At the chalkface: Private voices

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Voices of the often voiceless – often, Mr Farrago, enthralling, urgent immigrant voices. Secret and private voices, which tell stories of subterranean worlds and reflect the Other London. I’m reminded once again how vitally important English teachers can

I never really enjoyed marking exams, but this is quite different, because it’s outside the box, the tick-box. It’s been a revelation and yet another reason to be cheerful in these grim and getting grimmer times. The teaching’s terrific. The writing’s exciting.

The voices are compelling – a rich mix of the demotic, purple, high and low, repressed and oppressed and the sometimes shocking. Voices of the often voiceless – often, Mr Farrago, enthralling, urgent immigrant voices. Secret and private voices, which tell stories of subterranean worlds and reflect the Other London. I’m reminded once again how vitally important English teachers can be, when they deal in this necessary magic. 

A lot of tosh is written about creative writing. What other kind is there? English teachers deal in it all the time, harvest multitudinous voices. Their classrooms can be sanctuaries, where these little lives are celebrated, where their stories can be told. Yes, the writing is sometimes damaged by car crash grammar and a limited vocabulary. I must be careful not romanticise incoherence as authenticity. But so much is so good. These are real, compelling voices, which claim our serious attention. 

We used to listen to them and give them much credence in the older exams. No more. The Gove put an end to “Speaking and Listening”. You can’t quite measure those voices. And it shuts them up. Private worlds outside the great public debate. 

This New Election Year we’re in for perfect storms of the public stuff. PMQs are increasingly Punch and Judy and programmes like Question Time seem little more than the tawdry histrionics of narcissists and exhibitionists, who solicit the applause of middle England with increasingly unpleasant frontier gibberish – especially about education. Permissive teachers and feral children and the absence of corporal/capital punishment will be conspicuously lamented. Public discourse has a cartoon hilarity. The language is dead, pompous, boring, etiolated, saloon bar – finessed and filleted for focus groups. The very opposite of the private language of the children in this competition.

“Private faces in public places. Are wiser and nicer. Than public faces in private places,” observes Auden somewhere. Indeed. So it’s good to remember all those teachers and pupils out there, who quite trump this modern Babel.

Winners? I’d give them all prizes. Teachers and pupils.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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