“And when exactly weren’t you doing nothing?” I would quiz.
“Well, don’t do it again!” I suggested, drifting into Samuel Beckett territory or the Goons.
Should I have picked him up on his flagrant fibbing or on his car crash grammar? Or both? After all, I was supposed to be his English teacher. My old English teacher, the pedant Merrylees, would have had kittens with that grammar, like he did when he caught us playing Elvis Presley’s One Night of Sin in the 6th form common room.
“I ain’t never done no one no wrong!” purred the King sexily of an adulterous night.
Rather, we thought.
Rather not, thought Mr Merrylees, who came down like a ton of bricks on those quadruple negatives: “They do not reinforce his argument!” Except they did.
“They are ungrammatical!” Who care eh?
“Mr Presley would fail O level.” Quite so – and never amounted to much.
These reflections were prompted by watching Tawny, a 9th year pupil, on Channel 4’s Educating the East End, when she was informed of the school’s No Piercings Rule by a deputy head.
“I don’t see what’s the point of not having no piercings, because it’s not going to affect no learning at the end of the day.”
Now, would this cut it at Roedean? The grammar, not the piercings? I know mockney’s all the go with the posher classes, but probably not. Do we owe it to her to correct her speech? I think not. You correct writing, you don’t correct speech. Much better to analyse it in terms register, code, tone, class, context. Linguistics. We did it a lot in the “Speaking and Listening” module, but the Gove binned it. You don’t try to change their voice. It’s who they are. Musharaf Asghar, the sometimes stutterer of Educating Yorkshire, agrees. “If I could speak fluently, I would show people who I really am,” he types movingly. This nails the teacher’s job – and not just the English teacher’s – to nourish our pupils’ real talking voices.
We move back to Mr Bispham’s English class. He’s doing Shakespeare and he’s doing well, but a silly girl is bored. “It’s bare long man!” she observes in her own voice. Wrong. Demotic. Ungrammatical. But new minted and rather incisive. Could catch on. Shakespeare would surely approve.
Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.