life, time
upon me, at Spring
a dancing reincarnation –
each day a part
of the school, my place
between B block and the playground.
What am I?
set a task, told a theme:
to make of the music-room
a clocksmith’s workshop . . .
Scrambled into five groups
crammed into cupboard-rooms
sprawled under tables
huddled over desk-tops
Cabasa, maracas, triangle, Indian bells
Heads nodding, pony-tails,
ribbons, locks and flat-top flares,
fringes all-sorts, tuned-in eyes . . .
Claves tocking, scraper swishing, time passing
In they come, play their clocks,
hiccup-clocks, missed-heart-beat clocks,
run-down clocks, rampaging clocks,
each group with its news of clocks –
Five three-minute numbers run:
in each new edition hear
on xylophone and glockenspiel
headlines made, a scoop of clocks –
So she plays her instruments,
twenty-nine upon a theme
of time, and teaches them to mark
music, not to watch the clock . . .
Hear them chime, common time
in lesson-time, their perfect time . . .
We have to present our bid on behalf of the New Commonwealth population and in terms of language help. disturbed background, counselling needs, dislocation in education, home/school liaison and a widespread need for individual help. Broadly this means Afro-Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani children; a precise definition of parentage and domicile is to follow. I would be grateful if the Equal Opportunities Working Party would consider how we may outline our bid, remembering that our aim is to try to save the 6½ teachers paid for by the Section 11 grant. In fact these teachers do not individually exist; their work is undertaken by all as it were; but if we do not make a convincing claim for their salaries other posts may be lost as the holders move on or retire. I suggest a subcommittee be formed, to see how best this Working Party may bid to promote racism in aid of a cover-up.
Out into the wider classroom,
T-shirts, cagoules filtering through the gate . . . the usual disparity
heightened by non-uniform . . . a few early, knots of friends arriving late
to plod the park for charity.
Birds tossed against the sky like tea-leaves, assorted dogs
ground-studying, capering, squirrels retreating to higher fantasies,
leaves everywhere coloured-path-papering, or themselves high-speeders
in a tearaway breeze.
Up to eight circuits, a park-meandering
of pupils of, for once, a wider intention,
less pedagogic, the usual confining place
and aim in suspension,
over the horizon, while here on the edge of the world
they walk, walk, walk, or run, or loiter, in twos and threes
and crowds and singletons, listening to headphones, shouting,
fircone-throwing, ambling near lake, through trees,
past supernumerary teachers at tables who sign lap-cards,
walking through rain, through uninsistent sun
to the end of morning. conscious of shattered legs
and circuits done.
Some fit the plug in
precisely, and run the flex
deftly, and flick the switch
smartly, to shed a glow
pure as the unused page
of a new mark-book;
some turn the teaching on
out of a manual –
Some know that plugs don’t work;
some put the flex aside;
they are not wired to show
others’ ill-wiring . . .
but then a spark jumps
as the wires almost touch.
Some let a motor run
in contact time.
Who Are They?
Swarming barging bird-animals race through the foyer doors. They are heading for the canteen at break. A lanky sixth-form ex-hooligan prefect awkwardly intervenes; at his side a diminutive colleague does more: at her word the doors are closed. Down the corridor the mass strains: more filtering: soon the canteen floor is filled with a perching jabbering gesticulation and the gradual disappearance of iced buns. Central litterbins take donations: aero twix marsbar wrappers hover in: elsewhere hot chocolate and slush puppy drinks descend. This is Shangri-La; this is the Land of Id; this is Babel. Somewhere a member of staff is eating a doughnut.
A soundless toctoctoc of woodpeckering minds. A colony of fifty-odd in the library at lunchtime: homework clusters, newspaper-sharers, novel-nomads. At the Reference Section a dispute on the martial arts is settled by the Guinness Book of Records. Two girls critically examine birthday-cards while another twists a piece of string. Someone is lost in the misty pages of ‘First Kiss’. A boy reads ‘Story of Prince Rama’: a tragic birthplace appears again in his mind. On green cushions sprawl children with the Ealing Gazette. GCSE coursework falls off tables; while on the desk by the door presides the unwavering screen, a computer display of lines of yellow blue red. In the background the teacher-librarian quietly keeps the balance: so she frees her free time to run this, the school’s finest laboratory. Thousands of books on shelves attend the proceedings, wait for their own to begin, some for too long.
Past the tall door is the friendly crazy-house. This building, set aside for the sixth form, is in the grip of several delusions: it is the British Museum Reading-Room; it is a Junior Branch of the Athenaeum; it is Whipsnade. Seventeen-year-olds struggle with essays and love-letters. Orange-peel on playing-cards. Empty lemonade-tins. Here is the new and beginning: outside the tall door a pile of school uniforms, like sloughed snake-skins, invisibly sits. New colours dazzle; sensible clothes fit easily to the attractive shape of the adult. New colours dazzle; free hours, fewer rules, a fast-ahead avenue. Down they sail, in miseries of paper boats of A-level notes, on leaky rafts of careers knowledge from the local college, on dinghies of escaping self-esteem down a directionless stream. No time to get straight, re-orientate; no way to steer with shoals near; no-one else is around if you’re aground. But through the landscape of panic sweeps Motown music; and out of the tall door come clipboards and cameras. Studies of the local homeless, a children’s party video, a magazine of preposterous gossip and fonts, a firework-fairground of projects. In and out of the door come the sixth form and their friends the teachers. When it shuts for each, into the new pecking-order of a weekly wage or a degree course, something extra has been learned that no syllabus states. It may be lost, forgotten or never used; it is different for each. Then blown like seeds.
A tide of lemmings seeps through the school. Climbing up stairs, through corridors, bumping, a purposeful steady onflow of faces on legs. Between lessons, registrations, assemblies, this mass migratory creature stumbles. On and on, a blind surge through the storeys, forms and years, past the attainment targets and key stage four. Why are they doing it? Pushing through each other, shouting, tapping shoulders, blocking the way. They cannot help it. Swapping greetings and accusations. What is this squash? Tugging bags, taking others’ burdens, finding travelling-companions. Where are they heading? The bell goes, the stairs jam; between holidays they scramble in a maze. Until, shifted up-and-over the available ground, they come to the school gates. Fortunately the outcome is good.
Insects scuttling over two floors of science. In white coats like cricket umpires testing nail-cuttings for traces of sulphur. Poring over charts of homeostasis, drawing a central heating boiler, scrabbling the letters of antidiuretic. Tentatively discussing the Windscale disaster, shouting for rewinds during a film on bauxite. Here are some of the youngest crawling about a lab divided into six stations. At each they pause, chatter irreverently, write down something to do with gases. The two floors seem to intercommunicate with winging minds. Far denser than a physical crush is this hovering sensation, something between learning and being. It was in the caves, it will be on new planets. The purest form of energy, sifting through the stars. The unlikely bodies of children clog the staircase.
A various wheeling in patches of sports-hall sky. In random maypole patterns they fly: how simply, their ordinary landlocked selves outsoaring, bodies use a freedom of the mind. Forward rolls on mats, feet uncrossed; or limbering up for dance, running in arcs; judo pairs tumbling in ogoshi; the rise of trampolinists in a front-drop; the mis-hit rise of table-tennis balls; the thwacked and floating dips of shuttlecocks. And outside, in the air space of the playground, the flying runs of footballers, the shots at netball goals, and in the Gas Board Field outside the school, the driving hockey skills of green-and-yellow versus white-and-red . . . they all create a language of the air, make up a free word, as if the parole, of bodies caged-in by the classroom-desk.
Gotcha. Tacked to the chair and desk and floor, a marginal shifting-about, no more, no stretching out, no leaning over a hop-away pencil to recover, no glancing about or making signs, everything’s squared off and in lines, everything’s down to a piece of paper, candidate’s name and candidate’s number, candidate’s pen that freestyle swims down the ruled-line of public exams, candidate’s eyes upon the clock, life’s reduced to hickory dock. Yet eyes. Here again, invisibly and all-present, is a creature coaxed out of its shell. Vulnerable, amoral, innocent, it exists in the hall. What should we do with this daughter of the sun and rain, gear it up through the ten levels? How should we use this wildwit newest saltspark from the sea? Gather it in the strands of attainment statements? Have you heard a mousetrap bang? Have you seen what schools become? If you know that iron clang that pinions all, beheading some, you know the gadget from which sprang the National Curriculum. Out of the hall they noisily edge into separate ways.
Who are they? In a huge black satin box something is going on. Up one side of it is a lighting and sound system; on the floor near a tall curtain backdrop sit a circle of children in shirts and jeans. Who are they, these actors, imitators, players, owners of their hands and faces? In a minute they will dream up new minds, juggle pasts, charge the great dark room with an instant of their souls. Are they the first humans? who when they took parts, took part of a whole. They climb up the lighting tower, attitudinise; as floor-conjurors they hoodwink an unseen mob, pour liquid of speech, print silence on stone; on chairs they become old men and women . . . beyond-bird-quick they catch on. Something is taking place: not counting, not analysis, not time-sense, not word, but fooling with all these the first revellers came, children of the race, looking to the next thing, able to see in the dark, able to be in the dark, to transform self in hollow rock, the curtained room, the drama studio.
Out in light. Under the red sun of dawn they people the paths and playground. Shadows move on the bark of a tree by B block: a common reason for meeting is found: syllables astonish the silent world. Animals gather to graze, come leisurely to water; birds suddenly scatter and re-assemble. Older people, their sun moved on to dullness, do not see the first sky. And from these birds, these animals, people come, their ordinary silliness tarnishing all light, cliché-stamping the asphalt, giggling, shrieking, bickering; the air is wooden and indigestible; the hour iron and insupportable; civilisation has shown its face. But in where every face is a bird flies, searching, its wings are eyebrows, it flies, flies journeying, for ever alone, a light and effortless skim. Racing, flying through air-shock, storm; bird of the head; bird-person, arched over eyes. Sleeping on the wing. Travelling, finding out, being. As in each body stumbles an animal, the grace of a first-day creature, one with itself, jostling a friend or rival, one of a herd. These are the people of the first day. Pieces of the sun we cannot see are everywhere, in bikes and bags, in steps and shouts, individual bits glancing in an impossible network. Let the bird fly, fly, the animal be, the person become; what concentration of sun is behind those eyes, a hovering bird, coasting, swooping, sailing; in the room, at the old desk, out in new light.
Scene:with the Walrus and the Carpenter.
Five identical straight-backed chairs stand at the edge of a sea. Walrus and Carpenter walk along shore, reach chairs, stop.
Walrus:(looks about him) This is the place. Now then. Why do we assess?
Carpenter:For diagnostic reasons primarily. (Pause.) Do you feel that, as teachers, we should better refer to ourselves as guides?
Walrus:I rather look upon myself as a neighbour. What are those chairs for?
Carpenter:Instep Inservice Inward Bound Indolence and Innisfree.
Carpenter:That’s where you retire to after the meetings. See, it’s on its own a little.
Walrus:And a little more sunk in the sand.
Carpenter:That’s the one. (Walrus and Carpenter exeunt)
Pause. Enter Roboword. A big R on his chest. (In all that follows, until its final use, Innisfree chair is avoided as if not seen.)
Roboword:(sits on first chair) A language policy should be based on an analysis of the language requirements across the curriculum AND an analysis of the languages brought to the school by the pupils.
Hmm. Not bad. Let’s try another.
(sits on another chair) The curriculum depends on communication. The inter-relationship between language and curriculum must be exploited by all teachers if they are to facilitate effective learning.
Now that is a lovely chair. Do you know what I’m doing? I’m testing the value of disconnected statements without a context. Heads of English do it at their meetings. An Inspector gives them little bits of paper with these statements on them and they have to grade them in order of importance. You should see them at it.
(sits on third chair) A language policy will be partly concerned with what kind of language we use to explore our subjects, what kind of reading material we offer and what kind of writing we expect from the pupils. We should not avoid using language, but we should ensure that for the pupil it is usable language.
I love that one. Can you see me avoiding using language? And that usable. Mmm. Ladies and Gents I am Roboword. (Flashes chest.) I have taken the Education Industry by the throat and choked it till it barely breathes. I am the computer virus that appears everywhere. I am the alien form in human shape, I colonise minds unaware, get into the works, transform intelligence to parroting. (Stretches) Listen – I sound so reasonable.
(sits on fourth chair) Every school should devise a systematic policy for the development of reading competence in pupils of all ages and ability levels.
(gets up, walks away a little. Looks out to sea. Walrus and Carpenter come on at one side)
Tape in first chair, Roboword voice: If we are committed to a multicultural, multiracial, multilingual society, we should be fostering an environment which enables bilingual children to continue making links and contacts across communities, rather than the one-way journey away from their parents. We should no longer deny our pupils from a two-language environment their right to bilingual development.
Carpenter:Love the guilt, love the guilt.
Walrus:I liked ‘one-way journey’.
Walrus:Think of who sits in them.
Tape in second chair, Roboword voice: Language is the medium through which we all learn and it is therefore a crucial consideration for all teachers.
Walrus:That’s got to be a winner.
Carpenter:What’s the prize?
Roboword comes forward. The stage darkens a little. He is lit at front stage; Walrus and Carpenter barely visible.
Roboword:flickering digits matching time that’s all it is the brain counting do you know how much I could talk about education have you any idea how much there is to be stuffed down the eyes noses and throats of teachers only their hearing is not blocked and the fine discrimination that separates one grain of sand from another and calls one two the other three whirring leaves of pages turning flicking through the picture of a man doing somersaults cartwheels the splits a zombie grin on his face
Tape from background, Roboword voice: In the secondary school, all subject teachers need to be aware of:
(i) the linguistic process by which their pupils acquire information and understanding, and the implications for the teacher’s own use of language
(ii) the reading demands of their subjects, and ways in which pupils can be helped to meet them.
Roboword:(continues) counting counting which turns to astronomy which turns to music which turns to a howling wind cavorting through the brain in the name of righteousness in the name of leukaemia they sit they lecture they perform they grade statements in irresistible moments of sand
Tape from background, Roboword voice: A school language policy saves time in that it makes learning more effective, and the use of print sources more rapid and more thorough
Roboword:(continues) moments of sand that succumb to the tide part of the art-form part of the amnesia who is on the chairs who is on the chairs
Tape from background, Roboword voice, fading out: Every school should have an organised policy for language . . .
Roboword:(continues) call one two the other three who is on the chairs what toxin in the air what excuse for life yammers tonelessly adding words like numbers waiting to be ticked right
Tape from background, Roboword voice, fading out: A monolingual education is totally inappropriate in contemporary multilingual Britain . . .
Blackout. Almost immediately light as at beginning of scene. Roboword is gone. Walrus and Carpenter are silently walking along, back and forth, past the empty chairs. Enter Tweedledee as a burly education document. He watches Walrus and Carpenter walk slowly along till they exit.
Tweedledee (softly):The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand.
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand.
‘If this were only cleared away,’
They said, ‘it would be grand!’
‘If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
That they could get it clear?’
“I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
Tweedledee: (addresses audience directly) I want you to consider the following statements and grade them in order of importance.
Tweedledee: (sits in first chair) There is no difference between anti-sexist education and good education.
Tweedledee: (sits in second chair) Our main priority should be to enhance the self-image of girls. This involves the development of pride in their own heritage, but shouldn’t denigrate the self-image of boys either.
Tweedledee: (sits in third chair) Society engineers as “natural” (he spreads hands) the way that boys are boys, and girls are girls. In school the best we can do is avoid reinforcing these stereotypes.
Tweedledee: (sits in fourth chair) English is the key area of the curriculum in terms of fighting sexism; we should be increasing pupils’ awareness of bias in the language, in the media, in the home – and using personal experience as the basis for exploration and change.
Tweedledee goes to Innisfree chair, rests his head on it, sits in it. Stretches his arms. Sighs.
Fade to blackout.
Round the Gallery
This is the Rude Kid: nothing for years
but knocking the system, giving as bad as he gets.
Small and shock-headed – like a natural cardsharp
he always wins: the Ace of Trumps: survival.
Now at 16 he is as dug-heeled as ever
and suddenly attractive to the girls.
Here in one boy-building
is rock and hurricane: a great amiable presence
that is AWOL for weeks; a dependable sort, of few words,
who may lash out when bored. Soon able to leave
he keeps one relic of his schooldays:
his own counsel.
Near him the Mutterer always in first gear,
always engaged in subcommentary with a neighbour;
unable to come to the front. What wound is he hiding?
Perhaps no more than an older, bolder sister;
perhaps a time that stamped on his quick smile.
Or perhaps he likes to be backward in coming forward.
This one is of a kingly gravity
to some, and to some of a right royal temper;
some note in him fine-sown acres,
others see barren land.
Both are true, all is true: his moods are his own,
the future his business.
Where many tack and steer tight lines
you see her drifting conspicuously,
bobbing up and down amid threats and reprimands;
yet she sails with skill and knowhow
to make her own map
over a far course that bamboozles many.
Time for refreshment: some Schoolfacts and figures to nibble.
Sip at our Aims and Objectives: such drinking and eating
will set you up, you’ll never notice the dribble
and trail of crumbs from mouths at every meeting.
Time for assessment: find a few figures to fiddle.
Rip out the heart of a student: such rushed and unthinking
lists of marks are set up, that hey diddle diddle
we fail the dumb scum and pass the sheer class without blinking.
Time for investment: some local figures won’t quibble
to chip in a few quid, give their name to some seating,
set up the firm’s name and purchase a knighthood. The riddle
is this: ‘What’s the lie that is stale and bears endless repeating?’
High as a kite she screams, dips,
crashes to Earth. And never stops moving:
the wind drags her by, then off, whirls up,
streams in the sun. And nothing says better
than her wild flying and dying, a rhyme,
a poem, the freedom to live.
Near her on an empty chair
her class-sister who could not cope;
ran out of foster-homes, ran out of school;
yet still she thrusts her colourful day among us.
Here and there we sense a squanderer
grow richer by the hour.
Two more have gone: a mind-swift changeable one
never quite known, the sense of her made up
of brooding sky and sunshine, still to be felt
half-here, though gone. And a war-torn girl
still wanders among the chairs and through the school,
who had no peace with us, under our rule.
Three names crossed off the register; but still
as I call out this fifth-year list, harangue,
take absence notes, I see them in the form-room.
And there’s a body I harangue too often:
forgetful, dilatory, unaware
of how to use school life, he does his share.
One next to him has one fist clenched
and one fist open: capable man-about-town
susceptible to childish imbroglio. Who
is this to be – a sensible sort or senseless –
blind or seeing – a generous man or Scrooge?
Which hand is which? All the wrong question. Wait.
Laid in over itself, the lie
that looks away, that turns and delves
too deep, and with a hooded eye
sees not the child’s self but the selves
that have been, may be, must be, if.
In every structure there’s a devil
that chucks the frame of things skew-whiff –
and worships each new line, new level.
Some set the record straight. They have the metal true,
gold undeniable. Here is one who is rich
in small contentedness. Quiet on her own she sits,
slowly the work is done. Her burden is as much
as all the louder folk’s; in making it look small,
she has learnt more than all.
Here’s one-and-a-half, too right, the baker’s dozen!
She is always on song; and yet uncertain
of where to be, of subjects for the sixth form,
which way to take as she moves past the child.
Who is the woman breaking from the shell?
(The spot-on child can’t tell.)
who dances where others walk; celebrates shyly
the lovely fact of being. Never a leader
yet able to lead she is led
perhaps, by the single note of a song:
there is more you can do, it will say, than not doing things wrong.
Steadily forward, in the blind war theatre of school
dealing with coursework shocks, the occasional anti-personnel missile,
he heads through night each day. His autopilot is surest:
and with the effort of conscious intervention
he can dodge or pick up speed. But why should he have to,
courteous and able as he is, why fight this work-war?
How can one person
carry a country within her? Folk-songs and bonfires,
processions and street-shows echo its name, its flag,
itself, And she is loud for its freedom
in silence. Meanwhile, quietly, she does what she must;
not quite fitting in at school.
Over and over
on the need merely to breathe, we slap a ban;
over and over and over
we force the pace up to lung-bursting – “do all you can” –
over and over and over and over
we sidestep the person, in the next woman and man
Where is your blazer
over and over
where is your white shirt, your school tie
over and over and over
where are your black shoes, change those ridiculous trainers
over and over and over and over
Whenever if ever
we find we can speak and be spoken to, children and teachers
whenever, if ever, it’s never
that each one is stranded in the unreason of many
whenever, if ever, it’s never for ever
that the lie of the land and the way of the world cancel people.
Who is the sanest? To my surprise,
the happy-go-lucky who have their own rules.
They keep their agenda ahead of the school’s;
emphatically, somehow, are not fools.
One is a typical spiv, clever eyes,
cheerful way. He tells himself few lies.
One is a madcap, a hare-brain –
who seems to ride a monocycle about
and never quite fall. Up, down,
crazily across – yet when he dismounts
the work’s all there, the report quite good.
Veering as he wants he does what he should.
Sauntering for years
at the edge of the rat-pack and now minded
to cut his own way he will do so alone:
ignoring the words of school and home he sets off
at a deceptive pace. And already
he is ahead of the pack – and flock, herd, school.
In his book of pop-up characters
the clown and the ruffian are seen – but that is only a book:
easy to misjudge he goofs off, idles –
and in some way is at one, reliable.
He is in charge: takes not a pinch of credit
for what he is not, would not do.
And the buoyant centre
is shared, to this loose-knit eddy,
this drift of sparks across the face of the form-room . . .
and often in him, who knows where friendship counts,
who attempts at times to worry about his French –
but leaves it, now that Arsenal’s top of the league.
There is a football league in education.
The children start by learning off the rules.
Rule One: What matters most is presentation.
Rule Two: In every classroom there are fools.
So much for them. Rule Three: It’s qualifications
That get you on in life. Rule Four: The school’s
A nation state with you its willing subject.
Now once these first four rules are taken on board,
The learning programme can be simply marvellous –
The net result is “Look at me! I’ve scored!”
There is a football league in education.
Now schools are punted up and down the list
With orders to force others’ relegation.
Get bigger gates: or soon you won’t exist.
Just keep the punters coming through the turnstile.
Remember: if the nation’s to do well,
We have to keep an eye on our competitors
In Europe and beyond. So learn to spell.
There is a football league in education –
And yet, in spite of it, such good work done,
Enthusiasms started, minds encouraged,
That from the mass the individual’s won.
And that’s the definition of a good school –
To know, in fact, what winning’s all about;
To state, between the lines, in its prospectus:
“The First Four Rules were lies. We’ve thrown them out.”
Children are who they are: flourish in a fact
undisguised. But some may adhere
for years, to a sense of difference. Set at an angle
perhaps – but holding fast and staying on,
is one a shade less on her own now, out of position,
more in a place to grow.
One’s an eccentric. Watch him
slam the guitar, this mild-mannered churchman;
pen a Spike Milligan tract. Nothing outlandish
could once be suspected. What will he be,
demonic entertainer – or parson – or both? Whoever,
he will not be surprised.
Another, too, of altar and guitar
confounds the common view: the two of them
in concert to amaze. But he
like a small dervish, whirls in blankness,
fighting the ghost of work, exams, being still . . .
he is not pegged down yet, in tune.
juddering from a collision
with instant womanhood. In work’s wave
(she copies up notes, reads about courses, asks questions – )
there’s little time left to see how to save or spend
the future; or how to settle.
with a quickness and ease among the desks, responsive
to friends, and nipping through pieces of work . . . she is gifted
with a bravura touch. Yet every day
is mired, not moving; or she drowns in quicksand,
school-used, fretting to leave.
What is the work of school?
Just to be there for a time,
to train but not overrule.
To be – not a glove-puppet’s hand
prancing and practising capers
the length and breadth of the land,
contriving the voice of the time
through a process of non-stop assessment –
ventriloquism sublime –
the purest product of school
a response, at all times, to the bell –
(exquisite Pavlovian drool . . . )
Not this, but the power to do well.
To arm against lies and harassment
(the drone of the TV and papers)
that an inward force may take shape,
and with word as its sharpest tool –
learn to be less of an ape.
This is the work of school.
Now near the making. Rocks, space,
eyes, fortune, time. And nowhere near
am I who scrawl the red diagonal tick
and bark at lateness. But the cosmic shock
is sensed at times. Meanwhile to the humdrum:
to register those there.
He is there, in place,
as though obedient to a hidden order
whose rule is Thou shalt not surprise. And yet
(suddenly in hot water – as swiftly out)
he seems less purposeful, perhaps, than weathered:
a rock-chip in the grass and sand.
whistling for a good wind, the auspicious stars,
an easy captain, knowing the jib of his ship
(a sure design, turned to the lightest steering,
whose sails will annexe the fortunate breeze) –
he takes the running slow.
Floundering in space
you would think, to see the details:
the different homes, lost fragments of family –
blank chaos. But using what there is,
with some skill he creates his own rich land;
Her eyes are the proof
of something greater than schoolwork: for she has rallied
from the lowest point of all. Alight with the news
of life beyond childhood, she sings on stage, takes photos,
is drawn to the time ahead. She – as each – is a symbol
of what we are all doing, creating from time.
“They think the fairies do it, buff the corridors, stripper the vinyl, wash the walls and window-sills. Who cleans the school when they’re on holiday? Up at four he is, unlocking, cleaners in at six. ‘Have a nice holiday’ they call to us at the end of term. That’s when we get the scrubbing-machines out, take the polish off, do the lab floors with a special pad. Re-polish and seal, wipe the tables and desks. They never see the Big Clean done.” A crackling bonfire shudders, wreathes, consumes. “I’m reading less now, I like it but there’s no time, I’m studying the cello, going back to dancing, I used to read as I walked home, now I talk with friends, everywhere I carried books, I’d read under cover in lessons, mostly it was trash, one was ‘Gone with the Wind’, I want to write the sequel for English Coursework, lately there’s been ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, I need the rest of that series, ‘The Collector’ by Fowles, ‘Ghost House Revenge’, diaries, personal statements, there’s been no time though, I’m seeing friends, I’m in a youth group, I don’t get round to reading really . . . ” Branches change colour, flower. “The most precious thing I can give them is attention. Some say they hate school or that teachers hate them. School is an uncompromising experience. You’re one of a number, you’re not yourself, with me they’re listened to. One or two make a haven of the Unit, return like spirits to haunt me. I have some lovely characters. One thought he was Elvis Presley. It was his only way to live as a success. He was furious one day, probably his act had been insulted. He started picking up a table, I asked him to punch the chairs instead, they were all foam rubber. Then he threw himself off a bookshelf. Some girls feel so out of it they’ll get themselves pregnant – the baby will love me more than anything else, you can see what they’re feeling. They don’t get pregnant when they’re coming to me. Boys tend to be opportunistic. The worst thing in the case of distress is when the wrong person intervenes. The present hierarchy understands that, if little else. Staff are supportive. I see the Unit as easing the path of children in school – if you like I’ve been somewhere a pivot in their lives. They’ve been steadied for a time.” Ablaze with leaf, its hardwood hidden, the all-weathering tree. “There’s a player in every first and second division team I like to follow, also Scottish Premier and clubs in Italy France Spain, partly because I’m a girl, I like their legs, and the way they run, like Ray Houghton Liverpool and Ireland, three steps to everyone else’s one, as for teams it’s Forest, for University it’s London and Jewish History, I thought of Arab Studies or Ancient History at Exeter, but partly it’s a matter of budgeting, I’ve taught myself Ancient History, went along the library shelf, I like so-called primitive and pre-civilised times, I’ve read about the Incas, the Romans, found out about Ireland, the happy bit before King Billy, I can’t understand why I’ve got no Irish in me, no Jewish either, I’ve had enough of Christianity for now, it’s so set on self and reward, my A-levels are Design Politics History some English, in Design I built a mousetrap, a dead loss, too complicated, would have baffled a mouse anyhow, I made some egg-cups, like prototypes for production, designed a book for the verses of a song-writer, I’m obsessed with popular music, music with words, it’s over-exposure to Radio 1, I’ve written a mini-thesis on the language of the popular song, an enquiry into Andy Warhol, several short stories set in the Korean War, the Holocaust, the First World War, that was when I was a little melancholy . . . ” Flame rips along the branches. “After three years I’m feeling quite good about teaching. It’s the rest of it that drives you barmy. Teachers are insular, there’s too much politicking going on. We’re not directing our anger at the real enemy, under-funding, pupil/teacher ratio. And there’s the National Curriculum. Look at the man-hours we put into it. And it leads to the dilution of skills that I hold dear. Design and Craft is coming to be about themes and topics, they’re arbitrary, unreal, there’s less hands-on experience. I came in at the start of GCSE and already what’s good in it is being sabotaged. And teachers are expected to join hands and work together across so many areas, even though it’s a profession of mavericks. I’m going to Africa for two years. At least they need Technology teachers there not theorists. I want to go anyway. I’ve been chairing the Green Working Party here – it’s a would-be rotating chair that stays still. Lots of instant enthusiasm, little real interest. Everybody wants somebody else to do it. As NUT rep I’ve seen the same thing. They’re not interested in incentives, discretionary pay, overtime allowances unless someone gives them a cheque. As for the wider situation, forget it. The school motto. Teachers are stretched and pulled in all directions. As for the kids, we’re confusing them senseless. My third-year class were marvellous today. My Upper School class really blossoms with one or two characters away. Second-years are a joy to teach. But with all of it I’m ground down.” Towering into the future, a young-oak alight. “I collect comics, I get about ten a week, I go to Forbidden Planet or Calamity Comics, I keep them in plastic covers with backing-board and lock them away in filing cabinets, I want to go to Canada, my uncle says the comic shops are big there, at school I act about a lot, I can’t help it if I’m bored, some teachers don’t help just nag, when I grow up I’m going to open a comic shop or be a chef.” A flame as quick as any. “I used to work for Wilkinson Sword. Razors and garden-tools. You can’t compare school life with the real world. I became School Secretary and took to it immediately. I love typing, the word-processor made it easier. You can’t let a computer begin to get the upper hand. We see a bit of everything here, everyone’s in and out. I like hobnobbing with the chairman of governors, arranging interviewing panels, references. Nothing important goes on here. We handle the money, field enquiries, do the post, the bits and pieces. I like keeping up-to-date, being in control. We get on with things here. School is sheltered, teachers would be lost outside, they’re children themselves. That’s why they interbreed so much. I like to see the school doing well, keeping up its place in the borough. No, nothing important happens in the office.” Purring into the sky, a late-summer tree. “Extensions and Hooke’s Law, things like that, functions, galvanometers, alkyl-halides, mood lighting in the art nouveau style, this week’s A-level work, it doesn’t leave you much time, I want to go on to Chartered Surveying, there’s a lot of money, you can travel, I want to go to America and Australia, the Far East, England’s not a place to enjoy yourself, when I came here three years ago from India I didn’t like it at all, there was too much pressure, the boys mocked the way I spoke, all of them, after a week they didn’t push me around, the teachers saw me from a different angle, a troublemaker, a bully, I don’t blame them, it was all from the way I spoke, towards the end of GCSE I was serious with my work, now there’s no trouble but I’ll never belong here, the facilities are good but the people are not so open, in India the basic attitude is different, I’ll go back there and all over, I’ll make my mind up later, for now I want to do my work, it’s relatively easy, I do it the day it’s set, I’m doing it for a reason, I don’t want to waste time.” Nothing can stop this burning, burning. What is the fire? Where does it come from? A forest of flowerbranch flame. As minutes, days, time itself dwindles, is eaten, floodfire roars. From the spark of person. “The girls should cover themselves up more, the sixth-form girls. Otherwise it’s a respectable school. A few boys are rude to me when I’m on the till, they come back, argue about the change. Or they try to hide sweets beneath the sandwiches. But I know the ones who do it. I make pizza topping, prepare the custard, take half the money, mop up when they’ve gone. Morning break and lunchtimes we see them through. It’s a proper school but some students don’t always listen to the teachers. And we need a third till.”
– The sun drew me on.
Unparalleled through leaves it grabbed me and clung.
Its taut rays struck symmetry
into the evening,
and as it shone I was neither old nor young.
A quarter-century on in a different city
I find myself on the same late-evening stroll.
I have passed through a household grown and whole,
been near a playground that is crackling-witty;
been here, been there,
been every-nowhere; and found nothing to say
that is quite true, for what is on the way.
But some old words I’ll share,
and with the Wife of Bath in that old rhyme,
say I have had the world as in my time.
Literature links up: often at classroom-desks
the room itself has vanished as young faces
have paused upon a poem – in their places
travelling far back – or so used word-risks
that from their pen
the magic’s done again. But at the first
I met in those same desks the best and worst.
Because what happened then
was all too often, deafness to instructions,
fighting and swearing and all kinds of ructions.
Literature keeps whole: like the late-evening sun
hanging so quick, so long, a strength and clearness
reaching to the last depths, withheld from none . . .
touching on all, from far, with a new nearness.
And though it fade
and my walk end, and the world turn to sand –
I’m simply part of the first steps I made.
Under the sun I stand
to write the present, read the past, stay book-wise –
and teach whoever turns up to do likewise.
Literature makes free: with the least able, a story
read and discussed, in some way further used
in acting, writing, art, then left, may prove
to add a sense of being, and help those bruised
by their own lacks.
And some are naturally attuned: syntax,
authorial style, nuance, dramatic twist
are somehow sensed – and they extend the list,
so fit an author’s groove
that now a great name speaks, is heard.
It may extend – till they catch, in a word,
a thousand years of English in its glory.
– Still I walk on.
Twenty-five years are gone
since that day in a northern town I found
the pent-up student had been left behind
and I was out
with nothing at all to do but follow the sun.
– Drifted south and took money
for minding child-filled rooms. And all my life since then
has been like wrestling with a drop of sun.
Hidden, blocked-out again and again
till I doubted the journey
it re-appeared in poems
– at times in job, each day in family –
though no more than a moment to do with me.
In the last minute before it sets
my adult life is spent: senses from far
a drop of sun, original fire
that now it dissipates
in fitful gleams.
A lorry shatters the streets, a juggernaut crumbles the kerb
piled to the blinding high with folders, marking.
Scatters the road-signs marked ‘DO NOT DISTURB’,
‘TEACHER AT HOME’, ‘NO WORKING
BETWEEN THE HOURS OF . . . ’ As it recedes
the tipped load suddenly is a garden: weeds
spade-mocking, mile-long; tangles of drab; a strangling
couch-grass at root: word-murdering, sentence-mangling.
Homeworks of waste and countless exercises
filling their time, my time, with words to order.
Yet here’s a rich plot, there’s a developing border . . .
a few surprises.
People in charge of their words. I love to see
the semicolon’s sweet judicious use;
the sentence known, the paragraph understood –
and covering ground but not quite breaking loose
the stride of meaning. And I love to see
the fool apostrophe
that hangs inane, playing the parts it should.
And as it flows
at a cantering charge that time and teachers steer,
the child’s penned word, its drift, I love to hear
in with the thud of hooves, the accurate song of prose.
– The sun floods down.
How is it that I now recall
an aimless walk, that aimed at all –
a short way through that town?
– Wandered without meaning
into the present. Night-years flap, voices babel
about my head. The scene shifts. A chorus stands intoning
a litany of wrong-turnings and drivel.
I the unbeliever. But that there is a moment
holding together – like an atom of luck
of being, or as if an undiscovered planet in orbit –
is part of the scene by accident, a sudden looking-back.
Up to the present: and I can forget
my own small teaching time, the twenty-five years
held in a few stray steps. When first I let
the natural future be, it now appears
a path was started on that leafy way.
It quickly led to schools; to my own home –
as if from when I went out late one day,
to let the past go and the future come.
Up to the present: and I can discard
the notional moment. Teachers all take on
the times of others. Corridors and school-yard
and the most ordered lesson, there’s not one
that is not jitter-packed with special days,
littered with private time zones. As the bell
and rule-book add their necessary glaze . . .
the differences must be allowed as well.
– And my own journey
stops in mid-step. As if from a dream
I come to, leave a scattered-memory
of insubstantial trackings, things that seem.
But one thing may be said: that in the stream
of travelling atoms, after the random-wild
nature of things is felt, a making comes,
a simple putting-together, for the child
and adult. And a hostel-world becomes
nearer a home, though occupied my many.
I cannot write like Keats, to fetch the stars
onto my world of words, until they sing
the spirit skyward. Herein little stirs –
unless it be his nightingale taking wing.
And yet I heard
that self-same bird
the other night, in the front-garden tree.
On the blind air a long surprise it sprang
of catches, trills . . . as undisguised it sang
its here-and-now. (As all do, who teach me.)