There are all kinds of metaphors for teaching. ‘You’re not filling a bucket, you’re lighting a fire’, one earnest trainee once assured me (although students do need to Know Stuff, and fires can’t be created from nothing). You’re spinning plates and playing Whack-a-Mole. You’re conducting – possibly an orchestra, possibly a bolt of lightning – and planting acorns that you hope will one day grow into great oak trees. And sometimes, you’re opening locks.
Miss Stretchberry, the teacher in Sharon Creech’s wonderful book Love that Dog, is one of life’s unlockers. The lock that she needs to open is in the heart of Jack, a little boy in her class. Jack is reluctant, and resistant. His class is doing poetry with Miss Stretchberry, and he doesn’t want to engage. Boys don’t write poetry, he reasons. He can’t do it. His brain’s empty. He doesn’t understand the poems that Miss Stretchberry reads in class. Slowly, gradually, Jack starts to come round. He writes a poem about a blue car splattered with mud, speeding down the road, and lets Miss Stretchberry read it, as long as she doesn’t let anyone else see. A few weeks later, he allows her to put two of his poems on the board, as long as she doesn’t put his name on them. And he starts to ask questions about the poems that his class reads. Why does so much depend on the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens? What’s that business about the snowy woods and having miles to go before you sleep?
The genius thing about Love That Dog – a book about a young boy’s feelings about poetry – is that it’s told as a series of poems from Jack to Miss Stretchberry, written throughout the school year. So we see this process of unlocking through Jack’s own words. Here’s what he says about William Blake, on October 24:
I am sorry to say
I did not really understand
the tiger tiger burning bright poem
but at least it sounded good
in my ears.
And here’s what he says on November 6, once he’s allowed Miss Stretchberry to put his poems on the wall:
They look nice
typed up like that
on blue paper
on a yellow board.
(But still don’t tell anyone
who wrote them, okay?)
(And what does anonymous mean?
Is it good?)
But then the barriers come up again. Jack is asked to write about a pet, but he doesn’t have one. He used to have one, but he doesn’t want to write about it. He asks if he can write about a different pet, but to no avail. Eventually, we find out that Jack used to have a dog, a yellow dog called Sky. (If you can read the poem where Jack and his family go to choose a dog from the rescue centre without feeling a bit teary, you’re a monster.) Sky was a friendly, happy, slobbery dog, a waggy-tailed dog who joined in games of football and loved everyone. Jack starts to write abut Sky, inspired by Walter Dean Myers’ poem ‘Love That Boy’, and is so inspired by Walter Dean Myers’ poems that he writes to invite him to visit the school. A couple of weeks before the visit, Jack finally manages to write about what happened to Sky. He was killed, by a blue car splattered with mud, speeding along the road.
It takes Jack a long time to write about Sky. You sense that when he does, it’s as if a weight has been lifted. There’s the huge excitement of Walter Dean Myers’ visit, and the lovely descriptions of his voice:
low and deep and friendly and warm
like it was reaching out and
wrapping us all up
in a big squeeze
And there’s the sense that Miss Stretchberry has unlocked something for Jack: not only a way of expressing his grief and processing his feelings, but a love of poetry, of playing with language and making it his own.
We don’t find out much about Miss Stretchberry, apart from the fact that she’s good at making brownies. But we also find out a lot about her, through the poems that Jack writes to her. She’s patient enough to persist with this unhappy young boy, rather than writing him off. She’s tactful: she doesn’t nag him or hassle him, but he knows that she’s there. She respects his desire for his poems to remain anonymous. She builds his confidence, by getting him to write to Walter Dean Myers rather than doing it herself. She recognises that quiet praise goes much further than a big fanfare.
Love That Dog is dedicated to ‘all the poets and Mr.-and-Ms. Stretchberrys who inspire students every day.’ It’s a gorgeous book. If I were being political, I’d say that every Secretary of State for Education should read it, as a reminder of why poetry is important, and why education is about so much more than preparation for work. I’m sure there’s a lot more that we could put on their reading list, but it’s a start.