I hated school.
Actually, that’s not true; it’s probably fairer to say that I grew to hate school. In actual fact, there was a good portion of my childhood I built around it. I had once been a good student: reliable, well-behaved, and diligent – aspirational, even. I played an instrument in the school ensembles. I entered into class writing competitions. I helped out at school events. I was a sure bet whenever we were one body short of a team for rounders. I’d have sooner rocked up to registration bollock naked than speak when the teacher was talking. I actually looked forward to Parents’ Evenings.
I was a fucking square. I was happy.
I developed into an anxious kid – sad too, inexplicably, like a lot of teenagers. Swiftly, and without warning, school and I broke up, and I dreaded the days when we would cross paths. I would wake each weekday morning, feeling the remnants of a shotgun blast of anxiety percolate their way out of my chest, drag myself to the mirror in the bathroom, and just stare, letting a new day’s worth of impending fear wash over me afresh. I cleaned my teeth with worry, and dressed myself in the unspoken but universal language of the teenaged: awkwardness.
The school building itself soon felt hollow and uninviting. I hated the hours of unstructured sixth form study time which I’d so looked forward to. I lost friends to new groupings, my teachers were strangers, and I had no place in this foreign world I’d so willingly thrived in as a little kid. My attendance fell like the Berlin fucking Wall. A day when I’d turn up for registration was a good one. Most days, I’d high tail it to the bus stop by the local shops, smoke the few tabs could get my hands on, and (inevitably) make my way to the library, in town. The library was safe. Neutral. It hadn’t changed its decor in ever. The sweet, airless smell of old books was a comfort, reassuring me that the flow of patrons would be so paltry, there was no chance I’d be sought out or recognised.
What had made a bad situation worse was the fact that my teachers didn’t understand why I couldn’t be in their lessons. Their being too deliriously busy to find out, in combination with the fact that I was screamingly uncomfortable in my own skin (and couldn’t have explained it if my life had depended on it), made a line of honest communication impossible. I would make up excuses, lie, evade, avoid, retreat, and they were left out of my little one-person loop, baffled as to why I was fucking up their class data. On the odd occasion I would attend, a few even took pleasure in humiliating me, taking the piss out of my infrequent appearance within the classroom. So, that sealed the deal: I bunked more and more, hiding in the cleft in the rock that was the library.
This did me no favours with the school, but it let me fall in love with books. I’d always liked to read, and be read to, but this was a fucking love affair: the great love of my life.
I pored over hundreds of thousands of pages, with no rhyme or reason as to my selection; a baby, dreamily pulling groceries off the shelves with fat hands, from the safety of the child’s seat. Unchallenged – my solitude intact – I pulled spines like loose eyelashes from the shelves, and uncorked language at random, imbibing the contents and saving the best words by writing them down on a piece of paper.
There were days I’d forget entirely where I was meant to be. The more time I spent nestled in the silent bowels of the library, the less worrisome my issues at school became. I had learned that there was an escape – a place where I could gorge myself on an endless banquet of vocabulary – and suddenly school became so small. Funny, almost. It was as though I’d spent the last few years of my life studying a photograph of the world, before it had ever occurred to me to look up or around, at the real deal. And now, here I was, looking at it all, the photograph fallen from my hands.
More than 10 years later, I look back with immense gratitude, and a sense of being beholden to the nourishing world of literature. Having gone on to read at university, and to explore the absolute magnificence of the Ruskin library (not unlike that one scene from Beauty and the Beast, but without the charming peasant dress and lurking captor), I further cemented my love affair.
I can’t tell you exactly how I fell into teaching – and fell is the correct word, here. I sometimes wonder if it was some sort of innate desire to return and correct the way I’d left things, but I know the truth is far more mundane. I do appreciate the irony of my career choice and, like most of the working world, I bitch about the pitfalls of my job. Many will be familiar with my acerbic social media stories depicting a messy classroom, or indeed myself, woefully poring over a stack of scripts, or raising a critical eyebrow over some daft question I’ve been smirking all day about. Then there’s the puerility; the horizon-less choke hold that 150 exercise books, and a 2-week turnaround presents; the stanchless influx of inbox triteness; the long days planning and the short nights worrying. I am quick to dive in when I hear the all-too-familiar quips about the – frankly mythical – 3pm finish. My eyes roll to the back of my skull when I’m asked the accusatory question about whether I do any work in allllllll my holidays. I am too familiar with the coffee-breathed grumble of the high school teacher. It is a boundless plod; both a trudge and a sprint.
But I also know that to be part of the life of a child is fucking magical. To show them how to fall in love with learning is something else entirely. There is nothing like it. Nothing. If you think there is, you’re wrong.
That is not to say that children – particularly teenagers – sit and sponge up my every word, receptive, open-eyed and obedient, looking like Children of the Corn. I don’t flatter myself. We endure war to get kids to read, to allow themselves to be privy to their own imaginations, to engage with the sheer wizardry of language, and the sublime and often baffling nature of the written word. I know that we are met with indifference, and yet we continue with this war – and we are losing.
Our opponents include the explosively colourful, highly stimulating nature of children’s TV and video games. There now exists, in boardrooms all across the Western world, a seemingly incessant need for all kids’ entertainment to be hysterical, and to deliver mindless la-la at an arrestingly urgent pace. Today, everything is immediately accessible. Children are screamed at by gurning cartooned faces – impatience is hammered into their soft brains, left, right and centre. They’ve no need for imagination because they are battered by the surreal. Nothing is subtle. There is no real opportunity for a lingering love affair with literature, because everything is served up for them on the first date. Amongst the midden, hidden in the chaos, we stand holding books, our voices pale whispers amidst the cacophony.
I don’t really know the point I’m making, or who, or what, I’m angry with. All I know is this: at the start of the year, I made the decision to read a novel to the students in my form group. At my suggestion, the faces in the class expressed distaste at what they could only view as time wasting fuckery. Can’t we watch Failblog? Can’t we go on our phones? I was unmoved. I read. I read loud, at first, throwing my voice up above the chorus of disapproval. I forced the words out, and I did all the voices, gripping the two halves of the book like a steering wheel, bracing myself against the sway…
… But now, I read quietly. Every Wednesday, my students file in and sit in silence. Where once, the mere act of pulling the book from the top drawer of my desk would elicit lethargic groans, it now commands a silence. A sense of calm. A patience.
This week, our protagonist overcame an obstacle, and a friend, whom we had assumed was done for, was revealed to be alive and well. Finishing the chapter, I looked up, and saw them smiling. One student asked me if we would be reading another book next year.
We won’t win the war. The battle, however, is still worth fighting.