Aurora getting down to study.
Photo Credit: Snigdha Zaman/IKON Photo
This is an article about writing an article, not unlike this one. It begins one quiet evening with a phone call from my best friend, needing some help with English. Rather bizarrely, she wants to check the meaning of the following words: stagnant, ponderous, contemptuous, tumultuous. I naturally want to know more about the the context in order to help. But it turns out there is no context: these are just words in a list that has to be learnt by heart by the following morning. Not by my friend, but by her niece. Who is ten years old.
Now I spent many years as an English teacher, and I also spent one year as a ten-year old, and somewhere in the echoing corridors and classrooms of my mind an alarm bell rings. I'm not at all sure that learning words from lists is an effective strategy, and more to the point I'm pretty sure that a ten-year old doesn't need to memorise words like 'tumultuous' in the first place.
But where the teacher in me shakes his head in despair, the writer in me pricks up his ears: it's getting to the end of the week and I still haven't got anything to write about. I sense a story here and begin to sharpen my nib. (Forgive the quaint metaphor but you can't really sharpen a keyboard). Here perhaps is a chance to vent my feelings about my own schooldays, the ponderous curriculum foisted on us innocent children, the tumultuous indiscipline, the stagnant lessons, and the contemptuous attitude of many of my teachers.
Before I know it I've embarked on one of those cinematic flashbacks (wavy screen, harp music) to my days in junior school. I'm remembering Mr Clement, the alcoholic headmaster with slicked back hair and a thin, mean moustache, who, in an early example of enlightened gender policy, took equal delight in administering corporal punishment to both boys and girls. There was Mr Richards, about four foot tall, cruelly nick-named “Dicky Five-Inch”, whose ability to discipline us was hampered by the fact he could barely see over the desk at which he sat. No such problems for Mr Jenkins, the overweight, red-faced sadist whose only joy in teaching was his use of the cane, lovingly named “Sebastian”. Once, aged nine and a half, I lost an important document given to us by the school for our parents' signature. I was so worried that I actually wrote a note from my father to Mr Jenkins, on some letter paper I found in the family study. For some obscure reason my teacher was unimpressed by my childishly looping handwriting, and the fact that the note addressed him as “Dear Mr Jenkins” (even though he was on first name terms with my Dad), and for that grave misdemeanour my outstretched hands made very good friends six times with Sebastian, in front of the whole class.
Fast forward 35 years, and now, rubbing those same hands with glee, I've got an opportunity for vengeance at long last. The pen is mightier than the cane. And so it is I ask my friend if I can interview her niece, whom I naturally assume will be a modern-day echo of all my own buried grievances.
But embedded in this is also a cautionary tale for writers: never draft your story before you've done your research, Because when I meet Aurora Sami, an extremely bright, articulate and happy student, she confounds my every expectation. Here is a girl who enjoys school, who has only positive things to say about most of her teachers, and who is clearly benefitting from a fairly enlightened and enlightening education. We sit for an hour in her home, next to her neatly organised bookshelves and desk, and she tells me nothing in her fluent English but enthusiastic anecdotes about how wonderful her main class teacher is, how she especially loves project work in groups, and how she delights in the library and the open playing fields at her school. And even when I look at her books, including the one featuring the rather grown-up items of vocabulary I'd heard on the phone, it turns out that in fact they're pretty decently-written, nicely illustrated and reasonably interesting.
At this point of course the teacher in me begins to a smile, but the writer in me starts to groan. Come on Aurora, work with me here, you're too perfect! Even when I grill my young subject about sad, mad or bad things that happen in the class, it turns out nothing seems to go wrong. What, no indiscipline? No incompetent teachers?
After much reflection Aurora manages to recall a boy who had obvious psychological problems and got suspended. And then one male teacher who appears to endlessly repeat the words “Why aren't you listening to me?” Poor chap, my heart goes out to him, as it seems to me, based on hundreds of classroom observations, that Bangladeshi school children are just about the most disciplined on the planet, and if you're having problems in that department here, maybe you're better off pursuing an alternative career as a bank clerk or a car salesman. He's lucky he wasn't a teacher in my lower-secondary school, where we proved quite a handful for those who couldn't control us. Ask Mr Hubert, who we taunted endlessly on account of his whiny nasal voice, or the trembling Ms Clement, whom we once locked in a cupboard, though only for about 20 minutes.
Thinking of these hapless figures, a sudden memory from those days assails me. OK, so I was running in the corridor, school bag flailing behind me, and sure, we weren't supposed to run. But was that really an excuse for what followed? I was thirteen, for God's sake. I recall the sharp shout calling my name, and in the doorway the grim face of John Ellis suspended like a hatchet in mid-fall. Eyes of pitch. The set to his jaw of a man who senses, not without a degree of pleasure, that he is about to embark on violence.
He called me into his class, in front of the rows of cowed first-formers. Out of the window, the winter fields leading down to the disused steelworks, and the grey restless seas of Wales. Inside the room, my heart crashing like a cymbal. Before I could utter a word, he brought his hand down flat onto the crown of my head with such force that tears simply sprang out. Brushing them awkwardly away, I forced my features into a lopsided, unconvincing semblance of normality for the benefit of the class, and sloped out, my cheeks bright with shame. Merely another day for him, he turned back to his class and continued his relentless instruction, dismissing me instantly from his mind.
Decades later I met him one April morning in the town centre. Grey hair around his temples now. A slightly softer face perhaps, but the same hard mouth. By then he had long forgotten our little disagreement and greeted me heartily, seeing in me only the boy who eventually went on to academic success.
But I hadn't forgotten: we remember our teachers' actions long after we have erased their words.
My only regret now is that I didn't tell him that Spring day what I truly thought: John Ellis, you were such a contemptible bully, but it's the fight against actions like yours, in all their brutalism, cynicism and injustice, which has motivated my whole life in education. So thanks, Sir, and here's to you.
At this point my mind snaps back out of this reverie to my article-writing dilemma, which has progressed no further. Can't summon up 1500 words on a charming, happy kid. So what are my options? I could perhaps reflect on how representative Aurora is of her peer group, or I might, at a push, write about the risks inherent in such an English-medium education, for example the sense of cultural deracination that takes place, with many children speaking English better than their own mother tongue, and knowing more about Shakespeare than Tagore (though happily not in Aurora's case). Alternatively, I could work on a comparison between her fee-paying school and the vast majority of schools up and down the country, then get on a soapbox and ask whether it's right that the kind of education she is enjoying comes only at a cost.
But you know what? It's Friday morning as I write this and between the effects of the the humidity and the third bout of load-shedding this morning it all seems a bit much. So perhaps I'll just sit back, enjoy having met this delightful girl, and write instead about writing articles.
Now where to begin...?
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