School Blues

There’s a book by Daniel Pennac, winner of the Prix Renaudot. Which isn’t anything like a Fiat Punto, despite the funk-eh name.

Michael Morpurgo reckons “Every education Minister, every teacher, every parent should read this,’ even if he did miss the last comma.

It’s all about how Danial Pennac didn’t do well at school until a teacher told him to write a novel, when he realised that nobody has to be a failed student for ever. It’s about “how fear can make children reject education” and how ‘inventive thinking and inspired teaching can lure them back’ from being ‘struggling students adrift in a faltering system.’

I’m not French. Sorry, but there it is. I never went to a French school although I did eat tongue in the uni at Rouen. Not like that. She wasn’t having any, then or ever after, notwithstanding that was pretty much the point of me going. I never even went to France until I was 21. It was all translated by Sarah Ardizzone, whose Mum I know a bit from when she used to live down the road.

There are lots of good bits of dialogue in the book but overall it put me in mind of Clint Eastwood talking to that chair. To be fair, he didn’t say the thing that teachers aren’t now allowed to say.

Come on, punk. Make my day.

Sincere or not, it comes over as a well-practiced party piece. And there’s lots to like about it.

“What improved my mistakes was that…teacher who refused to lower his standards by allowing spelling mistakes.” Dear God man, you’d better not come out with language like that in a Staff Room these days. You’ll stunt someone’s freedom of expression with that kind of bolshy talk.

He also says the thing that utterly, totally, absolutely can’t be said: it’s the sodding parents.

“Our “bad students,” the ones slated not to become anything, never come to school alone.” For once, a schools commentator isn’t talking about Mrs Proudly blocking the pavement with her leased Range-Rover while she ?Evoques (ooooh, see what sir did there?)  her kids’ heart attacks 40 years later by making sure they never walk more than 48 feet per day.

“Look, here they come, their families in their rucksacks. The lesson can’t begin until the burden has been laid down and the onion peeled. It’s hard to explain but just one look is often enough, a kind remark, a clear, steady word from a considerate grown-up, to dissolve those blues, lighten those minds and settle those kids into the present indicative.”

Quite good at the old wordage, isn’t he? And as any decent teacher knows, a lot of that is absolutely bang on. He didn’t add ‘and un-fuck the fucked-upness that your fucked-up mum and dad fucked you up with, they may not mean to but on the other hand, they did’t really give a fuck what was going to happen to you either,’ to paraphrase Philip Larkin.

What really got me was two things. Pennac goes to considerable trouble to damn other people who say how dim everyone thought they were at school but look at them now, before going on to do pretty much the exact same thing himself. Repeatedly.

But what really got me was the poetic little end-piece about the swallows that fly, if he lets them, through his bedroom windows, across the room and out the other side.

It’s not that he doesn’t once namecheck the Venerable Bede, which seems an obvious and curious omission; perhaps it was because Bede wrote of a single sparrow, not entire squadrons of more graceful, somehow entirely more Gallic birds.

It was really nice. His point was that if he didn’t open the windows at both ends of the room the sparrows would charge in and brain themselves against the closed windows; you have to help them to live.

You could watch Minnie Driver in Hunky Dory and get the same, but hey. French. Comprendez?

“Yet it still happens: three or four of the idiots fly straight into the fixed panes. Our proportion of dunces. Our deviants. They’re not in line. They’re not following the path. They’re larking about on the edge. Result: fixed pane. Whack! At which point one of us gets up, picks up the stunned swallow – they weigh hardly anything, with their bones of wind – waits for it to wake-up again and sends it back out to join its friends. That’s what I believe love looks like, in the context of teaching, when our students fly like crazed birds.”

Leaving aside the fact that Pennac would be back on his mobile to the Supply agency in pretty short order if he used that vocabulary about the most disruptive and violent students in any British school I’ve been in, it’s lovely. And I think that’s what love looks like too.

Except I never, ever, ever saw a swallow throw a desk, nor pick up a chair and try to smash another child over the head with it and regard it as completely acceptable behaviour.

I never, ever, ever saw a swallow jab other swallows with a stolen four-inch blade and tell them it would stab them next time. But I’ve seen all that at schools, with next to no consequences.

Tolerating that behaviour isn’t love. It’s rewarding hate. And when it gets that far gone then frankly I don’t care if they hate themselves or someone else. It needed to be stopped before it got to that. Hard. Life is not about infinitely tolerating bad behaviour, making excuses for it, accommodating and adapting to it. Unless you’re Boris Johnson, of course, when it gets you as far as Prime Minister. For the rest of us, we do people in schools no favours when we pretend that’s what real life is all about.

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