The important thing about comets is that they chase away the futility of anxiety. My own dark clouds had spent a week over me but had been blown away when I returned to teach the very Year 9 group that precipitated their arrival. I planned a fuck-it lesson which involved reading. There are certain stories that students should read, some people call this cultural capital but they are mostly referring to the classics of the nineteenth century. The late, great marget fatcherwould have summoned to mind the wirings of Austen, Dickens and the Brontes. Fatcher, as one kid spelt her, was of the old school that worshiped at the font of writers who lived and died in that golden age of British culture. My canon is more for the everyman and it includes a wonderful story by Penelope Lively called The Darkness Out There. There was a certain irony that struck me with my choice.
The darkness was out there and it was part of you and you would never be without it, ever.
In short, my lesson plan was this: hand out short story, ask for readers, get none, so read it yourself; as best as I could, bearing in mind the potential hostility of the audience. So, I began to read and they began to listen. Oh, miracle of miracles.
There is something rather magical about reading. I still recall listening to my English teacher read Watership Down whilst at high school. He was originally a PE teacher who had developed a somewhat successful sideline as a thespian; he was the circus master in a film called Stardust. And he was a very good actor indeed. When he read, he brought a story to life. The characters became real, as real as the kids sitting next to you. Kehaar flew amongst us with his harsh Teutonic tone and it was all we could do not to duck when he entered the story. Watership Down is a pretty lengthy book, but we read it all, or rather our English teacher read it for us. Nobody talked or fiddled during these lessons, the act of listening had become an art form, and the world of the rabbits had become ours.
When I became a teacher, it was Mr Thackeray to whom I turned. I measured my rendition of novels and short stories next to his. I know that I can never be as good as he was. Nevertheless, I have always given reading a special place in teaching and lament a curriculum that crowds it out in favour of tuneless sound bites. In an age when concentration levels are falling amongst the young and old alike, when libraries (both school and public) are wastelands devoted to as many activities that are as far removed from the enjoyment of the written word as is possible, surely classrooms ought to be a reservoir of reading. The last fifteen years of teaching English has seen the subject drop down the favourites’ list of staff and students alike. Novels have become novellas, quick reads that are more than often done as film to save time. The key characters and events are studied and revised for the sole purpose of passing an examination. There is no more opening of astounded eyes, flickering of emergent understanding and empathy, or life changing lines. The reason why we read is not to help to form better human beings but to get better examination passes that fuel the judgements that we have about schools, teachers and the education system itself. Why bother loving literature when all you need to do is pass it?