When I was a six year old child, I brought my writing to my teacher. She had ordered us to write about something we knew. So I wrote about a Sunday visit to my grandparents. I hadn’t enjoyed the visit but since I loved my mum and dad, I wrote with respect.
What I wrote made sense to me, because I was cross about having to go. I wrote, ‘I hat to go to my grandmother’s for tea.’ Can you see the error? Of course you can!
But my teacher, gripped in a smoke of post fifties fear and almost certainly, some awful personal tragedy, saw only the error.
When I couldn’t correct it, she hit me. And hit me again until my eyes overflowed with tears. But that wasn’t enough. More punishment happened because I hadn’t learned.
Cut to a year later. It’s a new school. I’m sitting on a hill covered in summer grass. Miss Skilbeck gathered us around her. She reads from Carbonel,The King of Cats. We saw the sleek, gracefully angry feline slide from rooftop to rooftop, seeking mischief and safety, just as we did.
Miss Skilbeck had chosen the right text, the right place and the right gateway: her beautiful voice, her passion, her risk of being outside in the summer, her refusal to give us shame in exchange for our effort.
We listened, imagined, talked and then wrote without fear, without dread.
We wrote with light and courage. We did not care if we got our spelling or grammar wrong. That would come later.
For now, we captured the golden light of the day.
We luxuriated in that light. We relished not being separated into the clever and the not clever. We cherished the teaching. We learned.
Cut back. It’s an assembly in my second primary school. The headteacher finishes hymns and prayers, none of which I can remember.
But I remember being told: ‘Mr Jones’ class stand up. Turn right and follow your teacher.’
We didn’t know we were the remedial class.
We knew we were leaving the school, walking past the sweet shop, turning left and walking up the hill to the corrugated iron hut known as the Temperance Hall.
We were those who struggled with school and so we learned to deepen our fear of words and number.
The teacher was lovely. He was kind and hugged us but couldn’t see the school’s bullying because who could? He did his gentle best.
Sadly, our greatest comfort was the caged water boiler in the corner that gave out its heat despite our failings.
Cut forward. 1969. We are in a classroom of strict and loving teachers.
In year 5 and year 6; our teachers knew that we needed liberation and borders; sanctuary and freedom.
They kept this balance in vulnerable symmetry.
We knew what we couldn’t do. More importantly, we had some idea of our potential.
Every day we entered the country of the unknown and we were allowed to explore. We wrote without dread; we read without fear. Light shone through the teaching. Smiles, and boundaries defined our experience; pleasure and possibility defined our experience.
We read books that allowed us to imagine we were wizards, magic lions, unending wardrobes, cats with claws that could reach the stars.
Flourishing, we made connections with our friends. We talked about school in our homes. Hoping for the future, we embraced words as friends, not as enemies. We became children with possibilities.
By changing schools, I became a child without frontiers in an unknown land.
Our language teaching gives our children the passport and uncharted map to this land.
So let our children explore, discover and invent. Let them write, read, listen and speak with wonder, anger and justice.