The words are tumbling, flustered but resolute, from Salim’s mouth:
‘Once upon a time – long ago – the great god Zeus – overcame the Titans – to become the most powerful god.’
I’m shadowing a Year 8 Literacy tutorial. The three boys in front of me huddle together with their heads down, fingers tracing the page, discovering the myth of Prometheus. Their teacher is gentle. He interjects only to show that he’s listening.
‘Do you think Zeus is a nice god?’
‘Was Prometheus right to steal the fire?’
The boys are eager to speak their minds. Zeus is a terrible god, they agree, faces stern and uncompromising. Prometheus, on the other hand, is a legend.
‘I forgot where the gods live, can you remind me?’
‘They live on Mount DOOM!’, Salim cackles, pleased with himself.
‘No. They live on Mount Olympus. Teacher said three times already!’ This is Ben, and he’s exasperated. He doesn’t like it when the others pretend they don’t know an answer. It’s only when the teacher calls on him to continue the story that I understand why.
‘Ben, would you like to read a bit today?’
Ben shakes his head.
‘Just a line. How about this line here? You know the story. No one’s going to laugh at you.’
Ben balances his chin on his pen and sways his head in a circle. He hums a song to fill the silence. He stares straight ahead, like when you try to pretend the room around you doesn’t exist.
A thought that seemed inconceivable to me a second ago crystallises in my head: Ben doesn’t know how to read. I say it to myself over and over again, trying to make the idea familiar.
I am ashamed of myself for being so shocked. I think of myself at 13 years old: belligerent, distracted, insufferable. Perfectly literate; educated despite my best efforts. I walk around with the thought like a stone in my shoe for the rest of the day.
Reader, when I started my placement at an East London school, I had imagined things differently. I saw myself pirouetting in with a pile of novels, distributing them with care, looking down with tenderness at a bright-eyed 16-year-old clutching her gifted copy of Anna Karenina, thanking me for literally changing her life.
In that moment, I struggle to remember whether I finished Anna Karenina. A nagging feeling tells me I gave up halfway through.
Later that same day, a teacher is guiding his GCSE English Foundation class through William Blake’s London:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
This will be Ben’s class in two years’ time. The teacher looks over to me and seems to read my mind.
‘I can’t believe this is still on the Foundation curriculum’, he says.
‘Not everyone should have to care about what the hell a manacle is. It’s holding them back from getting the tools they really need.’
When did I become as clueless as Zeus on the mountain?
I need to think everything through from the beginning. I need to make a list of the survival tools I was handed for free, that I have been taking for granted – the parts of education that hadn’t even crossed my mind, because I was given abundant and unfettered access to them.
I need to start with the fire.