On the road

It’s funny how certain stretches of road bring things back. Twenty years ago, I was doing a PhD, part-time, at the University of Nottingham, and every six weeks or so I’d leave school at the end of the day and set off in the opposite direction to home, up the A1 and then along the A52, negotiating roundabouts and lane changes and early evening city traffic. I’d park near the Trent Building with its shiny white Portland-stone surfaces, heave my lever arch folders out of the car, and make my way to my supervisor’s room with its bright posters and scratched wooden table. We’d talk for an hour, and then I’d go home with a head full of ideas, singing along to mixtapes made for me by my friend Dermot, all Kristin Hersh and Vic Chesnutt and REM, back in the day when mixtapes were still a thing. It was a good time.

Rainbow over Nottinghamshire. Taken from the A52, 30 October 2021

It seems a bit mad, now, to sign up for a part-time PhD alongside full-time teaching, but back then it made total sense. I’d always intended to do postgraduate work, but didn’t apply straight after graduating, partly because I was scared I wouldn’t get the funding and partly because I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. I did a PGCE instead, and told myself I’d teach for a couple of years and then go back to university. Then my mum died, very suddenly, at the beginning of my second year of teaching, and my immediate need was not to uproot myself and give up my job but to put a deposit down on a house. There was enough money left over for me to fund myself through part-time postgraduate work as long as I carried on teaching as well, so that’s what I decided to do.

I wanted to look at the history of English Literature as an academic discipline, and was very lucky in being able to find lots of archival material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when universities in England were establishing their first degree courses in English Literature. I could talk about this for ages, but to simplify massively, there were lots of people in the late nineteenth century who didn’t think that English Literature should be studied at degree level. One group felt that it wasn’t difficult enough to be studied at university: reading imaginative literature and having opinions about it was what you did in your spare time, rather than something that could be examined with any kind of academic rigour. Another group, on the other hand, felt that literature was too special to be the object of academic study. One’s relationship with literature was personal, ineffable, and any attempt to turn it into an academic discipline would inevitably crush it.

If you’re spotting parallels here with current debates about the teaching of English, that’s interesting, because the other main element of my research centred on the discussions that were taking place about Curriculum 2000 and the teaching of English Literature at A level. What I was interested in – and what I would never have known about if I hadn’t spent a couple of years in the classroom – was the fact that the arguments that had circulated about the academic study of English Literature in the late nineteenth century had never really gone away. The early supporters of disciplinary English had to define the body of knowledge that was being taught and the way in which this knowledge would be assessed. Their initial attempts to do this often involved testing remembered facts, such as recalling the details of particular locations in Shakespeare’s history plays, or listing important national events that might have made an impression on Geoffrey Chaucer. Students had to define technical terms and offer plot summaries. My favourite question, set at King’s College London in 1882, was ‘Quote any passage from “Christabel”’.

Over the years, in a piecemeal manner, the universities started to develop ways of teaching English Literature that depended on interpretation and understanding, rather than the simple retrieval of knowledge. But the problem of English never really went away. In the early 2000s, just as I was grappling with my PhD thesis, teachers of English were navigating their way through the first few iterations of Curriculum 2000. A level English Literature now placed a greater emphasis on critical and contextual knowledge: some commentators argued that this was a way of making the subject easier to examine, and others contended that it jeopardised the delicate nature of the relationships that students were building with the study of English. A lot of work went into trying to steer a course through the new specifications, ensuring that the study of English was rigorous and challenging yet also maintaining a space for personal engagement (and protecting students, as much as we could, from the excesses of an exam-heavy curriculum). Knowledge, understanding, personal growth, the development of skills: the elements that we’re still wrestling with now, as we try to work out how best to foster our students’ relationships with this fabulous – and fabulously complex – subject.

There’s more that I could say about the study of English, but that’s for another post, because really this post is about places and times and why some phases of our lives matter so much. My PhD took me to a number of dusty university archives, and also other places, among them Duke Humfrey’s Library at Oxford, where I read the minutes of English faculty meetings in JRR Tolkien’s spiky handwriting. It led me to speak at conferences and meet lovely people and also write a book, Defining Literary Criticism, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. But it also took me along the A52, more times than I can remember. In the second year of my doctorate, one of my colleagues started an MA, and we travelled up to Nottingham together and stopped off on the way home at the Little Chef near Holme Pierrepoint, loading up on coffee and carbs – chips and a burger for him, a toasted teacake for me – before facing the rest of the journey. Those hours on the road, thinking and talking and letting ideas percolate, were immensely important. It was a time of my life between one lot of difficult experiences and another, and it stands out as a block of time that was wholly joyful and unproblematic.

We drove along the A52 this morning, on our way back from a wedding in Derby, and it brought all those memories back. The Little Chef isn’t there any more, and there are some additional tricky junctions, which is the way life goes, I guess. But I still remember those journeys, and the feeling of having a head full of ideas, buzzing and eager, and remember it as one of the most important times of my life.

#youcanadopt, but that doesn’t mean you should

National Adoption Week begins in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday 18 October. In the past, this week has largely taken the form of a recruitment drive for prospective adopters, and while this year’s event is giving more space to the voices of adopted adults and birth parents, the event’s web address – https://www.youcanadopt.co.uk/NAW/ – still places the emphasis on persuading people to make that initial contact and take the first steps on the road to becoming an adoptive parent. Photos of angelic-looking children, soft-focus film footage of happy families on the beach, the occasional celebrity wheeled on to talk about their experiences: it’s the starting-point for countless rescue fantasies, a sugar-coated vision of a beautiful, unproblematic future.

I did wonder, a few days ago, whether I should write about National Adoption Week at all. I am an adoptive parent, but National Adoption Week shouldn’t be about adoptive parents. How To Be Adopted has written very powerfully about what it’s like to experience National Adoption Week as an adopted person, and to realise that National Adoption Week isn’t actually about you at all. I am very aware of the feelings that many adopted people have about adoptive parents taking up more room than is really theirs in public discussions about adoption. Shut up, Atherton! Equally, though, I think it’s important to point out that we don’t all support the view that adoption is a beautiful way of providing children with loving families and seeing them all live happily ever after. There’s a stereotype of adoptive parents as starry-eyed and naïve, all in favour of closed adoption and perpetually threatened by the thought of our children’s birth families. I have no doubt whatsoever that many adopters fit this stereotype. But lots of us don’t, and I think it’s important that we stand up and shout about it, as an act of consciousness-raising for adopters who buy into the myth and to show our solidarity for adopted people. Is there an equivalent of ‘fogged’ and ‘unfogged’ for adoptive parents? There should be. Blimey, this is complicated.

In fact, complication is going to be the theme of this post. I’ve been involved in adoption for over seventeen years now, most of them as an adoptive parent but also, latterly, as a writer and researcher looking at the history of adoption in the UK and at the way adoption is portrayed in fiction and popular culture. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that adoption is not one simple thing. I’ve started dividing it into three broad areas. There’s the general concept of adoption, the placing of children into alternative families to whom they are not directly related, which has happened since time immemorial, often on an informal basis unregulated by any kind of legal framework. There are the individual adoption systems, often very different from each other, that exist and have existed in different countries around the world. Finally, there are the millions of adoptions that have taken place as a result of these systems, and the people affected by them: birth parents and extended families, adoptive parents, and most importantly, the children whose lives are changed irrevocably by what they experience.

Adoption is a murky business. I think all prospective adopters should know something about this, because it highlights our responsibility to be aware of the traumas that lie at the heart of adoption (and, depending on where we are in the world and what kind of system we’re adopting through, our complicity in perpetuating some of these traumas). Many of the adoption systems that have existed around the world have been grounded in practices that are corrupt and coercive, guilty of perpetrating widespread generational trauma and abuse. The thousands of Native American children placed with white adopters in the name of ‘assimilation’; the unmarried mothers pressurised into giving up their children in the so-called ‘baby scoop’ era; the babies who are trafficked, placed in orphanages and adopted by people in distant countries who think that they are giving them an unproblematic chance of a better life. In some countries, apologies have been issued to recognise the wrongs of the past. In February 2008, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’, the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage removed from their families, although this came after a decade of resistance by the previous Australian government. The Irish Taoiseach Mícheál Martin apologised in January 2021 for the appalling treatment of unmarried women and their children in the country’s mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998. In the UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has launched an inquiry into the experiences of unmarried women whose children were adopted between 1949 and 1976 in England and Wales. These injustices haven’t gone away. Many adopted people around the world are still denied access to the most basic of information about themselves: their original birth certificates and medical records, details of their life stories and birth families. And in some adoption systems, an awful lot of money changes hands. Researching this post, I googled ‘US Adoption Agency’ to see what came up. The first hit, for the private adoption agency American Adoptions, told me that a typical domestic adoption would cost between $60,000 and $70,000. (One agency offers ‘credit repair services’ for prospective adopters whose credit rating might be ‘below standard’, and invites people to get a ‘no-obligation quote’, as if they’re thinking about getting their double glazing replaced. Another offers helpful ideas for funding your adoption, like holding a bake sale or car wash, or starting a crowdfunder.)

The stigma and coercion that caused so many women to lose their babies to adoption is now, thankfully, a thing of the past in the UK, although I know that this is not the case elsewhere in the world. We are told, though, that forced adoptions still exist in this country, in the form of those children who are removed from their birth parents by order of the courts, because – under Section 31 of the 1989 Children Act – the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, as a result of the parents’ lack of care. ‘Significant’, in this case, is defined as ‘ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development, including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another’.

I’m uncomfortable with using the term ‘forced adoption’ to describe this situation. There, I’ve said it. Yes, it involves the removal of a child against the birth parents’ wishes, and the permanent severing of the legal tie between parent and child. But there’s a world of difference between coercing a scared young woman into giving up her baby on the pretext that it’s the best solution for everyone, with the threat of family estrangement and ostracism in the background, and removing a child from a situation of neglect or abuse. If you go on BAILII, the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, and browse the Family Court Decisions, you can see the records of cases where children have been removed, and where judges have decided that adoption is the most appropriate way forward. Sometimes, this is a straightforward decision. Think of the child protection cases we hear about in the news, when sadly, it’s too late. At other times, it’s much more complex. Judges have to balance the capacity of a parent to make necessary changes with the needs of a child for stability and security. Many cases involve birth parents whose own lives have been desperately difficult. The message we received when we did our prep course, almost seventeen years ago now, was that birth parents are, overwhelmingly, ‘sad, not bad’. But there will always be situations where it is not safe for children to remain with their families of origin. How do we give these children the nurturing and support and love they need, in order for them to grow and flourish? How do we, as a society, help them to heal?

There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether adoption is a proportionate response to situations like this. Of course the primary aim of any kind of intervention should be to preserve and support the family. This should go without saying. If this can’t happen, then of course social services should try to place the child within the extended family, or if not, with foster carers who will facilitate contact with birth parents until the child can return home. But what comes next? Some people point to long-term foster care as an option. That way, they argue, the legal bond between parent and child is still there, and there’s always the possibility that the child might be able to return if – in a few years’ time – the birth parents have been able to make the necessary changes to their lives. And that all sounds brilliant. But foster care is not permanent. Some children in foster care are able to stay in one long-term placement until they reach adulthood. But they’re in the minority. Placements break down, and children are moved elsewhere. Imagine being eight, and having to move on from your school and your friends, not just once in a year but potentially several times. Imagine it being October, and not being sure where you’ll be spending Christmas. Imagine not having any say in how your bedroom’s decorated, because you know that really it’s not your bedroom: living in a house where there are pets that you want to love but know you shouldn’t get too fond of, because you don’t know how long you’ll be staying. Think of a child you know well: your own child, maybe, or your niece or nephew. Is this the kind of life you’d want for them? Thought not. If they’re particularly unfortunate, they might be placed, at the age of 16, into an unregulated setting, dressed up under the guise of ‘a stepping stone to independence’. And then, once they turn 18, that’s it.

Adoption, then, is not a beautiful way of creating a new family, not unicorns and rainbows, but something that is needed in those cases where all other options have been explored and where children cannot remain within their birth family. It involves trauma and sadness and a whole lot of anger and grief. And none of these feelings go away. They might get buried, they might be hidden behind a mask of being ‘grateful’ or being told that you’re ‘lucky’, but they’re still there.

So. At the risk, now, of being accused of making this ‘all about the adoptive parents’, I’m going to list four things that I’d want to be a part of all adoptive parents’ preparation and support. Because if we want to support adopted people for the long term, we need to make sure that the people who adopt them as children are fully aware of the ramifications that adoption will have throughout their lives.

  1. An understanding of the ethical complexities involved in adoption, and of those times and places where adoption has involved appalling injustices. There are countless books, documentaries and websites that could help with this. My Name is Bridget by Alison O’Reilly, about the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in County Galway, is an absolute must-read.
  2. Training in and ongoing support with therapeutic parenting. Formal support stops, at the moment, when an adoption order is granted. Post-adoption support is patchily available and hard to access. But we need help. I am currently reading Dr Amber Elliott’s brilliant book Superparenting, which absolutely nails the difficulty of parenting a child who has experienced developmental trauma: ‘The stress of looking after a traumatized child who is defending against shame and suffering from the effects of toxic stress creates one of the most challenging environments for rational thinking there is’. Saying that we need help isn’t putting adoptive parents first: it’s recognising that if we want to help adopted people in the long term, we need to help adoptive parents.
  3. An understanding that adoption isn’t just about childhood. This should be obvious but I think there is a feeling amongst some adopters that their children will eventually forget that they’re adopted. It won’t dissolve into the mist. Organisations such as Adoptee Futures are doing a vitally important job in raising awareness of the lifelong consequences of being adopted and this is a drum that needs lots of banging.
  4. An understanding of the importance of heritage, keeping in touch with birth family, and the feelings involved in reunion. How To Be Adopted has written brilliantly about the fetishization of blood ties and genealogical links. There’s a lot of work to be done on maintaining links with wider birth family, and on supporting adopted young adults to negotiate the feelings involved in tracing and being reunited with birth relatives. As adopters, we need to recognise that our adopted children can maintain their relationship with us whilst also exploring and forming relationships with their birth family. It’s not an either/or.

I didn’t mean to write this much. I’ll shut up now. Deep breath, and let’s hope this week passes without too much stress.

On pineapples, asking questions, and treading softly

I’ll tell you what, though: I wish asking women about babies was forbidden. I long for the day when strangers and acquaintances don’t feel entitled to ask me about my reproductive choices.’ Katie Edwards, The Independent, 11 October 2021

Sigh. Just when you thought that the 21st century had finally – maybe – arrived, the new president of Murray Edwards College, the University of Cambridge’s one remaining all-female college, jerks you right back into the 1950s by complaining that it seems to be ‘almost forbidden’ to ask young women about their plans to start a family. (Nothing about asking young men about their plans to start a family, you’ll note: it’s only women who need a bit of a nudge.) There are, of course, many reasons why people’s reproductive choices are none of anyone else’s business, and I’m not going to rehearse them here. What I am going to do is to write about what it’s like to be asked those questions when you don’t actually have any reproductive choices at all. It’s estimated that one in seven couples in the UK experience problems conceiving: chances are that even if you’re not affected, there’ll be somebody in your workplace, in your family or your circle of friends, who is. That means there’s an awful lot of us who face those questions, and we need people to know why it’s not okay to put us on the spot.

I’m in my late forties now, so it’s a long time since I’ve been on the receiving end of questions like this, but there was a period of a few years when they seemed to crop up everywhere. When The Husband and I got married, it was the obvious thing to ask. Are you feeling broody yet? Are we going to be getting some exciting news soon? I got used the kind of voice people used when they asked. You know the one: that bright perky meaningful voice, reeking of entitlement and nosing its way in where it isn’t wanted. It wasn’t just the questions, it was the hints as well. When I bought a new car, one friend pointed out that its boot was just the right size for a pushchair. When I decided to grow my hair, my then hairdresser mused that many of her customers decided to grow their hair when they got pregnant. I didn’t go back.

I spent a lot of time pretending not to be interested in babies. Every week, there seemed to be another pregnancy announcement: another collection for another colleague going off on maternity leave, another round of pass-the-baby when they came in to introduce us to the new arrival. When’s it going to be your turn? I kept my head down and feigned indifference like a boss.

The reality was that The Husband and I were trying to have a baby but failing. It had all started so well. We were twenty-nine, and we’d decided that it was the perfect time to start a family. We had a mortgage. We were old enough to be responsible parents. Neither of us smoked, neither of us had any worries about our health, and we assumed that I’d get pregnant as soon as we started trying. The worst-case scenario was that it would take a few months. It would happen, naturally enough, at the time we’d decided was most convenient, fitted in between holidays and work commitments and carefully timed so that the baby would be born at the right point in the school year, preferably September or October, to have all the benefits that came from being one of the oldest in the class. But we had to be careful. We couldn’t start trying too early because then we’d risk having a baby in August, and that would be terrible. Imagine!

Spoiler: it doesn’t work. (Source: Pexel)

People give you all manner of rubbish advice when they know you’re trying to conceive. Try yoga. Or Reiki. Eat lots of pineapple. Enjoy the lack of responsibility. Just relax! It’ll happen when you least expect it. Take a holiday. We went to Norfolk for the weekend. It didn’t work. I gave up expecting people to understand, and turned to the internet, where I found a wealth of support groups for women who were trying to get pregnant. There was a whole new language to get my head round, from the technical vocabulary of reproductive medicine to the cutesy slang that people used as a means of keeping the awfulness of the whole thing at arm’s length. Having sex was ‘doing the deed’, or, more toe-curlingly, ‘babydancing.’ Posters wished each other ‘babydust’ when they were waiting to see if their latest attempts to conceive had been successful, and sent ‘sticky vibes’ to people who’d recently had a BFP (big fat positive) on a pregnancy test. Dedicated A level English Language teacher that I was, I could see why people communicated in this way: it was a shared social code, a way of signalling membership of a group that nobody wanted to be a member of for long. But it wasn’t me.

Fortunately, I found an ally. Kate – who I’m still in touch with, nearly eighteen years later – had messaged me when I’d voiced my frustration about people asking intrusive questions (see, nothing’s changed) and we’d swapped email addresses. We exchanged emails – long ones, sometimes several times a day – sharing what we’d been through and the sense of isolation we’d felt. We became fellow refuseniks, scarred and toughened. It was the first time I’d found anyone who really understood.

Kate and I had a hot date every Wednesday night. It was a very particular kind of date, for two reasons. The first was because it took place over the phone, a necessity given that we lived on opposite sides of the country. The second was that it revolved around watching the BBC TV series Bodies. Written by Jed Mercurio, a former doctor, Bodies was set on the obstetrics and gynaecology ward of a fictional NHS hospital. Its plot focused on two characters: an ambitious but bumbling consultant, Roger Hurley, who wreaked havoc on the nether regions of countless pregnant women, and a junior doctor, Rob Lake, who agonised over whether to risk his career by blowing the whistle. There was plenty of NHS politics – cheeseparing managers, league tables and people watching their backs – plus a maverick senior consultant, played by Keith Allen, whose personalised number plate read VAG 1. But it wasn’t the politics that interested us. It was the gory scenes of childbirth and its aftermath: uterine prolapses, forceps and Ventouses, fourth-degree tears and cascades of blood. Separated by the best part of two hundred miles, curled up on our respective sofas, we’d sit and talk, breaking off occasionally to watch in horrified fascination when something particularly gruesome happened. Because really, what lay beneath our obsession with Bodies was the knowledge that we had escaped all this. We may have been infertile, we may have endured all those months of symptom-spotting and been left feeling like failures, but at least we’d be spared the horrors of the delivery room and the emergency C-section. For an hour every Wednesday evening, we could console ourselves. We could run for the bus and not worry about leaky pelvic floors; we could drink wine and stuff ourselves with pâté and soft cheese. We were heady with the intoxication of having found a gang to join, even if it was only a gang of two.

Consolation prize. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Deciding to adopt put an immediate stop to all the questions about when we were going to start a family, and probably gave some people food for thought about what had been going on in the background during all that time when I’d been practising my evasive tactics and pretending not to be interested. To my immense regret, I never confronted anyone back then about how insensitive their questions were. Kate was braver than me. She’d taken colleagues to task for tactless remarks, pointing out that fertility is a privilege that not everyone shares. Many of our conversations revolved around the importance of openness. Kate told me that she’d gained huge comfort from her friendships with older, childless women, several of whom had shared their own stories of being unable to conceive at a time when infertility was a subject that people just didn’t talk about. Her experiences had prompted them to reveal griefs that had been hidden for decades, and to show her that it was possible to envisage a future without children. She’d also told some younger friends what she’d been through. ‘If nobody talks about infertility, Carol,’ she’d explained to me during one of our Wednesday night phone calls, ‘then everyone who goes through it thinks they’re the only one, they’re completely alone. And younger couples just carry on thinking that when they decide it’s time to start a family it’ll all be okay, it’ll happen just when they want it to, just like we did. Somebody needs to tell them it doesn’t always work out like that.’ We were going to be the wise women, we decided: the people who knew how it really was. We’d been fired in a crucible, burnished and hardened, but with knowledge to pass on that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There might seem to be a contradiction between wanting to be open but not wanting to be asked intrusive questions. The key difference, though, is obvious. I’m open about infertility on my terms. It’s a conversation that I get to start, when I feel comfortable about it. It’s not a corner that I should feel backed into. It’s driven by my desire for honesty, not your thirst for gossip. It’s a horrible experience – crushing and isolating – and it’s one that people should know more about. But only when I’m ready to tell.

Raising awareness is very much on my radar at the moment. Next week, it’s National Adoption Week, and you can bet your life I’ll have lots to say about that, but that’s for another post. This week, it’s Baby Loss Awareness Week, which aims to break the silence that can exist around the loss of a baby. Every year, the week culminates in a global Wave of Light on 15 October, when bereaved families around the world light candles, at 7pm local time, to commemorate the lives of babies who died during pregnancy or soon after birth.

It’s a necessary event. In the past, stories abounded of parents whose babies were taken away before they had the chance to say goodbye, let alone to grieve. Doris, the narrator of Alan Bennett’s monologue ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’, gives birth to a stillborn son who is wrapped in newspaper, ‘as if he was dirty’. Nowadays, bereaved parents are supported: specialist workers help them to create memory boxes with handprints and locks of hair, and there is time – however brief – for them to hold and cherish their baby, to ease this heartbreaking loss. So many couples go through this. Every October, on social media, I’m struck by how many of my friends and acquaintances light candles. I knew about some of their experiences, but had no idea about others. Then, a pink candle, a blue candle, sometimes alone, sometimes in multiples, and I rethink my perceptions of particular lives and the sorrows they must have contained.

So, in a week when the president of Murray Edwards has lamented the fact that she no longer feels able to ask young women about their plans to have children, let’s think about all the possible answers that people might give, and the experiences that lie behind them. Let’s remember those who have suffered those gut-wrenching losses, and those who, like me, never got to see a positive line on a pregnancy test, and never had anything tangible to grieve. This is a club that none of us ever wanted to join. But let’s try to share our experiences, if we can, in the hope that it might make things easier for those who don’t yet know what life has in store for them.

Teaching King Lear: Introducing Edmund

We’re nearly at the end of Act One of King Lear! There are lots of things I could blog about – Goneril and riotous knights and the concept of tragedy among them – but today I’m going to focus on Edmund.

Where do we start? Edmund is there right at the beginning of the play, in the conversation that takes place before the entrance of Lear and the spectacle of the love trial. His father, Gloucester, introduces him to Kent, and makes a crass remark about what ‘good sport’ there was ‘at his making’. He also informs Kent that Edmond is illegitimate, referring to him as a ‘whoreson’. Edmund, in response, says very little. It’s easy to skim over this brief conversation on the way to the main part of the action, but I’d argue that students need to go back to it, once they’ve studied Act 1 Scene 2, and imagine what Edmund is thinking while his father is engaging in tactless banter about his conception. How does he react? Is there an eye-roll, a grimace? Does he play along? Has he heard it all before?

Thou, Nature, art my goddess: Daniel Schroeder as Edmund (Source: YouTube)

If Edmund’s behaviour in Act 1 Scene 1 is somewhat inscrutable, Act 1 Scene 2 leaves us under no illusions whatsoever as to how he actually feels about his situation. His soliloquy at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 2 reveals him as charismatic, persuasive, and deeply resentful. Note that it’s the first soliloquy spoken in the whole play. I draw students’ attention to this, as it’s a good point to make about Shakespeare’s methods, and encourages them to think about dramatic method on a much broader level than the picky micro analysis that GCSE often seems to encourage. (I get them to think of Shakespeare as the puppeteer, pulling the strings: why does he make this character, whichever character it might be, do this at this particular point in the play?)

Soliloquies are a funny thing. They can be played simply as the revelation of a character’s thoughts, allowing the audience access to feelings and motivations that do not – for whatever reason – emerge in conversation. In this type of soliloquy, it’s as though we, as the audience, are not actually there: we’re simply witnessing the private unfolding of the workings of a character’s mind. A good example of this kind of soliloquy is Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ in Act 2 Scene 1, immediately before the murder of Duncan. But some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies can equally be played as monologues, spoken directly to the audience. Edmund’s soliloquies fall into this category. Yes, he could be speaking just to himself, voicing the grudges that have been burning within him ever since he learned of his inferior status. However, I’d argue that his solo speeches are much more effective when used as a way of building a relationship with the audience, breaking the fourth wall and inviting us to share in the injustice of his situation. One excellent example of this is Paapa Essiedu’s performance for the 2016 RSC production, available on Digital Theatre: Essiedu’s facial expressions beckon the audience to join in with his disdain and present Edmund – after the mannered speeches of Gonerill and Regan – as perfectly plausible and sympathetic. Two very good short film examples are Daniel Schroeder’s and Riz Ahmed’s for the Guardian’s Shakespeare Solos series, both of which are delivered straight to camera. After all, to a 21st century audience, Edmund’s objections to his treatment are perfectly reasonable. Why should he be branded with baseness, purely because of his illegitimacy?

There’s also the language that Edmund uses. I get students to count the number of questions in his first soliloquy. There are nine in the first fifteen lines: not only questioning, but almost hectoring. Who is he addressing? There’s Nature, first of all, who he addresses as ‘my goddess’, although note that he uses the familiar ‘thou’. There’s Edgar, who we have not yet seen, and who looms in Edmund’s mind as an object of hatred. And there are the gods, the object of Edmund’s final command: ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ (An interesting exercise you can get students to do is to look at how many times characters in King Lear try to command the gods, as opposed to making requests of them: they’ve not yet learned to ask politely.) Students can also examine the way Edmund plays around with the words that taunt him, spitting out the plosives in ‘bastardy’ and ‘base’ and holding the syllables of ‘legitimate’ up for inspection. Get them to experiment with different ways of emphasising these words, or demonstrate yourself.

I wanted to find out how many soliloquies Edmund actually speaks, so I consulted Open Source Shakespeare and did some counting. (Open Source Shakespeare is brilliant: I found out that the word ‘nothing’ appears more times in King Lear than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays, which is a useful thing for your students to know.) Edmund has more soliloquies than any other character in King Lear – six in total – and his soliloquies make up almost a quarter of his lines. After him, the character given the most opportunities of speaking to the audience is Edgar. An interesting point to note is that Lear – alone of the four great tragic protagonists – has no soliloquies at all, although there are some well-known study websites that claim he has a number of soliloquies, including his ‘O reason not the need!’ speech in Act 2 Scene 4 (spoken in front of both his daughters, Cornwall, Kent, the Fool, and various servants) and his apostrophising of the storm in Act 3 Scene 2 (spoken in front of the Fool). A useful point to make to your students: don’t trust everything you read online.

For a very different Edmund – Robert Lindsay, dripping with hatred – see the 1983 Granada TV production, about 20 minutes in. And see also my article for the British Library’s Discovering Literature series on Edmund, Goneril and Regan, which explores Edmund as an example of Machiavellian duplicity.  

Original writing: Edward Hopper’s Automat

Year 11 are working on the Original Writing task for GCSE Paper 1 at the moment, and we spent today’s lesson looking at how to explore an image. There are dozens of ways you can approach this task, and I’m sure people have their favourite methods, but I thought I’d write about this lesson because it’s a lovely way of getting students to generate ideas.

A couple of days ago, I read codexterous’s blog post on creative writing icebergs, and thought that this was a brilliant way of getting students to think about an image that I’ve used for years as a creative writing prompt, Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat. So the Do Now task for today’s lesson was the following slide:

The students very quickly came up with the idea of isolation, and the idea that both images conveyed a sense of cold, whether physical or metaphorical. I prompted them to think of what they knew about icebergs, and from then it was an easy jump to the idea of surfaces and what lies beneath: the fact that you can look at Hopper’s image and have no idea what’s going on in the woman’s mind, or in her life, to bring her to this lonely café.

We then started to look at the painting in more depth. I asked the students to spend a couple of minutes simply writing down what they could see. It was fascinating to see how closely they read the image. They began with obvious points: a woman wearing a green coat and a yellow hat, sitting alone at a table in a café, with a window behind her in which two rows of lights are reflected in the darkness. Then they started to focus on particular details. One of them pointed out that the warmth of the colours: the reds, oranges and yellows. Another picked up on the empty chair opposite the woman. There was a lot of discussion of her clothes. Her coat looks expensive, with a fur collar and cuffs. Her dress is short and low-cut: she looks as if she’s dressed for a night out. She doesn’t have a bag with her. She’s wearing only one glove. She’s looking into her cup of coffee with a downcast expression on her face, emphasised by downward curve of the brim of her hat. I get students to think even further, about the things they can’t see: how much coffee is left in her cup, what time it might be, whether the table is clean or a little bit sticky.

Edward Hopper, ‘Automat’, 1927

From this point, questions abound. Why is she there? Is she on her way to somewhere, or is she going home? If she’s on her way somewhere, does she know where she’s going? How long has she been there? Was there someone sitting opposite her earlier? Has there ever been someone sitting opposite her? Is she running away from something? Why is she so dressed up? Has the person behind the counter noticed she’s there? Are they keeping an eye on her, concerned, wondering whether they should ask if everything’s okay?

We’re going to spend more time developing this piece of writing next week, but today we finished by focusing on that cup of coffee. I asked the students to imagine that they were looking at it, from the woman’s point of view, and to describe it. We shared our ideas, and one student came up with the brilliant idea that it had originally had a heart drawn in the foam on top, but that now the heart had disintegrated, leaving the woman with nothing but the dregs. We talked about what kinds of sentence structures might help us to create a sense of bleakness and despair, and decided that some single-words sentences, and short simple sentences, might be useful. Then we had five minutes to write a description, and I wrote alongside the students. Here’s what I came up with:

There wasn’t time for us to share our work, but that will be the starting point for next lesson. We’ll then think about how to structure a longer piece of writing, using drop-zoom-flash-end as a scaffold. Lots of thinking, lots of rich discussion and hard imaginative work, but the kind of lesson that passed by very quickly.

This post is featured by Twinkl in their ‘Teaching Writing’ blog

Teaching King Lear: practices and processes

We’re now three weeks into term, and my Year Twelves are up to Act 1 Scene 4 of King Lear. We haven’t met the Fool yet – he’s waiting until next lesson – but we’re thoroughly immersed, and I’m remembering what a fantastic play this is to teach.

Over the years I’ve witnessed lots of discussions about the teaching of Shakespeare: whether you approach a play through a cold read or a warm read, when to introduce contextual and critical reading, whether to watch a production of the whole play first and so on. My approach varies a little depending on the nature of the group I have in front of me, but I begin by scaffolding students’ reading very heavily. In a typical lesson, I’ll give them a brief overview of whichever scene we’re focusing on – not a plot summary, but a sense of its significance within the play and any major characters we meet. We’ll then read the scene out loud, sometimes splitting it into sections. At the start of the course I ask for volunteers to read, as the start of an A level course can be intimidating not just academically but also interpersonally, especially if you’ve come from a different school or if you’ve spent much of your school career in middle sets and have suddenly found yourself in a group with people who are much more able and confident than you. I don’t want to expose anyone. Once the students are more comfortable with each other, and once I’ve got to know them, I’ll start to allocate parts.

I know some people are sceptical about getting students to read Shakespeare out loud, with memories of stumbling over words and taking ages to get through the play. I think the stumbling is an important part of the learning process and use it as a way of exploring unfamiliar vocabulary. Lots of reassurance also helps to build a sense of your classroom as a safe space where struggling is accepted. I will intervene at points when we’re reading aloud to question and check understanding, drawing in especially those students who aren’t reading and anyone who I suspect might be struggling but not want to admit it. Yes, I could show a professional production of the play, but the exploratory talk is really valuable and part of helping the group to coalesce and learn to trust each other (and me) at this early stage.

That didn’t go to plan. Cordelia’s Portion, by Ford Madox Brown

Once we’ve finished a particular part of the scene, I’ll display a set of questions designed to make sure students’ understanding is secure and get them to make some observations about aspects of language, character and theme. At this stage, these are fairly simple: I emphasise that our study of the play will be an iterative process and that we’ll add layers of detail and complexity as we go along. Students discuss these questions in pairs or small groups and make notes. We then discuss as a whole class, and I’ll build in further layers of questioning to probe, secure, extend – whatever’s needed at this stage.

We encourage students to use the Cornell method of notemaking, but for our read-through of the play I’ve introduced a slightly modified version in which students split the main part of their page into two equal columns rather than having a narrower left-hand column. Their initial responses to questions go on the left, and then they use the right-hand column to add detail during our discussion. The section at the bottom of the page is used to summarise key points when they revisit their notes.

What about introducing productions? I do this in a number of ways: showing clips of different versions to highlight different interpretations, showing the play act by act so students can consolidate their understanding, and showing the whole play so they get a sense of the overall arc of the tragedy. We’ll go and see a production if one is accessible, but there are a number of fantastic films of stage productions available and these are really useful for focusing on particular scenes. I introduce these once we’ve read the love trial in Act 1 Scene 1. I want students to be able to grasp a number of things about this scene. One is its ceremonial nature. The lack of stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays means that students often skim over the stage directions that are there, but I think it’s really important that they look at the transition from the conversation between Kent, Gloucester and Edmond and the formal, orchestrated quality of the love trial. So we pick up on the sennet that heralds Lear’s entrance, the procession onto the stage of Lear, his daughters, Albany and Cornwall, and the attendants. Those attendants are another thing: we don’t know how many, or what they do, but I want students to think about how they could be used to draw attention to the formality of the scene. Another is the difference between Goneril and Regan: it’s easy to lump them in together, but I want students to be able to pick up on the subtle differences between them. And then there’s the way everything starts to disintegrate, once Cordelia refuses to play the part that Lear has given her. (Because we do Macbeth at GCSE, we draw parallels with the banquet, another scene that starts with a formal entrance and disintegrates into chaos.)

In order to explore these ideas further, I show them clips of two different productions. The first is the 2014 National Theatre production, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Simon Russell Beale as a pugnacious, dictatorial Lear. In this, Lear’s daughters sit at a long table, with Albany and Cornwall, in sombre business suits, beside their wives. Lear sits at a distance on a plain wooden throne, and gets up to pace around as his daughters deliver their speeches. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril is hesitant and careful with her words: Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan is a flirtatious daddy’s girl who gets up to sit on her father’s knee. The tension is heightened by Lear’s close scrutiny of his daughters, and his air of teetering already on the edge of irrationality: Michael Billington, in the Guardian, commented that ‘he has all the aspects of a Stalinesque tyrant and struts around with his massive head thrust forward as if about to devour anyone who crosses him’. There’s also the presence of those attendants, several rows of them in dark military uniforms, who encircle the group on stage. When Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) refuses to play along with her father’s wishes, the enraged Lear upturns the tables and sends his daughters shrinking in fear.

The second clip we watch is from Greg Doran’s 2016 RSC production with Anthony Sher as a very different Lear, dressed in furs and borne onstage by his attendants on a throne enclosed in a transparent case. Again, there’s a sense of distance, created this time by the fact that Lear sits on high, a huge gold disc in the background reflecting the play’s astrological theme. The performative nature of the love trial is emphasised by the fact that Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams, as Goneril and Regan, speak to the assembled company, their backs to Lear, when delivering their speeches. Sher’s Lear is more godlike than Russell Beale’s, and raises his hand as if channelling some higher power when he banishes Mimi Ndiweni’s Cordelia. Those on stage bow or cower, terrified of what he might unleash.

What’s clear from both these productions is that the trial, of course, isn’t a trial at all. Lear has already decided how he will divide his kingdom, and who will get which portion. Students can see the tension on stage, the power imbalances at play, and recognise the coercive nature of this situation. It’s the perfect example of hubris, and from this point, they’re ready to see Lear’s tenuous grasp on sanity weaken further.

Busy times at work at the moment, but my next King Lear post will focus on the character of Edmond. The clip of Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is here; further clips and interviews are available here. An extract from Anthony Sher’s performance is here; the whole production is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the RSC and can also be streamed from Digital Theatre if you’ve got a subscription.

Teacher Feature: Simon Casey

If you’re a teacher, you’ll know what it’s like when television drama decides to turn its attention to schools. Everyone who’s not a teacher will assume that your working life is just like that of the teachers depicted on Grange Hill or Waterloo Road or whatever the current favourite might be. When I was a fairly new entrant to the profession, the series everyone was watching was Teachers on Channel 4, and my then Year Tens were obsessed with the idea that all of their teachers spent every evening in the pub and every breaktime crammed into a toilet cubicle, discussing their sex lives and enjoying a crafty cigarette. According to Teachers, we were all hopping in and out of each other’s beds: it was amazing we had time to do any marking. Teaching must be a brilliant job. And the kids on Teachers could call their teachers by their first names, so why couldn’t they?

Simon, Susan, Kurt and Brian (Source: thetvdb.com)

Teachers doesn’t feel like a particularly old series, but it made its screen debut on Channel 4 in the spring of 2001. That’s twenty years ago, and twenty years before that the TV shows that made their debut in the UK included Juliet Bravo, Bergerac and something called Only Fools and Horses. Channel 4 didn’t even exist, back in 1981. Now I’m starting to feel ancient.

I’m watching Teachers again on All 4, and it’s all so familiar. The bouncy Belle and Sebastian theme tune, the random donkeys appearing in the background, the days of the week appearing on road signs or adverts. The first couple of series focus on Simon Casey, played by Andrew Lincoln, fresh from the iconic 90s drama series This Life. Simon is a newly-qualified English teacher, but there never seems to be a huge amount of English teaching going on in his lessons: there are a few cursory references to The Crucible, a random GCSE coursework task on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and after that he seems to get bored and give up. One of his students, played by a very young James Corden, is worried about whether they’ve covered everything they need to, but Simon doesn’t care. Off to the pub for another few pints, and he’s back again tomorrow for another desultory day at the chalk face. He does use chalk, too: it’s another world.

Simon has his sidekicks: there’s IT teacher Kurt and PE specialist Brian, plus Susan, who teaches Psychology and spends far too much of her time listening to everyone’s relationship woes. He has his nemesis too, in his fellow English teacher Jenny, who he both hates and fancies. In Series Two, they’re joined by a fresh-faces Shaun Evans with long hair and a Scouse accent as JP the Modern Languages teacher. Simon, Kurt and Brian spend a lot of time playing would-you-rather games focusing on who they’d rather have sex with (Clare, the headteacher, or Carol, the dopey secretary? Jenny with Clare’s head or Clare with Jenny’s head?) and it’s all a bit Neanderthal and unreconstructed.

Simon is essentially the kind of man-child who you wouldn’t want near your department in a million years. He gets through his NQT assessment by the skin of his teeth, and my blood pressure is rocketing as I imagine chasing him up about schemes of work or student data. I know exactly how he’d react, too: he’d shrug, his lip would curl, and he’d sneak off behind the boiler room to smoke an illicit ciggie and whinge about me to a passing Year Eleven. Eventually, he gets bored with playing at being an adult, and decides to go off travelling. It’s probably a relief for everyone concerned.

Where would Simon be now, twenty years later? Working in a pub specialising in craft beers, I reckon, or running a website dedicated to obscure pieces of football trivia. I don’t think he’d still be teaching. You don’t get much of a sense of him being dedicated either to his profession or to his subject, and that’s sad. It’s clear that teaching is something he’s fallen into, without really knowing why. But at least he does the decent thing, and leaves. And maybe, at some point, he learns how to be the grown-up in the room.

On setting out to teach King Lear once again

So. It’s the start of term, I’m back in my own classroom after a year of carting my stuff around six different teaching zones, and I have an A level English Literature group after two years of focusing on English Language. Teaching A level English Literature is – as you might expect – one of my favourite things about my job, and I’ll be starting the year with King Lear, which is just about my favourite text to teach. Wahey! So, as a new-school-year resolution, I’m going to try to blog my way through teaching King Lear, partly as a record of the whole unfolding teaching process, and partly to help anyone who’s teaching it for the first time and could do with a hand.

A word first about the start of the A level course. I know A level English Literature isn’t simply a list of set texts, and that the course should involve a wider exploration of what the study of literature actually involves. In the past, I’ve begun the course by getting students to think about what literature is, why we read the kinds of books we do, how our interpretations are shaped by our own particular contexts, and so on. But I was never convinced that the students were ready for that kind of philosophical reflection at that point in their A level experience. Students are often too nervous to open up in front of peers who they might have only just met, and they can get hung up on not wanting to say the wrong thing. A few years ago, I decided to go straight into the first set text, and start to feed in wider critical concepts once students had found their feet and relaxed a bit. It worked much more effectively, and I’ve never been tempted to go back.

Michael Perry’s King Lear poster design. Source: Pinterest

We do the AQA B specification, and study Aspects of Tragedy and Elements of Political and Social Protest Writing, two big chunky genres that students enjoy. Most of our students have done Macbeth at GCSE, so should know something about tragedy already, and in many ways Macbeth is the perfect preparation for King Lear, raising similar questions about tragic protagonists and the errors that set their downfalls in motion, as well as the nature of kingship. But before we even start to think about tragedy, I put the students into groups, and give them a series of images to explore. I also give them a number of prompts:

  • What clues do these images give you as to the play’s central characters and themes?
  • What kinds of locations are featured?
  • What kinds of emotions are conveyed?
  • What do you notice about eyes?
  • What do you notice about crowns?
  • What do you notice about the number three?

The images I chose are all examples of art inspired by King Lear: theatrical posters, cover designs and illustrations. Pinterest is a great source of suitable images, and students can then, as a follow-up, be asked to find their own images and save them to a shared class Pinterest board. My King Lear Pinterest board is here, and you’ll also find some examples on Michele Walfred’s ‘King Lear Theatrical Posters’ website, which provides a fascinating commentary on some of these images. I chose these images to highlight particular aspects of the play and give students a context for their reading, but it’s important to note that the discussion generated also helps the students to get to know each other and establishes a culture in which they are allowed to be tentative and exploratory, sharing ideas and building on each other’s contributions.

Students then summarise the outcomes of their discussion. It’s interesting to see how much of the play’s plot and themes they can piece together. There are obvious points about tensions and rivalries within families, about the precariousness of the crown and the idea of division. Stefano Imbert’s poster for the Boomerang Theatre Company’s 2006 production depicts a man literally split into three, alone on a hilltop in a bleak landscape. Wieslaw Walkulski’s poster for the 1992 production of Król Lear at the Teatr Nowy in Poznan shows the king’s crown disintegrating and obscuring his vision. Istvan Orosz’s striking poster for the 1999 production of Lear Király at the Petrofi Theatre in Hungary, meanwhile, shows the crown entangled in the bare branches of the king’s mind. Other images – including Clare Van Vliet’s woodcut illustration for The Tragedie of King Lear and the stark poster produced for the Wharton Center’s 2011 production of the play – focus on the threat posed by the elements, while chess pieces and grasping hands also feature.

I then introduce some quotations from the play:

  • Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
  • Come not between the dragon and his wrath!
  • He hath ever but slenderly known himself.
  • Now gods, stand up for bastards!
  • The king falls from bias of nature, there’s father against child.
  • Who is it that can tell me who I am?
  • How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!
  • Thou would’st make a good fool.
  • I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.
  • I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.
  • You heavens, give me patience, patience I need!
  • I will do such things – what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.
  • I am a man more sinned against than sinning.
  • The younger rises as the old doth fall.
  • Then let them anatomise Regan; see what breeds about her heart.
  • The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.
  • As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; they kill us for their sport.
  • ‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.
  • Through tattered clothes great vices do appear: robes and furred gowns hide all.
  • You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me.
  • I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
  • O fool! I shall go mad.
  • I am a very foolish, fond old man.
  • The gods are just.
  • The wheel has come full circle.
  • Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?

Students are asked to look for further examples of the themes they’ve identified, and to make connections between quotations. Again, it’s surprising how far students can get in these initial explorations. This week, for instance, my new Year Twelves observed that a number of the quotations make requests of the gods – from Edmond’s ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ to Gloucester’s ‘You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me’. However, they also spotted that the gods do not necessarily assent to these requests: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport’. They linked this quotation to the recurring images of chess pieces, and the idea that while characters might think they can command the gods, they learn eventually that they are little more than pawns in an indifferent universe.

That was a long way to go in just our first two lessons, accompanied by incredibly rich discussions. Students drew on their knowledge of other plays, and working in groups meant that they were able to build relationships with their new classmates, as well as giving me the chance to observe how they interacted and gauge how confident they were in handling Shakespeare’s language. Their homework for the next lesson was to research the features of tragedy, which is the kind of flipped learning we’ve been doing in English for years without making a fuss about it 🙂

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.