Icarus, Ghosts and Top Gear

‘I am a tosser hit me.’ As I peel the Post-it off Ryan’s back and add it to the pile I have already harvested from around the hall I reflect that my first school session is not going entirely according to plan.

My brief was simple: work with Key Stage 2 boys in eight different schools to tackle negative attitudes towards reading and writing, categorised these days under the oddly abstract title of ‘literacy’. Being a children’s author I was something of a school-visit veteran; this, however, was a very different kettle of hot water: Instead of a single hour or so, I would be spending two whole days with each group. And instead of simply pitching my books as amusingly as possible, I would be – gulp – teaching. Nevertheless, as a passionate Believer in Boys, I set out with stratospheric hopes: I would transform two hundred reluctant ten-year-olds into avid bookworms and unleash their latent creative potential on their appreciative teachers. I would achieve this, of course, with no teaching qualifications whatsoever and precious little expertise of any kind beyond the ability – some would say questionable – to write books for kids.

Now here I am in Fagin’s den with Ryan and fourteen other urchins, twelve of whom who have no more interest in ‘literacy’ than your average polecat. Their teacher has gone AWOL so I have found my own way to the hall and enlisted the boys’ help in setting out tables and chairs. I have also attempted to explain the project in a stimulating manner, something akin to reading Dostoevsky to a troupe of performing fleas and made more difficult by the hall’s role as the school’s very own Piccadilly Circus – the ganglion for an endless trickle of teachers, children and a free-range white rabbit.

‘Tell me what you’re reading at the moment,’ I ask, rather optimistically.

‘Nuffink. Don’t like reading. Books is boring,’ announces a boy called Thomas and there is a muttered chorus of agreement, like the stirring of backbenchers in the House of Commons.

‘What about writing stories?’ I persist.

Thomas, Leader of the Opposition, shakes his head firmly. ‘Nope, that’s boring, too.’

I take a deep breath and plunge into their first task: writing about Icarus, whose narrative of highs and lows I have selected from story-telling millennia because all boys can connect with a hero who ignores his dad and all boys love a tale that ends in death.

Correction: nearly all. These hard nuts refuse be diverted from their missions of mischief. There is a kerfuffle in the corner and Ryan emerges brandishing another Post-it. ‘Thomas stuck this on my back, Miss.’

I glance at the offending communication. It consists of two words in a random arrangement of upper and lower case letters: ‘hiT ME’. I look at Thomas (reprovingly I hope, although this is not an expression I have had much cause to practice in Real Life). ‘Thomas,’ I say, ‘you really shouldn’t have written this.’ Thomas is delighted by the attention and puffs himself up like a Bantam cockerel. ‘Hit is such a boring word,’ I continue with a sigh. ‘Who can think of a more interesting word that Thomas could have used? Bash? Great. Thump? Wonderful. ‘Smite? Fantastic. (There’s a Sunday School boy). Now, what about an adverb? Hard? Good. Vigorously? Brilliant. See, Thomas? Do try to do better next time.’

Thomas looks confused. A bell rings. ‘Break time, Miss,’ shouts a boy. There is a stampede to the door. I have no idea whether the bell really does signify break or whether the school is burning down. As the dust settles (and in the absence of smoke billowing in) I notice that Ryan is still here, labouring with his pencil.

‘How d’you spell “sun”, Miss?’

‘S-u-n. Aren’t you going out for break, Ryan?’

He shakes his head. ‘I don’t like break. How do you spell “was”, Miss?’

I try to tell him that for today it doesn’t matter how he spells it, but it clearly matters to Ryan. In fact it matters a lot and I spend the rest of break spelling out every single word he wants to write.

The others are back all too soon but the interlude has allowed me to rethink my tactics. From now on anyone who comes to me telling tales of treachery or torment gets short shrift. ‘I really don’t care,’ I shrug. ‘I’m not your teacher,’ and I turn back to Ryan and the other three boys who want to work. Then I spot one of the anarchists taking a breather and I try to engage him as well. It transpires that he is severely dyslexic and can neither read nor write.

‘Tell me what you want to say,’ I suggest, ‘and I’ll write it down.’

He dictates the whole story. ‘Icarus flew higher and higher,’ I write. ‘It was absolutely amazing. He could see the clouds below him and he could feel the wind on his face. He was free.’

 

The Literacy Co-ordinator at my next school wastes no time in voicing her reservations about the project before marching me to a classroom where a beady-eyed teacher is taking the register in the manner of a Siberian camp guard. By the time she has finished barking out names, any accidental cheerfulness in the room has been completely extinguished and I am left wondering how two women who so clearly dislike children could possibly have chosen careers in teaching. I am quite tempted to smite them both vigorously.

The children are then told how complicated the morning will be for everybody because Mrs Jenkins has come to do something or other with the boys.

Jenkinson, I correct.

The teachers cannot get out fast enough with their flock of girls. The boys and I are left alone. I ask if any of them know who I am or why I’m there. They all shake their heads. I tell them I write books and they look very surprised. They look at the books and decide to like them. We are off. At some stage during the morning a couple of classroom assistants wander in and sit down at the back for a quiet natter but otherwise we are left to ourselves. The boys are funny and boisterous and question absolutely everything. ‘When are you coming back?’ they demand at the end.

‘Next week.’

‘Yes!’ Arms are punched in the air. I am absurdly pleased. On the way out I bump into the Literacy Co-ordinator. ‘See you on Tuesday,’ I say.

‘Oh, are you coming again?’

I don’t know what she thinks she’s co-ordinating but it sure ain’t literacy.

 

Most of the schools I visit are in fairly deprived areas, with an average of 27% on free school meals. One entrance porch displays not the usual welcoming rainbow of artwork but posters of the local police community liaison officers. But story-writing is a great leveller, especially once you remove from the equation those aspects which depend most on ‘education’ in its broadest sense: spelling and punctuation of course, but also the need for a big framework of experience and knowledge, something children from poorer homes tend to lack. So we write about football, ghosts and Top Gear. Another glaring problem is the absence of parental support. As one teacher put it, ‘We do everything for the kids except put them to bed.’ When I ask her whether the children take reading books home, she replies, ‘We gave that up long ago. The books never came back.’

But this resignation is not shared by my next teacher. Mrs Ives is in charge of her school’s low-ability Year 5 class and anyone who doesn’t read for homework has to catch up during break. Her books always come back. When I arrive she is taking the register, but instead of simply saying ‘yes’ when their names are called, the children confirm their presence by saying why they are happy. Little Sean Davies says, ‘because Ceci Jenkinson is here,’ which makes me feel like the Queen. I give him a big smile. His idea catches on and I have to keep smiling all the way to Williams, which makes me feel even more like the Queen.

We do Icarus again and I tell them my Football Formula for writing stories. They need lots of assistance with their tasks and Mrs Ives is a fount of patience and encouragement. When I return for my second session a week later she has worked on my Football Formula to make it easier for groups like hers to grasp and I have a glimpse of a perfect world in which the children’s writers and children’s teachers team up to really make a difference.

 

I arrive at the most middle-class school on my list at school-run time and find the lane jammed with shiny black 4×4’s, like wet hippos in the Zambezi. But inside it’s just a school and the kids are just kids. These ones are lucky enough to have male teachers for Years 5 and 6. And yes – it can make a big difference. Men are – obviously – more instinctive in their understanding of boys’ needs and tend to be more tolerant of noise and physical activity. The Year 5 teacher is lanky and blond and dressed in combat trousers. He is very cool and the evidence suggests he has a gift for teaching as his class read and discuss with above-average skill. They seem to be doing fine without my input, and ambivalence needles me: nearby is a school where the NSPCC officer seems to know half the kids by name, a school which surely needs all the help it can get but which isn’t taking part in this project. No doubt the head had other priorities, but it illustrates how successful schools achieve excellence partly by utilising every opportunity that comes their way.

 

The evening before my second session in Fagin’s Den I receive an email from the head teacher telling me that the Post-it miscreants have been punished. My heart sinks: now they will be seething with resentment and even more anti-literacy than before. Worse still, they will be anti-me. But I have underestimated the head: seeking her out the next morning with the aim of defending the boys, I find she has handled the situation with great fairness and skill.

This time we are in a quiet classroom and the teacher is present. Thomas stands up and apologises on behalf of all the boys. I am given a stack of sorry-letters, plus a box of chocolate éclairs from a boy called James, bought with his own pocket money. Everyone is weighed down with repentance and humility: Fagin’s Den has turned into a Cistercian monastery. Luckily this session is to start with a Top Gear task and nobody dispels sackcloth and ashes faster than Jeremy Clarkson. We read about his trip to the North Pole and the boys write about thin ice, frost bite and getting caught with your pants down by polar bears. The teacher sits with Ryan and the dyslexic boy, helping with spelling and writing. The morning flies by and there is general disbelief when the lunch bell goes. The head pops in and gives me flowers. ‘We’ve been working really hard,’ Thomas tells her proudly. Ryan gives me a hug. ‘I like you,’ he says.

 

I have selected a winner from the stories sent in by the 4×4 school. In the best tradition of literature it is anonymous. ‘Whose is this?’ I ask on my next visit, waving it about. A skinny arm creeps upwards from a very small boy. The others tell me this is George. ‘Congratulations, George,’ I say. ‘You are the winner.’ George looks alarmed. ‘Normally I read out the winning story,’ I continue, ‘but I’m guessing you wouldn’t like me to do that.’ George shakes his head vehemently. I give him back his story and everyone claps while he frowns down at his lap. A little later I give him the book that is his prize and he whispers, ‘I was saving up all my money to buy this.’

At break time the teacher fills me in on George. ‘He’s had a very rough time,’ he tells me, ‘but now that his dad has finally got custody things should improve.’

I suggest that George was a good person to have won.

‘You couldn’t have picked anyone better if you’d tried.’

Sure enough, by the end of the session the small, tightly clenched George has unfurled just a little and I have learned not to make presumptions about my superfluity in ‘middle class’ schools.

 

At one school I suggest that the parents could come and join us at collecting-time.

‘Why would they want to do that?’ the teachers ask, baffled.

‘To see what their children have written,’ I explain, ‘and to talk about reading.’

It is made clear to me that these notions are so naïve as to hover on the fringes of lunacy and, pathetically, I give up. I am not equal to the gross indifference of such parents to their children’s achievements.

But I know a woman who is. Once again the redoubtable Mrs Ives has succeeded where others have quailed: She and her class have turned our project into a stage show and the parents and I are invited to the opening performance.

There are two prize-winners. Nial, who had never before written more than five lines all together, has produced a poignant ghost story about regret and forgiveness, and Harry has written beautifully about Icarus. Harry is a tall, strong boy with a wary look – a fledgling cuckoo in Mrs Ives’s nest of little sparrows. This afternoon he is unspeakably, heart-burstingly proud to be the winner and appoints himself my minder. I am not allowed to carry my bag or find myself a pen. Harry sits beside me while I write out certificates, spelling names for me, checking them against the list and fielding anyone who threatens to interrupt our important task.

The hall has been decorated and the children’s stories colourfully displayed. They have made star biscuits topped with red icing and blizzards of hundreds and thousands. Their hugely energetic show culminates in their very own version of Britain’s Got Talent: one contestant reads a Bad ghost story (I have been forewarned about this: ‘We all wrote it together, Miss – it’s bad on purpose’) and there is much buzzing from the judges, who are then invited by Ant (or perhaps Dec) to comment on its failings. This of course is a brilliant way of reinforcing what they have learned and I stand in awe of Mrs Ives’s cleverness. Then Nial reads his Good ghost story and receives a standing ovation.

The process is repeated for the Icarus stories. Harry steps forward with solemn pride and begins reading. ‘The last thing the boy felt before he plunged into the sea,’ he concludes, ‘was a tear-drop from his father flying above him.’

Mrs Ives and I struggle not to drop tears of our own. Afterwards I ask Harry to point out his mum. He tells me she isn’t there.

‘Perhaps she’s working,’ I say.

‘She doesn’t work.’

I glance at him but his face is carefully empty of expression. Later Mrs Ives tells me that Harry had wanted to take the 2-foot ruler home overnight, to make big red BGT crosses, but she couldn’t let him because of the likelihood that his older brother would have used it as a weapon.

 

I’m back in Fagin’s Den to give a prize for the best ghost story.

‘Perfect spelling, Ryan – well done,’ I say, handing over his sheet. Ryan is pleased. The winner is James – he of the chocolate eclairs – who has written a long and ingenious tale which to my delight includes the immortal line, ‘Bryan became a ghost when he was run over by an Eddie Stobart lorry called Peggy Marie.’

But uniquely today there is a second prize and it is for Thomas, erstwhile Leader of the Anti-reading-and-writing Brigade. His story takes up only half a page but, line for line, has made me happier than all the others put together. Ignoring his protests, I read out the following extract:

‘He tiptoed through the gluey spiders’ webs and the crackling dry leaves on the dusty floorboards, with the wind creeping through the cracks in the wall.’

Who says boys don’t do ‘literacy’?

(Names have been changed.)

 

 

 

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Let’s Hear It for the Teachers

In my eight years as a children’s author I have visited many primary schools: huge schools and tiny schools, schools with 50% free school meals and the school Prince William and Prince Harry went to. I’ve been to a state school where the NSPCC safeguarding officer knows many of the children by name and a private school where the gates at collecting time are crowded with chauffeurs and nannies. I’ve visited schools where everything seems stacked against achievement and schools where opportunity is laid out on a plate.

One thing unites all these schools: the dedication and energy of the teachers. I meet remarkable teachers all the time and they put me, with my comfortable, peaceful working life, to shame.

I absolutely love going into schools because I know I’m going to be just as entertained by a classroom full of 9-year-olds as they are by my tales of zombie witch-doctors and farting key-rings. But I’m only in there for a couple of hours – I’m like the naughty granny who whisks the kids out for a birthday treat, spoils them rotten with toys and sweets and then returns them to their poor mother who has to deal with the consequent nuclear fall-out. The teacher is the one who has to perform the thankless task of explaining why they can’t learn about zombie witch-doctors and farting key-rings every day. She’s the one who has to teach them how to wipe their noses and their bottoms, to write the date in the top left corner, to subtract fractions, to stay safe and be nice… and she has to do it day in, day out, whether she’s in the mood or not.

There aren’t many things I take very seriously in life but one of them is my role as a parent. Our sons are older now, so I’ve let the mask slip a bit – teenagers see straight through parental artifice in any case and it does them no favours to pretend that the world and everyone in it is perfect. But when they were small I desperately wanted everything to be reassuringly fair and comprehensible, aware that all that I did was being watched by little eyes and all that I said was being absorbed by infinitely impressionable minds.

How much greater is that responsibility when it isn’t your own children for whom you’re trying to do your best but other people’s – and there are thirty of them? When you have to spend all day trying to be cheerful and consistent and practically perfect? Even Mary Poppins could only manage it with the aid of something mysterious whose side-effect was to make her fly. For the rest of us it requires an enormous effort and the teachers who maintain that effort and make it seem so effortless are utterly amazing and should be hugely admired and appreciated.