Adopting is hard

Oh, come on, world. There I was, all ready to blog about teaching King Lear and then go off and pick blackberries, and you had to bowl me an article about adoption to respond to, didn’t you? Cheers. King Lear will have to wait, bless him: he’s over there grumping in a corner with the Fool, right now.

Here’s the article in question, if you haven’t already seen it: My wife and I were desperate to adopt, but the application process was so gruelling we gave up. The writer, John Rutter, runs through a number of well-worn complaints. The assessment process – the ‘home study’ – is long and intrusive. Friends, family and employers are all involved. Your medical and financial history are explored. You have to talk about your past relationships, and former partners might be interviewed. Your home has to be assessed for potential health and safety hazards. And so on. It took Rutter and his wife over eighteen months to be approved, and they eventually withdrew from the process a few months after their approval, because they didn’t think they’d ever have a child placed with them.

The adoption home study: yes, it’s hard. (Source: “Maze” by SanguineSeas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

I have a whole ton of things to say about this, as you might expect. Here’s the first thing. Rutter says that he and his wife turned to adoption after trying to have a child, and failing. Infertility is one of the most horribly isolating experiences imaginable. I’m not going to go into, now, just how awful it is, because that’s for another post. We were luckier than most, if you can put it like that, because we didn’t spend years going through exhausting rounds of treatment. We found out pretty early on that my eggs were so catastrophically rubbish that there was basically no point. Once we made the decision that we weren’t going to go ahead with any more investigations, the sense of relief was immense. So I can imagine how hopeful the Rutters were when they embarked on their adoption journey, because we were too. It was a new start, the chance to actually succeed after a pretty miserable few years. And I can imagine how it must have felt to pull out, to decide to build a life for themselves that didn’t involve parenthood. People who haven’t experienced involuntary childlessness can be very glib about the situations of those who have: witness all the comments about children being a privilege and not a right, the availability of NHS funding for IVF, etc etc. The conversations that led to that decision must have been pretty bleak. I genuinely hope that the Rutters have been able to make peace with their decision, and that they are finding a way forwards.

The issue I have is with the widespread idea that the adoption process should be made easier, and that it should be made easier to speed things up for adopters. There’s a popular belief that the adoption process is deliberately complicated. It’s one of those things that everyone seems to know about adoption, including people who’ve got no connection to adoption whatsoever. Often, these people go on to complain about how unfair this is. If you want to give a home to a child in need, the social workers should welcome you with open arms, rather than asking you lots of difficult questions. Just think of all those people who have babies after one-night stands, they’ll say: they never have to jump through all those hoops, do they?

The process isn’t designed to put people off at all, but one thing that prospective adopters have to learn very quickly is that adoption isn’t about supplying them with the perfect baby to replace the one they couldn’t have. Instead, it’s about finding homes for children whose early lives have been unbearably traumatic. The decisions that are made about these children – where they live, and with whom – need to be made with real care. And when you first start to find out about adoption, it’s extremely sobering to discover what kinds of experiences some children have had, and to think about how these experiences might affect them.

Another thing that prospective adopters need to learn is that adoption is lifelong. It doesn’t dissolve after a few years; it doesn’t cease to matter. Adopted children become adopted adults and their feelings about being adopted will affect them in different ways at different points in their lives. Their feelings about you as their adoptive parent will change, too. You will have to be prepared to do many things as they grow up, including becoming an expert in the long-term effects of early trauma, advocating for your child through nursery and school and even into the world of work, and helping them to negotiate their relationships with members of their birth family. There will be times when you are exhausted beyond belief by trying to negotiate support packages and explain your child’s needs to people – including professionals – who just don’t get it. There will be times when you will feel rejected but have to put your feelings to one side because you’re not the important one in all of this. Adopters are sometimes portrayed as having saviour complexes – look at me, doing all of this for a poor neglected child! – or as exaggerating the difficulties to paint themselves as heroic, but the reality is that it is really bloody hard. I’ve lost count of the number of adopters I know who’ve needed counselling, or been prescribed antidepressants, to cope with a day-to-day reality whose pressures can be relentless.

(As a side note, I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve read about how important it is to centre adopted people, and not adoptive parents, in these discussions, but there’s a point where it’s not as simple as that. The reality is that adoptive parents need support in order to be able to centre their adopted children. We all need help here.)

The result of all of this is that anything that sheds light on your capacity to parent a vulnerable child needs to be viewed as fair game. It’s the needs of that child – rather than your squeamishness about your personal life – that must come first. Talking about your previous relationships will illuminate how you deal with rejection. Talking about bereavement gives your social worker an insight into how you’ve coped with loss, and therefore how you might support a child who is grieving the losses they’ve suffered in being removed from their birth family. Interviewing your boss: how driven are you, how addicted to your job, and how hard would you find it if you had to go part-time or give up work altogether in order to support your child? Interviewing your wider family: how do they view adoption, and will they welcome your child wholeheartedly or make them feel as if they don’t really belong? Having a medical, being open about your finances: is there anything at all in your life that might have an impact on your ability to provide an adopted child with a safe, secure and stable home, not just now but well into the future?

The health and safety stuff, by the way, should be obvious. When a child is placed with you, the state is still the child’s corporate parent, and responsible for what happens to them, so of course they’ve got a duty of care to check. And quite frankly, if you’ve got a garden that children are going to be playing in, you should be checking for poisonous plants and covering up any ponds anyway.

So yes, it’s difficult, and yes, it might seem unfair. But it’s difficult for a reason, and given what the reality of adoptive parenting is like, it’s absolutely right that it’s all so hard.

Teacher Feature: Miss Caroline

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We’ll get to Miss Caroline eventually. First, here’s Lola:

Lola, from I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child

I have a lot in common with Lola, at this stage in the school holidays. I had a lot in common with Lola when I was four, too. School was looming on the horizon and I couldn’t see why I needed to go. I had lots of important things to do and school was going to get in the way. I could read, thanks to a combination of my mum, Enid Blyton, and Twinkle, the picture paper specially for little girls, which I pounced on as soon as it dropped through the door and pored over endlessly. I was competent at writing, especially now my big sister Julie had taught me how to do a capital N the right way up. And I could occupy myself for hours on end. I’d recently discovered that I could create my own horse by putting two dining chairs together and making a bridle and stirrups out of leftover knitting wool. I had Lego and plasticine and any number of things to do. Life was pretty good, thank you. I was a busy little person with a busy little mind, and I didn’t want school to get in the way.

The morning of 3 September 1977 saw me scrubbed and defiant. My school didn’t have a uniform, but I’d been put in a dress – outrage – and was standing in the hall waiting for my mum. I had a drawstring bag with my new black plimsolls in it, ready for PE, and I was swinging the bag backwards and forwards. My anger gave power to my swinging and before long my drawstring bag was flying up in the air in a steady arc. Back and forth, back and forth – and then, with a final furious swing, it smacked me square in the face.

My nose started to bleed. Handkerchiefs were deployed. It wouldn’t stop. My mum tutted and admonished and replaced one handkerchief with another and then yet another, and at some point the decision was made that I wouldn’t be going to school that day. Result! ‘Don’t you dare try that again tomorrow’, I was told. I hadn’t been trying at all, but I’d got one more day of freedom to enjoy.

So when I finally started school, I was a bit of an oddity. I was even more of an oddity because I had a book with me. It was In the Fifth at Malory Towers and it was a new world. Reading about school – especially a school with midnight feasts and lacrosse matches – was fun; it was the reality I didn’t like. My mum figured that if I took the book with me, it might make things easier. So when we got there, and while my mum talked to the teacher about why I hadn’t been in the previous day, I sat down and started to read.

The teacher’s name was Mrs Woods. She was old, like a grandma, and dressed all in brown. ‘What’s she doing?’ she asked. ‘Is she just looking at the words?’

‘No, she’s reading.’

‘Really? Can she read out loud?’

I gave a demonstration. The headmistress, the redoubtable Miss Spelman, was summoned. It was established that I could write, as well, and I was asked if I could write a story. So I did. I can’t remember what it was about, but Miss Spelman was very impressed that I could use speech marks. I was put in Class Two for Reading, rather than staying in Reception with everyone else, and went to sit with the big boys and girls every morning while flash cards were held up and we chanted the words that the teacher pointed to. Differentiation, 1970s style.

I started to see the point of school, after a while, but it’s a good job I didn’t have Miss Caroline. Miss Caroline is Scout’s first teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the fact that Scout can already read when she starts school does not impress her one little bit. Miss Caroline tells Scout that her father must not try to teach her any more; that she will have to ‘undo the damage’. She tells Scout that she must not write until she is in the third grade: ‘We don’t write in the first grade, we print’. Miss Caroline, with all the wisdom of her twenty-one years behind her, has firm ideas about how children should learn, and will not be swayed from them.

It’s clear that Miss Caroline herself has a lot to learn. She learns about cooties; she learns not to lend anything to a Cunningham – the Cunninghams never take anything they can’t pay back – and not to expect a Ewell to turn up to school for more than the first day of each school year. She finds out that there are children who don’t fit her fixed notions of what should be learned and when. She has to face, in short, the knowledge that all her training, all her years in college, can only go so far towards preparing her for the reality of being a teacher. The most important part – understanding where her pupils come from and having a sense of the reality of their lives beyond the classroom – is something that can only be learned on the job.

I was lucky to have Mrs Woods and Miss Spelman, at the start of my formal education, who responded to what I could already do by helping me to do more, rather than telling me (and my mum) that I shouldn’t have been able to do it in the first place. Miss Caroline makes Scout feel guilty for not sticking to a schedule that she never knew about in the first place. You’d hope, in time, that she will let go of her certainties about the way young people should learn; that the years will soften her corners and teach her which battles are worth fighting and which can be abandoned. You’d hope that she gets to spend less time sobbing on a desk in an empty classroom and more being astonished by what her pupils are capable of.

It’s twenty-five years now since I was an NQT; it’s forty-four years – bloody hell – since I finally made it into Mrs Woods’ classroom with my dog-eared copy of In the Fifth at Malory Towers. Not all newly-qualified teachers are as sure of themselves as Miss Caroline, and not all four-year-olds arrive at school able to read and write and do speech marks. But all NQTs, and all four-year-olds, have a lot of learning ahead of them. Good luck to all of them, and let’s hope, for all our sakes, that this year is calmer than the last two have been.

On writing, aged 48

Years ago, I read a poem by Susan Bassnett, then Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, called ‘Goethe’s Desk’. The narrator sees Goethe’s desk in Goethe’s house, and muses on what she could have done if she’d had Goethe’s desk to work at, rather than having to do ‘a dozen servants’ jobs’. Here’s the poem:

I was reminded of ‘Goethe’s Desk’ last week, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping magazine launched a new scheme for women novelists under 35. Joanna Walsh, who runs the Twitter feed @noentry_arts, wrote an open letter asking for the age limit to be removed, citing the many inequalities experienced by women: access to education and free time, an excess of caring responsibilities, and intersectional obstacles stemming from social class, ethnicity, disability and illness. Age-based prizes, the letter argued, favoured ‘those with the cultural confidence, time and money to commit to a writing career while young’. How do you achieve this conviction that the world is waiting to read what you have to say? How do you get your words out there, without the knowledge of how publishing works, the connections and advice and help up the ladder? And how do you silence the voice in your head that tells you there’s something else you should be doing?

The @noentry_arts campaign really resonated with me, as a woman writer in my late 40s. I don’t write fiction – my genre is narrative non-fiction – but my journey to becoming a writer has been shaped by many of the factors that Walsh cites in her letter. The most obvious of these is the lack of free time, stemming from juggling writing with childcare and full-time work. Behind this, though, there’s also a raft of issues to do with social class, a lack of the kind of cultural confidence and connectedness that Walsh refers to, and a hefty dose of the kind of impostor syndrome that I should really have outgrown by now, but haven’t. So here’s me, and here’s how I came to be a writer, at 48.

It all started when I was four. That was when I first read a book – a whole book – all on my own. It was Five Run Away Together – the third in the Famous Five series – and I didn’t even know if I should be reading it, because it wasn’t my book. It was a hardback, with a faded red cover, and I’d found it in the sideboard in our house. I knew it must belong to one of my siblings, but I didn’t know which one. All I knew was that I’d found a book and it looked interesting. The writer had a funny name, written in a way that made it look like ‘Gnid Blyton’. I knew it probably wasn’t Gnid – that was a silly name – but I didn’t know what else it might be, and anyway, I wanted to get on with the story. So I squeezed myself into the little space between the sofa and the wall, the place where I used to hide if I didn’t want anyone to know where I was, and settled down to read. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

Enid Blyton’s got a lot to answer for. I’m not talking about the sexism, xenophobia and disdain for the working classes. They’re appalling, of course they are, but I didn’t notice them when I was four. The thing that possessed me was the idea of adventure. I wanted a boat of my own, and a torch, and a little camping stove powered by a bottle of methylated spirits. I knew I was never going to have my own island with a ruined castle and an actual dungeon, but the rest seemed reasonable. Well, perhaps not the boat. I asked for the torch and camping stove for my fifth birthday. I got the torch, but not the stove. The torch was useful, up to a point, but there wasn’t really an awful lot that I could do with it. There was an acute shortage of the key ingredients of adventure in Newton-le-Willows in 1977: no smugglers or travelling circuses with escaped jewel thieves or rogue scientists trying to steal important blueprints. So I decided that if I couldn’t actually go on any adventures, then the next best thing might be to write about them. When my sixth birthday came around, I asked for a desk so that I could be a proper writer, and that’s really when it all started.

By the time I was halfway through my second year at primary school, my Famous Five obsession was so firmly embedded that the headmistress took my mum to one side. It was getting a bit much, she suggested. Every piece of writing I did was linked to the Famous Five in some way. I’d even managed to write an imaginary interview with Julian (though, sadly, I didn’t ask him anything about his massive superiority complex). I needed something else to be interested in. So I started to go for riding lessons, and horses quickly replaced junior sleuths as my main object of interest. Inevitably, like all horse-mad little girls, I wanted my own pony. And inevitably, like most horse-mad girls, I couldn’t have one. We had nowhere to keep a pony, and anyway, ponies were expensive. If I wanted a pony, I’d have to find some way of earning some money. How could I do that? The solution, to seven-year-old me, was obvious. I’d have to write a book.

I tried to write lots of books, over the years. To begin with, most of them featured ponies. I was good at drawing and decided that if I could illustrate my own books as well, I’d earn even more money to put towards a pony. The problem was that I didn’t have a lot of staying power. I’d come up with a good idea but didn’t know how to carry it through. I tried to write a book about British native pony breeds with pictures in biro of Shetlands and Exmoors and all the different sections of Welsh (there are four; I knew my stuff) but never managed to finish it. I spent the summer between primary and secondary school writing a book called One Jump Ahead, about a girl called Rebecca who gets a pony called King and turns him into a champion showjumper, and filled an entire Woolworths notebook which I’ve still got somewhere. As a teenager, I went through a phase of wanting to write scripts for soap operas, but had no idea how you’d actually get involved in that for real, so Brookside and EastEnders had to suffer my loss. And that, actually, was the problem. I spent a lot of time in my room, writing, or walking the streets, thinking of things to write about, but I didn’t have the first clue how you went about becoming an actual writer with your work published and your name in print. Pretty much all of my writing went completely unread by anyone except me: stored away meticulously, paper-clipped and treasury-tagged, then filed away for some mysterious day when Somebody would want to read it.

Story of my life. (Card by Rosie Made A Thing)

I was the first person in my family to go to university. I went to Oxford to do English, with vague ideas of staying on to do a doctorate and become an academic, fuelled by reading too much David Lodge. On my first day there, waiting in the porter’s lodge to get the key to my room, I had my first real-life encounter with a lacrosse stick, the first time I’d seen one outside the pages of Enid Blyton. On my second day, standing in the front quad, I talked to a boy on my course about the essay on nineteenth-century literature that we’d had to do over the summer. We’d been told to write about either the presentation of women or the presentation of the working class. ‘Well, I’m not a woman and I’m not working-class,’ he explained, all bright eyes and floppy hair. ‘I wasn’t sure which one I should do.’ I remembered earnest conversations in the sixth form common room when we’d tried to decide which social class we belonged to. We were, almost universally, the children of people who’d started at the bottom and worked their way up: my own parents had both left school at 14, and my friends’ parents were nurses and schoolteachers, skilled tradespeople and the owners of small businesses. Nobody – not even Catherine, whose mum and dad read the Guardian – was confident enough to plonk themselves wholeheartedly in with the middle classes. My floppy-haired new friend at Oxford had no doubts whatsoever. His uncle was a senior QC; his family was right up there at the heart of the Establishment. He himself aspired to be a barrister. To me, this spoke of a lack of commitment to English. It seemed disloyal. All I wanted to do, by that stage, was to spend my life reading books and writing about books and eventually – I hoped – end up writing books myself. I’d stopped riding by then, and given up on the idea of a pony, but getting my name in print was still there, hovering like a distant dream.

As it was, I didn’t apply to do postgraduate work immediately after my degree. I wasn’t sure I’d get the funding. I knew that my family wouldn’t be able to pay, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to help with my living expenses. I wouldn’t have asked them to: why should they, when my siblings had all supported themselves from leaving school? I also knew that jobs in academia were few and far between, and that I’d have to be prepared to move to wherever the jobs happened to be, scraping by on temporary contracts in the hope that I’d manage to get something permanent eventually. This was so far outside my family’s experience that I didn’t have the confidence to take the risk. I could have headed into journalism, but again, it was something I knew nothing about. I’d done a tiny bit of writing for student publications, but had been put off by the number of people who seemed to know exactly what they wanted to say and were absolutely confident that people would want to hear it. My elbows didn’t feel sharp enough. Instead, I played it safe, like so many first-generation university students from non-traditional backgrounds, and did a PGCE. I got a job at a school in south Lincolnshire, a part of the country I knew nothing about but that sounded nice, and that’s where I still am, twenty-five years later.

I did do a PhD eventually, but I did it a different way, part-time, while teaching full-time. I wrote a book – the snappily-titled Defining Literary Criticism: Scholarship, Authority and the Possession of Literary Knowledge 1880-2002 – and co-wrote two others. Then I became an adoptive parent, and started to think, a lot, about the ideas people have about adoption, the way adoption is depicted in the media and in popular culture, and how far removed these images are from the reality of adoption today. I wanted to explore these perceptions, to tell this story. And so I started to write, again.

It’s not easy, combining writing with working full-time – I’m now a Head of English – and being a parent. I write in whatever gaps I can open up around the rest of my life. There are frantic bursts during school holidays and then weeks during term-time when I can barely write at all. It takes a huge amount of self-discipline, and there’s always something else demanding my attention. But I wouldn’t be me, without it.

I need to be the age I am to write what I do. I couldn’t have written about adoption without becoming an adoptive parent, without living that particular reality and having to tackle the complexities that adoption brings. It took me a long time, and hours of redrafting, to get my work to the stage where I felt ready to submit it to an agent, and I had to give myself a stern talking-to before I pressed Send.

I don’t have any hopes of grandeur, but I do want to get my writing out there. I have an agent, but no publisher. I know it takes time. So I am working on an idea for another book, and being patient and trying to build a platform. The struggle with impostor syndrome is still there: that lurking, constant feeling that at some point, someone will give me a polite nudge and tell me to get back in my box. But maybe, one day, I’ll get lucky. And now that I’ve started horse riding again, maybe one day there will be a pony, after all.

We need to talk about Blood Brothers

Yay! It’s another adoption post.

One thing I bang on about a lot is the number of adoption-related texts there are across the various GCSE English Literature specifications. I’ve written about this in my article ‘Images of Adoption: Adoption in Literature and in the English Classroom’ (in Teaching English, issue 16) and I’ve spoken about it on the Loco Parentis podcast and for a forthcoming edition of the Adoption & Fostering Podcast. Of all of these texts, the one that crops up most frequently is Willy Russell’s 1983 play Blood Brothers, which you can study for GCSE English Literature with AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas and CCEA. It’s one of the most popular texts with all of these boards, coming second only to the classroom stalwart An Inspector Calls. It also appears as a text for study in GCSE Drama with AQA, OCR and CCEA, where it’s consistently the most frequently-studied play. In theory, you could end up doing Blood Brothers for both GCSE English Literature and GCSE Drama. You’d hope that English and Drama departments would coordinate things so that students weren’t doing the same play for two different subjects, but then again, some English departments introduce texts at KS3 and then teach them again at GCSE, so nothing would surprise me.

Thicker than water? (Source: Creative Commons)

I’ve been meaning to write about Blood Brothers again for a while now, largely because I continue to be astonished by how many schools teach it and how unproblematically it’s viewed. Recently, in response to the discussion about Kate Clanchy’s book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Alex Wright tweeted that ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’ This really nailed what’s at the heart of my discomfort with Blood Brothers. It’s a play about social class, inequality and injustice, and all of these are important themes to explore. But at the heart of all of this is the adoption of a child, and it’s the use of adoption as a plot device – and the simplistic way in which it’s treated – that, for me, makes Blood Brothers a really troubling text.

The plot of Blood Brothers is simple. Mrs Lyons is unable to have children: her cleaner, Mrs Johnstone, has found herself pregnant with twins even though she already has ‘seven hungry mouths to feed’. Mrs Lyons persuades Mrs Johnstone to give one of one of the twins to her, but insists that this has to remain a secret, as twins who are secretly parted must never learn the truth: ‘If either twin learns that he was once a pair, they shall both immediately die.’ The two boys – Mrs Johnstone’s son Mickey, and Mrs Lyons’ son Edward – grow up in different households, with different opportunities and expectations. Nevertheless, the two become friends, each unaware of the relationship between them. Together with Mickey’s neighbour Linda, they form a trio who play together, roam the streets and get into trouble with the police, who treat Mickey and Edward very differently. Edward does not know that he is adopted, but – like the vast majority of adopted people – he struggles with his sense of identity, and feels much more drawn to Mickey and Mrs Johnstone. Later, Edward goes to university; Mickey and Linda get married. Mickey loses his job in a factory and goes to prison for his role in an armed robbery. On his release, he is depressed, unable to cope without antidepressants. An exhausted Linda turns to Edward for comfort, and Mickey confronts him with a gun. Mrs Johnstone appears, and tells Mickey that he and Edward are twins, but the inevitable happens: Mickey’s gun goes off by accident, killing Edward, and Mickey is then shot dead by armed police.

It’s easy to see why Blood Brothers became so popular with schools. It’s a play that works on uncomplicated stereotypes about social class and privilege, with plenty of opportunities for students to compare and contrast the presentation of Mickey and Edward, Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, and the ways in which life has treated them. Take the incident where the children are apprehended by a policeman for throwing stones. Mrs Johnstone is told that Mickey was ‘about to commit a serious crime’; Mrs Lyons is reassured that ‘it was more of a prank’. Or the conversation between Mickey and Edward when Edward returns after his first term at university: Edward has had a fantastic time, and is looking for parties and a chance to celebrate: Mickey has just been made unemployed. Edward tells him that ‘if I couldn’t get a job I’d just say, sod it and draw the dole, live like a bohemian, tilt my hat to the world and say “screw you”’. Edward doesn’t have a clue. But on a more complex level, the play offers scope for the exploration of political theatre and classical tragedy. The disturbing figure of the Narrator, for instance, breaks the fourth wall at crucial points to underline the theme of superstition and fate that runs through the play, reminding both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons of the consequences of their actions. The message the Narrator offers is clear: the separation of the twins has disrupted the order of the universe, and the balance will only be restored with their inevitable deaths.

We studied Blood Brothers in GCSE Drama when I was fifteen, back in 1988, when the play was still relatively fresh. I have a vague memory of playing Mrs Lyons in the scene where she persuades Mrs Johnstone to give up one of her twins, doing my best to put on an RP accent and holding a cushion up to my front, pretending to be pregnant, Oh, the irony. We loved Mrs Johnstone – salt of the earth, of course we did – and hated Mrs Lyons, with all her middle-class selfishness. We were teenagers, and this was Merseyside in the 1980s, and our sympathy was always going to be with the underdog. Of course Edward was really Mrs Johnstone’s son: of course Mrs Lyons was possessive, grasping, wanting what she couldn’t have and using all the force of her social and economic privilege to get it. What’s the problem?

This is where I go back to Alex’s words. ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’

Adoption as a whole, and adopted people in particular, aren’t served well by popular culture. There are so many hackneyed tropes, so many predictable storylines. Adopted people threaten the natural order of things. They’re cuckoos in the nest. Think of Mrs Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables, warning Marilla Cuthbert of the horrors that await her if she adopts a child, telling her of adopted children who put strychnine in the well and set fire to the house while their adoptive families were asleep. Think of Heathcliff and Edward Cullen. Adoption might bring material advantages, but it also means that – like Edward in Blood Brothers – you’ll never really fit in. And as for adoptive parents – well, they’re just weird. There are very few positive representations of adoptive parents in contemporary fiction and drama. The Brinks in Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, the appalling Averys in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the Donaldsons in Anne Tyler’s Digging to America: adopters are naïve and selfish at best, loveless monsters at worst. No wonder they couldn’t have children of their own, you can imagine people saying. When you look at Mr and Mrs Lyons, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that they were never really meant to be parents in the first place.

Blood Brothers does not make any claims to realism, and the Lyons family is – obviously – light-years away from the average adoptive family in the UK today. Edward’s adoption is both unofficial and illegal, and Mr and Mrs Lyons escape the lengthy process of assessment and approval that all prospective adopters in the UK have to undergo. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this play represents the most significant fictional model of adoption that many of our students will have encountered at this point in their lives. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. Many teaching resources choose to focus on the play’s adoption theme and hold it up as an oddity, something outside students’ own lives. One resource on Teachit asks ‘Do you think that it is ok for women to give up their babies for adoption? What reasons do women have for doing this?’ Another asks students to ‘create a short improvisation in which a teenager discovers that he/she was given up for adoption at 1 week old. He or she only discovers the truth when going through an old shoe box kept in the loft. How do you feel when you are told that your mum and dad are not your real parents?’ Imagine being an adopted teenager in this classroom, faced with this activity: lives like yours reduced to outdated stereotypes, painful family histories turned into an exercise for open discussion. Adoption, and families formed by adoption, are persistently othered: adoptive families are weird. (Adopted children are actually told this, by the way, by other children. The Dude certainly was. I have no idea where the other kid got it from, but it must have been from somewhere. Another kid told him that all adopted people end up in prison. That kid must have got that from somewhere, too. I have lost count of how many misconceptions I had to correct during the Dude’s school career.)

And adopted children have quite enough to cope with already, thank you. All adoption is rooted in trauma, and this is particularly the case in the UK nowadays, when the vast majority of adoptions involve children who have been taken into care because their birth parents were unable to keep them safe. The effects of this trauma can be lifelong. Some children will have very vivid memories of the events that led to their removal from their birth parents’ care. Others will have been very young, but early trauma – including that which is experienced prenatally – leaves its mark on the developing brain.

And yet, even now, adoption provides a seemingly endless set of tropes for entertainment. Just this week, a post shared on my Twitter timeline spoke of social media posts by parents joking about coping with their children during the long summer holiday, and how they were tempted to ‘have them adopted’. There’s a children’s novel called The Unadoptables, a supposedly ‘joyful’ Gothic romp about a group of orphans in nineteenth-century Amsterdam who are rejected by prospective adopters for a variety of reasons: one has big ears, one is south Asian, one has twelve fingers, one is mute and one is a girl who happens to be feisty and outspoken. Memes and jokes and plot devices, all riffing off a topic that is hugely complex, with no idea of the ramifications involved. (The Unadoptables was widely criticised by adopted people, adoptive parents and child welfare professionals when it was published in 2020: this Twitter thread, by Nicole Chung, will give you a sense of the debate. It was, nevertheless, bought by Penguin Random House for a ‘significant’ six-figure sum that would have paid for many hours of post-adoption support.) How long will we have to put up with this kind of thing?

So, as we approach the new school year, a favour. If you’re going to be teaching Blood Brothers, please think really carefully about how you’re going to handle the adoption-related elements of the plot, whether you have adopted or care-experienced students in your class or not. Pay these parts of the story the same kind of attention that I hope you’re paying to problematic depictions of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability – anything, in fact, that might cause students to feel less valued and less important, singled out because of their difference. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. For many of our children, the education system is difficult to negotiate. Texts like Blood Brothers make it a whole lot harder.

From edge to edge: walking Wainwright’s Coast to Coast

I’ve been for a walk.

Route map, Robin Hood’s Bay

A long walk: the Coast to Coast. Opinions vary as to its actual length, because it isn’t an official National Trail. It’s a network of footpaths and rights of way, stretching across northern England from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, developed by Alfred Wainwright in 1973. The routes you can take vary depending on a number of things – whether you choose high-level or low-level options, what time of year it is, how far off the trail you happen to be staying on particular nights – and so, while most estimates put the trail at about 190 miles, we actually walked about 215.

We’ve been thinking about doing the Coast to Coast for a few years now. Back in 2014, we did the Hadrian’s Wall long-distance path, and the Coast to Coast seemed the next logical step. We’d heard that it was a lot tougher than Hadrian’s Wall – it’s much longer, and across wilder countryside – so decided to leave it until the Dude was a bit older. Then this year, with the lockdown making travel outside the UK complicated and increasing demand for holidays within the UK as a result, we decided the time was right. After all, we reasoned, we’d spent so much time cooped up in south Lincolnshire that we needed to get out. And given that we couldn’t decide on just one destination, why not walk across the whole country?

Why not, indeed? It’s only a walk. Wainwright himself described it as ‘a country walk of the sort that enthusiasts for the hills and open spaces indulge in every weekend’, although he did add that ‘It’s a bit longer than most, that’s all.’ You dip your boots in the sea at St Bees, then put one foot in front of the other – many times – and before you know it you’re celebrating at Robin Hood’s Bay with the sea surging round your ankles. Easy!

Boots in the sea, St Bees

The Coast to Coast crosses three national parks – the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors – and has a total ascent of just under seven thousand metres. The quickest crossing on record was made by Damian Hall in 39 hours, 18 minutes and 40 seconds, in May this year. Most people take between twelve and sixteen days, but at one point, we met a woman who was doing the crossing with her two children – both under ten – in stages of about five miles a day, fitting the stages into weekends and school holidays whenever the lockdown had allowed. They’d started in January, she said, and expected to be finished by October.

Ennerdale Water

Our walk took us fifteen days, including a rest day in Richmond, the biggest town on the route. We stayed in B&Bs, youth hostels and pubs, and had our luggage transferred from place to place by the fabulous Sherpa Van Company, who I would highly recommend. We could have camped, and carried our own stuff, but given that we’ve just emerged from the toughest school year on record, the lure of proper beds and dry socks was far too great.

Climbing Loft Beck

The received wisdom about the Coast to Coast is that if you can make it through the first five days, you’ll be fine. The first five days take you through the Lake District, and contain the biggest hills, breaking you in gently on the first day with Dent Fell at 352m and culminating four days later with Kidsty Pike at 780m. This period coincided with the hottest weather of our crossing and the climbing was exhausting. We started out with three litres of water each, but had to ration our drinks carefully, as there were very few places to stop and refuel: nowhere until we got to Ennerdale Bridge on the first day, and only one place – the snack bar at Honister Slate Mine – late on the second. Honister came just after the climb up Loft Beck, which runs up between Brandreth and Great Gable, and by then all three of us were hot, exhausted and desperate for a drink.

Heading into Patterdale

And then there’s the pain, especially in the first few days. Pain in your calves as you drive yourself uphill, every fibre screaming. Pain in your knees and hips on the downhill stretches. And most of all, pain in your toes, which seems to happen no matter how well-worn your boots are and how much extra room you’ve allowed. You imagine them in the dark like squashed eyeless creatures desperate for air, every step hurting. You are caught between being desperate to take your boots off and dreading what you’re going to find when you finally peel off your socks. We had to make an emergency purchase of new walking boots for the Dude, who split the sole of one of his boots on the second day, and there were many Compeed stops and necessary breaks to paddle in streams.

The Swale

The pain is worth it. Miles and miles of hills, stretching off in every direction, green shading into distant blue. Curious sheep and silent water. Skylarks and swallows. By the fourth day the ascents were getting easier and I was settling into the rhythm of what Rebecca Solnit describes in her book Wanderlust as ‘the mind at three miles an hour’.

Above Osmotherley

There are tough bits. Some of these you anticipate, like the big climbs, and the endless walk along Haweswater, and negotiating the way down from Hartley Fell, which is notoriously boggy. Some are unexpected: the switchback of the North York Moors, the driving rain that hit us on our penultimate day, and the tangle of footpaths in the Vale of Mowbray. On longer days (our longest day was 25 miles) the last few miles are agonising, especially, if they’re on the road. Wainwright describes the last quarter of a mile along the road into Keld as ‘the longest quarter of a mile in England’. He’s only partly right. There are many long quarter-miles as you go along.

Scarth Moor

There are also landmarks. Crossing the M6, and leaving the Lake District for the gentler hills of Yorkshire. Climbing up to the mysterious Nine Standards, a series of cairns that mark the Pennine watershed. Reaching Keld, the halfway point. Passing into the Vale of Mowbray, going under the A1, and emerging onto the North York Moors. And then seeing the sea, in the distance at Whitby, for the first time since we left St Bees all those miles ago.

The Nine Standards, Hartley Fell

And there are all the chance encounters along the way: the people you chat to, the places you stop at, the things you see. The sound of Bob Dylan playing from someone’s stereo in Moor Row on the first day, giving us a lift just when we needed it. A group of eager young people near Grisedale Tarn, all wearing matching crocheted frog hats. Bolshy sheep and keen-eyed collies. The very welcome tuck shop at Danby Wiske and the excellent Joiners Shop cafe at Ingleby Cross. Jo the tame crow at Graculus Sculptures in Reeth, and Bob the sheepdog and his owner, who accompanied us between Richmond and Brompton-on-Swale. All the brilliant hosts at the places we stayed at, including those who washed our clothes and brought us coffee and reassured us that the next day would be easier.

The tuck shop at Church Holme campsite, Danby Wiske

The last day gives you a bit of everything: rolling moors, woodland paths, waterfalls, steam trains at Grosmont, the first glimpse of Whitby Abbey. You feel like stout Cortez, standing on a peak in Darien and looking out at the Pacific. Little knots of walkers are drawn together, like iron filings to a magnet, as they approach the coast. You reach the cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay, and then it’s the last few miles: through the fields, past allotments, into streets of solid Victorian guesthouses, and down the hill, passing holidaymakers and ice-cream shops and overflowing pubs, to the slipway, where you dip your boots in the sea again, elated, hardly believing you’ve made it.

Boots in the sea, Robin Hood’s Bay

It’s a hard walk. This is partly because of its unofficial status: there are some points where navigation is tricky, and where landowners haven’t bothered to maintain footpaths properly. But mostly, it’s because of the distances involved and the fact that there aren’t always convenient places to stop for a break, particularly in the early stages in the Lake District and when you’re crossing the North York Moors. There are some ascents where you need to scramble, and while I like a scramble, I know not everyone does. There’s also the relentlessness of knowing, each morning, that you have to get up and walk: the demands are mental, as well as physical. If you’re new to multi-day, long-distance walking, I’d recommend Hadrian’s Wall, or the Pembrokeshire Coast, both of which feel less remote and better supported. On the way back to Whitby, where we stayed for our final night, our taxi driver told us about people she’d picked up who’d tried, done a few days, and found they couldn’t cope.

Mist at the Wainstones, North York Moors

But: it’s brilliant. There’s that sense of testing yourself against the landscape, of digging in and pushing yourself on, and the feeling of proper physical tiredness, as opposed to the brain-fogged exhaustion of the last year. We made it, the Husband and the Dude and me, and now we’re at home washing socks and trying to decide where the next adventure will be.

Gotcha!

I can’t remember when I first came across the term ‘Gotcha Day’ in relation to adoption, but I remember my reaction was one of instinctive, unfiltered hate. I’m not holding back here. Adoption is such a complicated thing, involving so much loss and so many ethical tensions, that the whole idea of ‘Gotcha Day’ is like finding an injury that’s stubbornly refusing to heal – perhaps one that’s a bit septic and inflamed – and ramming a great big triumphalist fist right through it.

Part of my loathing is because ‘Gotcha Day’ is all about the adopters. The children don’t seem to figure, except as an object. Separated from everything you’ve ever known? Scared about these new people you’re going to live with? Not sure whether they’re going to let you eat your favourite foods or sleep with the fluffy toy rabbit that has been the one constant for you through all those changes of foster placement? Worried about whether you’re ever going to see your siblings or your grandparents again? Well, stop whining, because we’ve got what we want. Gotcha! And if you’re a birth parent – well, tough. You had your chance, Gotcha Day seems to say, and they’re ours now. Look what you could have won!

Aside from all the greedy grabbiness, the other thing I can’t quite wrap my head around is the idea that the transition from foster care to adoptive family is a simple act, a single event. There’s a pervasive myth that adoption offers a happy-ever-after solution to the problem of children who need homes and adults who want children. Like Paddington Bear with his marmalade sandwiches, the child rocks up, you’re told to look after it, and hey presto, you’re a family. One couple on our prep course planned to take their children on an instant trip to Disneyland. Someone I talked to just before introductions couldn’t understand why I wasn’t going straight back to work. After all, children are adaptable, aren’t they? They’ll cope. Just stick them in school, or nursery if they’re still young, and get on with your life as before, just with this new additional trophy that you can show off. Gotcha!

In reality, those first few weeks and months of placement were the toughest time I’ve ever lived through, and I was a competent adult with a pretty well-honed capacity for resilience. I can’t imagine what it would be like from the other side, as a bewildered small child who’d had no say in the matter. So here are all the things I wish I’d known before placement, to help bust the myths and give you an insight into life as a newly-formed adoptive family.

  • You will worry that people think you’re a kidnapper. Seriously. You’re not used to your child, your child definitely isn’t used to you, and everything will feel so odd at first that you’ll be convinced that people will think the toddler you’re trying to wrangle into a car seat isn’t actually yours People who’ve become parents the conventional way can unfold pushchairs with practised ease and change nappies one-handed. You’ll still be struggling. It took me months to get out of feeling like a hapless rookie.
  • It will be exhausting. As a new adopter, you have to practice ‘funnelling’ – meeting all your child’s needs yourself in order to build their attachment to you, and not letting anyone help with bathtime, meals, bedtime stories, soothing bumps and grazes, helping down from slides, anything. You have to keep things simple, and introduce new people and places very gradually. For the first few weeks, it should be just you. It is knackering beyond belief and there will be times when you want to curl into a ball and sob. If there is anything at all that you can outsource – laundry, shopping, cleaning – then do.
  • Keep everything very, very simple. I remember the first day after the Husband went back to work. I got the paints out and thought we’d spend hours creating beautiful works of art. In reality it all lasted half an hour. HALF AN HOUR. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except our painting session started at eight in the morning. I remember the day stretching ahead of us and not having a clue how we’d fill it. In the end, we made noses out of Play-Doh, and in the midst of this the Health Visitor turned up and must have wondered why I looked like Gonzo from the Muppets. After that, I made lists of things we could do, so I didn’t run out of ideas.
Source: Magnus Franklin, licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0
  • The physical demands on you will be huge. Keeping your child active and occupied, going out for walks, playing in the park … it will all add an extra layer of tiredness and you will need to flo in a corner occasionally. You’ll get an extra work-out if your child is of an age to be picked up and carried. Most parents are able to build up their muscles slowly: you can’t. If you’ve installed stairgates, you’ll get an extra treat, as it’s often easier to hurdle over them than unfasten them. This is great for toning your core. I lost two stones in the first six weeks after the Dude moved in, despite all the cake I was hoovering down to help with the funnelling-induced exhaustion.
  • You will feel lonelier than you’ve ever felt before. This is especially so if you work in a busy environment. I went from talking to over 150 people in an average working day to just the Husband and the Dude. Funnelling cuts you off, too. I hadn’t been prepared for how hard I’d find this and how much my sense of identify would change. Social media – including adoption support groups – will be a lifeline.
  • You will feel judged by absolutely everyone you meet. Adoption made me realise how much parents – and, in particular, mothers – are judged by other people (in particular, other parents, and unfortunately, other mothers). I remember the first time we braved a toddler group. You know those wildlife documentaries where a pride of lionesses spot a new lioness and her cub, and you can see them deciding whether to welcome them in, or eat them? That’s what it was like. It was the kind of toddler group where everyone else’s child is on water and rice cakes. The Dude was firmly wedded to orange squash and Custard Creams. I even got told off by a very solemn little boy for not knowing the words to ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’. Total inadequate, obviously.
  • You will be incredibly grateful for people’s kindness. Lovely people brought us casseroles and cake. One of my best friends made robots out of cardboard boxes with the Dude when it was my birthday, so I could have a couple of hours of much-needed sleep, and then came over for the whole day a few weeks later when I was floored with a virus and the Husband couldn’t take a day off work. You will want to hug everyone who holds open a door or brings you a coffee. Really.
  • People will say ‘oh, but all children do that’, and you’ll want to explode. Yes, all two-year olds are demanding. Yes, all pre-schoolers can throw diva strops when they’re not allowed to control everything around them. But the reasons behind this behaviour can be completely different. Your two-year old might be grizzly and needy because he’s tired, or can’t have another snack, or wants a cuddle and is trying to get your attention. A newly-placed two-year old might be grizzly and needy because they’re scared, because everything around them is new, and they’re sad about the people they don’t see any more and don’t know how else to express it. Same behaviour, different reasons. That means I need to handle my two-year old in a different way. Trust me that I know what I’m doing.
  • You’ll find out who your friends are. Trust me. You really will. Some people will be utterly brilliant. Others will melt away. Some people will find the idea of adoption absolutely fascinating but will shrink from the reality of a traumatised child. You can’t necessarily predict who they’ll be.
  • You will cry when your social worker visits, at least once. Real snotty tears. Lots of people assume you’ll want to get rid of your social worker as soon as possible, because social workers are associated in the popular mind with nosiness and interference. If your social worker is a good one, they’ll be a lifeline in those first few months. For me, the tough point was about three weeks in. Don’t be ashamed. It’s bloody hard.
  • Don’t expect to feel instant love. People will want you to say you do. They’ll want magical moments with sparkles and unicorns. That’s not how it works. Love will creep up on you, gradually, but don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while. Adoption isn’t a heart-warming story; it’s a major life change with far-reaching implications for everyone involved. So don’t punish yourself if you find it difficult. And remember that post-adoption depression is a thing, and get help if you need it.
  • Your child will amaze you. In the midst of all this disorientation, there will be moments when you’ll be struck by how brave and resilient this small person is. Children who’ve been through difficult early life experiences have to have a huge amount of courage to survive and keep themselves together. For me, the real lump-in-throat moment was overhearing the Dude in his cot one night, listing the toys who kept him company. Bear. Bear. Tractor. Bear. He needed to know who was there so he could check they’d still be there in the morning. Moments like this will punch you in the guts and remind you how important it is to give a child security and stability.

Teacher Feature: Mrs Tilscher

It’s 1984, and I’m in my final year of primary school. Our teacher is Mrs McGrath and she is like no other teacher we’ve ever had before. She’s tall, dark-haired and exacting, and probably – at least, to our eleven-year old eyes – somewhere in her forties. She sets high standards. She’s precise and exacting: one scruffy piece of work, one desk left untidied, and you know about it. She doesn’t raise her voice, because she doesn’t need to. We respect her and we have an appropriate level of fear for her, too. She introduces us to things that we need to know about, even if we’d prefer not to, like the effects of smoking and what would happen if there was a nuclear attack. It’s classic Haunted Generation stuff, a classroom counterpoint to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. More than one person has nightmares because of what Mrs McGrath teaches us, but they’re necessary nightmares, preparing us for a world where things are more complicated than we’d ever realised.

We do fun things in Mrs McGrath’s class as well. We make sweets – fudge and coconut ice and peppermint creams – and decorate chocolate eggs at Easter. We paint, and make models from clay. We have a disco. Frankie is telling us to relax; Nena sings of ninety-nine red balloons, floating in the summer sky. The Los Angeles Olympics loom and beyond them, secondary school. We know that this is the end of something, an important time. Mrs McGrath is steering us as far as she can. At some point, we’ll be on our own.

An apple, for Mrs Tilscher? (Source: Creative Commons)

This transition from those last few months of primary school to the start of secondary, from childhood to adolescence, is captured in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’. Fittingly, the poem starts with a journey, but it’s an entirely imaginary one, a voyage up the Blue Nile with Mrs Tilscher chanting the place names. There’s a brilliant evocation of the atmosphere of the primary classroom. Mrs Tilscher’s room is ‘better than home’: it glows ‘like a sweetshop’ and is filled with ‘enthralling books’, brightly-coloured resources and jars of frogspawn. Duffy fills the poem with smells and sounds you’d almost forgotten: ‘the scent of a pencil, slowly, carefully shaved’, ‘the laugh of a bell’, ‘a xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form’. For all its excitement, though, Mrs Tilscher’s room is also a safe place, where ‘Brady and Hindley / faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake’. Mrs Tilscher loves you, and some mornings she’s left a gold star by your name. You’re secure, in Mrs Tilscher’s class.

Except that everything’s about to change. Over Easter, the tadpoles grow, and so too do the children. A ‘rough boy’ tells you how you are born, and you’re appalled. The knowledge you’re gaining isn’t just about physical journeys, now: it’s about those metaphorical ones, the ones that involve something less comfortable and much more troubling than a list of place names on a map. School becomes restless. Reading the poem’s final stanza, you can feel what it would be like to be in that classroom during the last weeks of term: fidgety, full of new curiosities, ready to move on and be somewhere else. Duffy’s description of the atmosphere here is a wonderful example of pathetic fallacy:

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky.

And Mrs Tilscher can’t help you any more. ‘You asked her / how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled, / then turned away.’ She’s ready to move on, too, to a new class. She’s done her job.

A few of us said we’d go back and visit, when we got to the end of primary school, but we never did. There are some things that you have to leave behind. I don’t think Mrs Tilscher’s students would be going back, either. That turning-away at the end is an odd gesture. Is it an abdication of responsibility, a refusal to face up to her students’ inquisitiveness? Is that smile patronising, telling the narrator that she doesn’t need to know about those things? Whatever it is, it’s definitely final. It’s up to somebody else, now.

I don’t remember my own last day of primary school, but I do remember my son’s, five years ago. There were tears at his final assembly and when we said goodbye to his lovely teacher, who did so much to build his confidence. I am always in awe of primary school teachers, because there is no way I could do what they do, and I am especially in awe of Year Six teachers, who see their students through that final year and get them ready to fly. If any of you are reading this: thank you. I hope you know what an important job you do, and how much of a difference you make.

Adventure!

I’m going on a school trip tomorrow, for the first time in over two years. I am stupefied with exhaustion, like every other teacher everywhere who’s still crawling towards the end of term, but I am still ridiculously excited, because, school trip! It will be a fabulous one, too. We’re taking the Gold Duke of Edinburgh group away for the weekend; the weather forecast is good, and we’re going to the Yorkshire Dales, one of my favourite places in the whole world. The students, meanwhile, are like a Year Two class before an end-of-term party, not at the thought of the expedition itself but because we’ll be stopping at a service station on the way and, OMG, service station! Remember we’re in south Lincolnshire, where there are barely even any dual carriageways, never mind service stations. I swear if I were to organise a school trip that was basically a tour of UK service stations, it would be the most popular school trip ever.

Ingleborough, like a sleeping lion

We’ll be in Three Peaks country, climbing Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside, and the thought of being in the hills again after months in the Flatlands has kept me going for quite a while now. The Husband, the Dude and I have climbed all three many times over, starting when the Dude was six. I’ve got a lovely photo of him by the trig point on top of Whernside, munching through a chocolate Rice Krispie cake the size of his own head, completely unbothered by the fact that he’d just climbed the highest hill in Yorkshire. I could honestly witter on for hours about walking in the Dales: the crunch of your walking boots on the path as you approach the Ribblehead Viaduct; the sight of Ingleborough stretched out like a lion in the sun; the waving cottongrass and clean fresh air; the beer at the Station Inn. I’ve even got a favourite route, for goodness’ sake (Ingleborough from Clapham, if you really want to know; and there’s a fabulous café in Clapham where you can buy big chunky sandwiches and wodges of Millionaire’s Shortbread before you set off). It will be excellent.

The gnarly bit of Pen-y-ghent

It’s kind of appropriate that we’re going to the Three Peaks, at the end of this particular year, since I’ve occasionally used the ascent of Pen-y-ghent to illustrate the idea of resilience. If you’ve ever climbed Pen-y-ghent from Horton-in-Ribblesdale, you’ll know that there’s a steep bit, up the ‘nose’ of Pen-y-ghent, where, if you’re me, you might need to do a bit of a scramble, and swear a bit, and stop for a breather. And you’ll think you’ve reached the top, and you’ll look for the trig point. But it’s not there. Because you’re not there yet. You’ve still got another couple of hundred metres to go. The Husband and I did the Three Peaks the year we turned forty, starting with Whernside and ending with Pen-y-ghent, and that final ascent was killing. I might have actually cried. But you drag yourself on, because you’ve got no other choice, and that’s really what this year has been like. Lots of hard slog, and realising that even when you thought the hard yards were finally behind you, there was still a little bit more to negotiate.

Term finishes here next Wednesday, and on Thursday, partly because we like a challenge and partly because we don’t have the sense we were born with and didn’t think about how knackered we’d be at the end of this year, the Husband, the Dude and I will be setting out to do the Coast to Coast long-distance walk. At some point this summer, I might actually sit and do nothing.

Teacher Feature: Mr Smart

There’s been a lot of discussion on EduTwitter this last fortnight about performative attention. Should students receive a sanction if they look out of the window, fail to smile or sit up straight, or reply to a teacher in a manner that is less than upbeat? I was an extremely diligent student, but there were probably many lessons that I spent daydreaming or doodling in my planner. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t thinking. Beyond the obvious signs of engagement – putting your hand up to answer questions, completing everything that’s asked of you, making progress according to whatever system is being used to assess your work – there’s a whole lot we don’t know about what students are thinking about the things they do in class. Someone who seems to be completely switched off might suddenly reveal themselves to have been thinking very deeply about particular topics. There’s a whole hinterland in our students’ minds that we don’t necessarily have access to.

Admit it: we’ve all been there. (Source: Creative Commons)

Mr Smart, in U. A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’, is one teacher who doesn’t recognise this. His student – the anonymous narrator of the poem – has been studying Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie and it has fired off things in her brain that Mr Smart has absolutely no idea about. She doesn’t want to write character studies or explore issues about ‘social welfare in the rural community’; she just wants to lose herself in Lee’s wonderfully rich stories of his childhood. She pours all of this out to Lee in her poem, wanting to address him by his first name, even though Mr Smart says this is rude. She wishes she could ‘see everything bright and strange, the way you do’. She’s taken As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning out of the library, but Mr Smart is scornful about it, and says Spain isn’t like that any more. At the end of the poem, we learn that the narrator has failed her exam, but doesn’t blame Laurie Lee for it. His book isn’t a mere set text, but a book that has lived with her, ‘stained with Coke and Kitkat and when I had a cold.’

I used ‘Dear Mr Lee’ in a conference presentation I gave some years ago, to illustrate some of the tensions that exist in English teaching. What is the study of English Literature all about? Should we prioritise student enjoyment, or disciplinary knowledge? This is what my PhD focused on, and one thing I looked at was the fact that debates that were circulating at the time English literature became an academic discipline in the universities, back in the late nineteenth century, were still apparent in discussions about Curriculum 2000. They’re still going on today. There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter this weekend about whether English should aim to promote a love of reading, and if so, how it should do this. I admit that I’m on the fence about this. Over the years I’ve heard advocates of the full gamut of approaches, from letting students read whatever they want, even if it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Year Nine, to listening to canonical texts being read out loud in tutor time. I am deeply sceptical about both of these particular approaches, but I’m not convinced I’ve found the answer, either.

Geek that I am, I’d like my students to be able to enjoy their engagement with the discipline of English, to recognise that there is something deeply pleasurable about analysing texts and writing about them. I’d also love it if my students read outside the curriculum, and as an English teacher it’s part of my job to recommend books and give students the space to share their enthusiasm for reading. There’s a problem, though, when we make English teachers responsible for something that spills over into students’ lives outside school and doesn’t necessarily correlate with their success in curricular English. Some students will love reading, but some won’t. Some will achieve stellar grades regardless of whether they read outside of lessons. Some will be avid readers but struggle to get a Grade 4. We can encourage independent reading and even give space for it in the curriculum, but reading occupies a complex area, a bit of the Venn diagram where ‘something you’re made to do in school’ overlaps with ‘something you do at home if you really want to’.

And while we should strive to create a culture where reading will flourish, we also need to recognise that some of our students might not want to share their feelings about books with us. I remember what it was like to be fourteen or fifteen and immersed in books that I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss with my English teacher in a million years. The thoughts and feelings I had about them were often so complicated and half-formed that I’d have hated to write them up as a book review or record them in a reading journal. Leave me alone, I’d have thought. It’s none of your business what I’m reading. Let’s give students the right to think their own thoughts. And let’s recognise that the daydreamers and doodlers might have a deeper relationship with the texts they read than we will ever know.

Diversifying reading

The lack of diversity in student reading has been an issue for decades. It has, however, received increased focus over the past year, and has been the subject of a major report, Lit in Colour, produced by Penguin Books UK and the think tank The Runnymede Trust. The report, published last week, found that in 2019, fewer than 1% of GCSE English Literature candidates answered a question on a novel written by a writer of colour, and fewer than 7% answered on a novel or play written by a woman. 82% of the students surveyed did not remember ever studying a text by a Black, Asian or minority ethnic writer.

I’m ashamed to say that at my school, our students’ GCSE diet is overwhelmingly white and male. Shakespeare is compulsory, and while there are three women writers on the 19th-century novel list, I have to say the idea of teaching Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein at GCSE didn’t appeal to any of us. Studying a nineteenth-century novel at GCSE is daunting; being assessed on it through a high-stakes end-of-course assessment is even more so, and we wanted something that was both short and accessible (we’ve done Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the last few years, although we’re switching to A Christmas Carol this year). Our modern text is An Inspector Calls. So we haven’t opted for any of the texts that would allow us to offer a more diverse range at GCSE. This is partly an issue of resourcing, but also of expertise. We’re teaching texts that we know, for which we have units of work that include extensive PowerPoints, worksheets, contextual information and sample responses, and for which students are able to find study guides and websites to support their learning. And I’d imagine that many schools, quizzed on their text choices for GCSE, would give a similar answer.

Lower down the school, though, it’s different. We have tried really hard over the past few years to increase the levels of challenge in student reading, and to diversify the texts we use. All our Key Stage 3 students have a reading lesson once a fortnight. This isn’t ideal – I’d rather have a little bit of reading every lesson, rather than one chunk once per cycle – but it’s a product of the way our timetable works and I can’t see it changing. These reading lessons used to take place in our lovely school library, and three years ago we put together reading lists for each year group to shadow and support the units we were working on in class. Our Year Seven reading list, for instance, included texts like I Am Malala, Wonder, The Reason I Jump and Ruby Holler; our Year Nine list contained Persepolis, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Safe Area: Goražde and The Way We Live Now. But there were problems. We had copies of all of the texts, and multiple copies of some texts, but not enough. We didn’t have the funds to buy more. We started a Sponsor-a-Book scheme, to allow parents and local businesses to support us. Some came forward, but not many. And then COVID happened; and bubbles happened; and we couldn’t use the library any more.

Patchwork quilt, USA, c. 1885, displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This gave us the chance to go right back to basics and look at Key Stage 3 reading again. We decided pretty quickly that we wanted to replace independent reading with a series of class readers. Our stock cupboards gave us some possibilities, but we knew we’d need more books. We secured enough emergency funding to buy two new sets of class readers for each year group, and set about deciding which books we wanted to introduce.

One decision we made very early on was that we didn’t want to buy any books by white men, no matter how good they were. There are lots of excellent books for this age group written by white men, but frankly there are enough white men on the curriculum anyway and we wanted to do something different. So, all of our new books had to be by women. We’re a boys’ school, and it’s vital that our students explore and experience female perspectives. We also wanted greater cultural diversity. However, we wanted to avoid stereotypes. One of my former students commented that ‘books for boys about ethnic minorities always seem to be about gangs, as though that’s the only thing we’re interested in.’ We also felt very strongly that in thinking about diversity, we also needed to consider those of our students who come from Eastern European backgrounds. The Lit in Colour report recognises that ‘the term BIPOC does not notably include White Ethnic Minorities who are the target of racism, such as Gypsy Roma Travellers or Eastern European migrants, although it is sometimes argued to include these groups.’ A growing number of our students are of Polish and Lithuanian heritage, with others coming from Latvia, Romania, Russia and Moldova. In a constituency that registered the second highest proportion of Leave votes in the 2016 EU referendum, and bordering another constituency with the highest proportion, we are acutely aware of the hostility that many of our students and their families experience.

Some choices were easy. The Other Side of Hope by Beverley Naidoo is a cracking read with lots of pace and tension, and opens students’ eyes to the reality of lives that are torn apart by conflict. Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin has long been a favourite, with its story of the sinister Coram Man and exploration of the lives of orphans in eighteenth-century England. And Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends, set on the remote Scottish archipelago of St Kilda, is a brilliant example of historical fiction that offered an intriguing counterpoint to life in lockdown.

Other choices required more research. We struggled to find any novels for this age group by writers of Eastern European origin that focused on the experiences of recent migrants. We did, however, choose Between Shades of Gray by the Lithuanian-American writer Ruta Sepetys. Its story of 15-year-old Lina, who is deported from Lithuania with her mother and brother in 1941 and sent to a labour camp in Siberia, asks readers to consider what keeps us alive when we are faced with the most extreme of circumstances. We also chose Sarah Crossan’s verse novel The Weight of Water, narrated by Kasienka, a Polish girl who arrives in Coventry with her mother in search of a better life. It’s a book about not fitting in and finding your own way, making tough decisions and relying on yourself, and appealed to our Year Eights even though they complained that the cover was ‘a bit girly.’

Our final choice was Hell and High Water, by the Carnegie Award-winning novelist Tanya Landman. It’s the story of Caleb, a young man whose father is transported to the Colonies for a crime he did not commit. As Caleb struggles to clear his father’s name, he becomes entangled in a web of secrets, finding out about the exploitation and injustice that exist in the world around him – and discovering more about himself in the process. It’s a pacy, intriguing novel full of courage and adversity, and a great read for our Year Nines.

We’re not there yet. All of our Key Stage 3 students have read at least one novel by a woman this year (in many cases, two or three). Most, although not all, have read a novel by a writer of colour. We’re about to introduce Iridescent Adolescent, the English and Media Centre’s fantastic anthology of short stories, and we’ve got more writers of colour and more working-class writers. We wanted to get beyond the stereotype that novels addressing themes of ethnic diversity that are suitable for teenage boys are all about gang culture and urban violence, and I think we’ve managed to do that. We’d like more sensitive male protagonists. What we’d really like would be a novel by a young writer from an Eastern European background exploring the experience of recent migrants, so agents and publishers, get cracking.

The other thing I’d say about diversifying your reading in schools: finding suitable novels, following up recommendations and discussing which texts would be most suitable for your students, takes time. Reading is an essential part of CPD for English teachers. Just because reading is something we enjoy and spend part of our spare time doing, it shouldn’t be assumed that we’re willing to do this particular CPD in our own time. Schools need to give students time to read, but they also need to invest in time for their English teachers to read as well.