Tag Archives: inspiration

Inspiration

Let me admit here my bias from the outset.

I love books.

Not altogether surprising in an English teacher. Or in light of previous blog content. Or in light of the name of my blogs!

But I do.

The Hobbit by Tolkien was the first book that gripped me. And writing in general has never let me free of its grips. Books kept me sane through the long interminable holidays I was forced to go on with my parents – canal boating – cramped up in a 65 foot space with brother, parents, occasional other family members with no space to escape except into the books I had brought with me. Books gave me an escape from worries about money. Books have taught me and nourished me and protected me.

As a teacher, the biggest horror I face is that population (sadly ever growing) of kids who can read but who choose not to. For whom reading is just “too much effort,” “too long,” too hard, “too boring”. There are no graphics! It takes perhaps weeks for them reach a moment of high tension in a book whereas their Calls of Duty and Modern Warfares can give them the same thrill every seven minutes in handy fun-sized pieces.

So it was that I surveyed my Year 9 group. A bottom set. I surveyed them all with a sinking feeling: I knew these kids; I had taught some of them in one capacity or another for both their previous years in the school. I quickly surveyed them at the start of the year anyway:

How many had books at home? 3

How many had ever read a book for pleasure? 2

How many had never read a book at all out of class or parents making them read? 18

How many had never read a book from beginning to end at all, even in school? 1 – who I hasten to add had not been in our school for a year having entered half way through Year 8.

And so it was that we embarked on reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I won’t regurgitate my previous praise for this book which can be found here but I found it fabulous! I have sung its praises at school and among friends and family for months! I even bought in a class set of them for reading at school. And it was these which were distributed amongst a very definite class of mostly male non-readers.

Many of the fears and threats that books pose to non-readers were absent from the book. Written from the point of view of a teenage boy, its language is mostly simple, almost monosyllabic and robustly Anglo-Saxon; it is puntuated by the most wonderful and muscular illustrations by Jim Kay such as these

And it alternates between three worlds: the familiar world of school where Conor negotiates bullies and teachers with varying degrees of success; the emotionally traumatic and horrifying world of home where Conor’s mother is struggling in her fight against cancer; and a mythic world in which a monster, some ancient personification of all that is wild and untamed appears.

We finished the book this week. As all teachers do, we alternated between reading and working on it but this week we got to the climax: Conor was finally forced to tell the truth of his own nightmare and the mother’s battle with cancer comes to a head.

I read these final pages to the class.

They were silent.

Absolutely transfixed by it.

At least two students were openly (although very discretely) crying.

The emotion that a lot of them felt was not covered up with showing off or playing up as might have been expected.

They sat. They listened. They felt.

And they started yesterday to ask about books. One of them had brought in a book from home to show me. His first one ever. Another asked me to recommend him a book similar to A Monster Calls – plumbing the Carnegie Medal 2012 I went with Annabel Pitcher‘s My Sister Lives On the Mantlepiece.

For the first time in most of their lives, they felt that they could read; that they were able to get books; that books were good.

It really is moments like this that remind us what it is like to be a teacher.

So, to Patrick Ness, I salute and thank you for this wonderful inspirational gift of a book.

And now I turn to the pile of National Curriculum levelling, reporting, planning I have to do and sigh…..

 

 

Maurice Sendak RIP

20120508-145902.jpg

It is with genuine sadness that I learn of Maurice Sendak’s death today. This man will have the status of icon, myth, legend and inspiration for all time.

I feel it wouldn’t be right, as a reader, not to mark his life in some way. He was the one man whose story, Where The Wild Things Are has stayed with me throughout my life. I remember my mother reading it to me; it was the first book I ever read alone; I remember having to draw the Wild Things in an art lesson at school when I was 10; it was the first book I bought to read to my adopted son and daughter; it was subsequently eaten by my son but quickly replaced; I have taught it in A level English classes and at GCSE.

I do not know enough about Sendak to write an obituary and there will be countless. The first (perhaps) is here

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/09/books/maurice-sendak-childrens-author-dies-at-83.html

What I can do is explore what Sendak means to me and what he woke in me.

He taught me that language is alive and resonant and beautiful and playful and true. His line that Max “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year” is still one of my favourite lines in all writing! The way the sentence moves from the literal to to symbolic; the interplay of movement through time and space – “in and out of weeks” – is controlled, simple, elegant and just sublime. It is language at its best and reminds us that beauty, depth, poignancy and truth are not limited to long, pretentious, showy language.

Another thing he was the first to teach me was that the creatures and shapes that peopled the inside of my head – and I assume others’ – were valid and real and true in a way that transcended the mundane truths of our banal world. They were parts of me. Contradictory, antagonistic, childish, irritating, unruly, scary and – in it’s richest sense – wild but all parts of me.

He taught me that no one can limit or control human and my own imagination. The limitlessness of the Max sent to his room in which

That very night … a forest grew and grew- and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by

. Yes I know it’s “just” a kids’ book but Max in his room is Mandela on Robbins Island, is every wage slave, is every oppressed individual or group or race. Mandela in fact said, of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that it was the book that caused the “prison walls fall down”. Sound familiar? And the vastness of our human imagination: unbounded even by the ocean.

Yet despite his unbounded oceanic imagination, Max returns home to “be where someone loved him best of all” and through this I learnt that we cannot exist in our imagination alone. And as a parent, trying to discipline an unruly (book eating) wild thing of my own, I learnt that discipline does not stop the child loving and feeling loved “best of all” however much he may be screaming that he hates me!

Through Sendak, I learnt that love can be so possessive it becomes destructive. When he leaves, the Wild Things howl “Oh please don’t go- we’ll eat you up- we love you so!”. Watching Jeremy Kyle or recalling the disputes I got involved in as a barrister, other people would have benefitted from learning that too.

I learnt through Sendak that the label of “children’s” or “young adult” books is patronising. I recall Patrick Ness’ sublime A Monster Calls and I wonder about the debt Ness owes Sendak; I read Neil Gaiman and China Miéville and Sendak seems to echo through them. I have no idea whether these people have read or valued Sendak but I hear Max’s spirit in them.

So, Maurice Sendak, dead today at the age of 83, I thank you! You have in a very real sense made me who I am today. And I like who I am!

20120508-145926.jpg