Last weekend, the school librarian with whom I collaborate on my residency drove us both to Harrogate to the School Library Association 2017 conference to celebrate and share ideas for how librarians, writers and associated individuals can best spread the love of reading that I’m still convinced will save the world.
It was a long day. It was also a beautiful day. There is something to be said for being in a room full of individuals who are as passionate and adamant about the written word as you are. We had a truly wonderful time and we did gather a whole load of new strategies and ideas for how to best embed reading—particularly reading of poetry—into the ethos of the school. The difficulty I have is that, although we learned a lot in terms of new strategies, in terms of our own conceptual understanding, all we really received was a lot of affirmation that out instincts were correct.
“What’s wrong with that?” I hear you cry, sipping your tea and nodding along (I hope) to the notion that reading helps us to develop the capacity for compassion, empathy, widens our social and cultural knowledge, helps us to dream and generally builds our understanding of the world. Truth be told, there was nothing wrong with it. We were very happy to have our notion of the superhero world-saving properties of reading reaffirmed. The difficulty was, and I heard it said by so many writers and librarians, if only we could convince the members of staff at whom we have been preaching this way of thinking since time immemorial?
Now, teachers, I am one of you. English teachers in particular, I feel your pain: you have maybe five or six classes, all of whom you teach every day, your marking load is so insane that you sleep-mark just to keep on top of it, all your students are supposed to know how to identify metaphors, personification, assonance, hyperbole, sibilance, simile, internal rhyme etc but none of them have woken up enough to have an opinion about a piece of work and you’re dreading the poetry unit because you know full well that the kids only have to hear the word ‘poetry’ and there will be mass, self-inflicted insertion of compasses into their eyes in an attempt to escape the lesson. I get it. There is not enough time in the day, the curriculum is ridiculous and many of you already do your best to creatively bypass this curriculum because you are trying to teach a subject you love, not just one that is functional. Enthusiasm may well have left you about twenty years ago, it’s entirely possible that all you want to do now is lay down under your desk and cry. I have done it many times. A good cry is important for the soul.
But when you’ve finished crying, I have a plea. This is a plea from a poet who hated school but loves to learn, a poet who returned to the same school where she was mercilessly bullied and desperately lonely to give safety to those who remind her of herself, from a poet who has built her whole practice around the quiet revolution; a revolution that starts with the first word of the first line on the first page of the first book your students ever pick up and a revolution routed in the poetic.
Here it is. For a day, an hour, the first ten minutes of a lesson, don’t be a teacher; be an activist. Give your students poems, and do something really awesome: don’t ask them to find the metaphors. Give them something that will make them angry, make them furious (teenagers love to be angry!) and ask them how they feel. Give them something controversial, make them justify their position, make them debate each other, then make them write their own poems in answer. Get them to be creative. Get them to read and get them to write. Share Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ with them and teach them about the history of hysteria. Share anything in Jamaal May’s ‘Hum’ with them and talk to them about the alienation of their own generation. Read them Aldous Huxley, read them Toni Morrison, give them ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’, complete with all its bad language, and teach them about the mass genocide of the First Nations Peoples. Reading, and particularly poetry, is a lesson in compassion.
Now, I know you are measured by the number of sub-levels your students gain in a term, and not by their empathetic approach to each other. I know you are judged by how quietly your classes learn, and not how passionately they feel when they read. I know you are measured by how much writing your students put down in their books and not by the quality of their couplets.
From a poet.
For that day, that hour, that ten minutes that you are an activist, these are not just your students. They are young worlds, volcanic, explosive, still forming, their elements still sizzling in the heat of themselves. With no impact, they will burn into rock. They will pass through school, fall into orbit and be lost. But give them a book…no, give them more than that, give them the concept of story in whatever form in may appear, and you have established a catalyst. That’s all it takes—a solitary lightbulb in utter darkness, the first word spoken into silence.
I know you’re tired. I know you have a hundred and eighty books to mark by 4pm tomorrow evening. Please believe me and try to swallow your panic when I ask you to trust me that this is more important.