In the early 90s, Kate Clanchy was a young teacher in a decaying mining town in Scotland. Tasked with teaching her thirteen-year-olds about HIV, she soon realizes the children know nothing about sex. She has them write their questions anonymously and promises to answer them, no matter what. Never since in her thirty years in the classroom, Clancy avers in Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, has she been so frightened. But the sex education class goes well: the children are interested, relieved, full of relieved laughter. What if you’re having sex and need to pee? Can you have sex while menstruating? Most of the questions, she explains in a characteristically deft phrase, are “not about juices, but about love: could anybody love; could gay people love; could you change later on. I only had to say the words aloud and say yes.”
As a prize-winning writer, Clanchy is in the classroom less often these days, but she can still silence a fractious room with a glance or chasten obnoxious teenagers on a bus. Yet despite these formidable qualities, she invariably appears in the book as the kind of teacher she was in that moment in Scotland: someone who makes things possible, someone who offers a model. I only had to say the words aloud and say yes.
In the Scottish classroom, lesson completed, Callum sidles up to her. Callam, who, “in a class of undersized, undeveloped children,” is “by far the least tall, the least developed.” The boy asks:
‘Whit wis the name for men and men?’
‘That was homosexuality, Callum.’
‘Aye. And whit wis the name for women and men?’
‘That’s heterosexuality, Callum.’
‘Aye. Well, when I grow up, I’m no’ going to have either o’ them. Ah think Ah’ll just have a big dog.’
But Kids Say The Darndest Things is not, thank God, Clanchy’s modus operandi. Here’s what she says next:
No one said ‘fluid’ back then—gender fluid, fluid identity—but fluid is a good word for that afternoon. The room seemed liquid, lacking in barriers. And fluid was what those children were, behind their stern names and rigid codes. Changeable, molten, and warm as any child; waiting for a mould, hoping there would be space for the swelling, shrinking, and unknowable quantity of themselves. For Callum, that space needed to include the possibility of living on his own, and that was as important to him as the possibility, for surely one child in that class, and very probably more, of falling in love with someone of your own sex. So, I didn’t say that would be bestiality, Callum, though the thought flickered across my mind. I said yes, yes, Callum, you could do that. A dog would be very nice. That, Callum, would be grand.
The book is full of generous and smart reflections of this sort. It would have been easy (but wrong) to joke about this provincial child. And Clanchy is honest enough to suggest that she thought about it. Instead she gets a laugh without a joke, and a warm laugh at that. Plus, she shows us how important flexibility is to good teaching. Look how alive her prose is, studded with precise, mobile adjectives—students are “changeable, molten, and warm,” wanting their “swelling, shrinking, unknowable” selves to find a place in the world. We don’t create ourselves from nothing, no matter what bootstrap conservatives would have us believe, we need models, moulds to use Clanchy’s word. Family—especially extended family, especially that extended family of friends and mentors and people who wish us well we have if we are lucky, a topic Clanchy explores brilliantly in her earlier memoir, Antigona and Me—often provides such a mould. And so does school.
In addition to her narrative non-fiction, Clanchy has written a novel and a book of short stories. But she is best known as a poet; in addition to her own verse, she has complied anthologies of poetry written by her students, mostly from the multicultural school in Oxford where she teaches. Students speak dozens of languages at home; no ethnic/racial group makes up a minority. It is a truly diverse place, an exhilarating but also difficult reality, especially for someone trying to teach poetry. The landscapes Clanchy’s students have grown up in are not “ones with lakes and low hills and houses filled with grandmothers in aprons who baked sponge cakes”; thanks to unconsciously imbibed structural racism, the students don’t understand their experiences as proper subjects for poems. (She tells an anecdote about two girls from the subcontinent who write adventures stories together, stories set in American summer camps they have no experience with. The stories are awkward, misshapen. “‘The thing is,’” she gently points out, “‘canoes don’t have engines? Usually.’”)
So Clanchy brings to class examples from young poets, written by POC whenever possible. More than the subject matter, though, or the background of the writer, what matters is her method. She passes around a poem, asks the students to read it, then starts talking with them, not interpreting the poem so much as just seeing what conversation it sparks. Then she sets them to writing their own poems, maybe asking them to copy the structure of the example, or giving them a line to repeat. They write amazing poems.
Everything Clanchy does with students follows this credo, music to my ears:
We are learning to write by reading and to read by writing.
We will know we are learning to read well when we recognize beauty and truth in our own writing and in others’ writing. We will know we are progressing in writing at those times when we go beyond ourselves; when we express what we did not even know we meant in a graceful synthesis of words and sounds that is both ours alone and part of the richness of our languages and literatures. We will know we have learned much about English at various points in the future, near and far, when we express ourselves confidently in writing, and when we find joy and humour and wisdom in reading.
I almost balked at “beauty and truth,” but this isn’t Keats or Arnold (not that I imagine Clanchy has any problem with them). And I love the “going beyond ourselves” formulation (not least because of that inclusive “our”—these words apply to Clanchy as much as her kids). I believe in this idea too, I chant it at my students, I’ve seen it happen. When you give students time, and encouragement, and good models, when you help them let go of the idea that writing is a mere transcription of some preexisting idea, and show them that writing is thinking, is creating, you get exciting results. Moreover, you don’t always know the full extent of what they will achieve. You plant the seeds and trust in the flower, though you’re not often around to see it.
Interestingly, Clanchy doesn’t follow the prevailing (in the US, anyway) wisdom that writing, especially creative writing, is self-expression. She is uninterested in using writing to process trauma, especially for students who are refugees or poor or both (as many of Clanchy’s students are) and who know trauma first-hand. She admits, though, that her philosophy has changed: she has come to see how expression matters inasmuch as it leads to detachment, distance, and control: “The writing of a poem does not open the writer to a desperate blurt… rather, it orders the experience it recounts and gives the writer a grip on it.” Even when they exaggerate or self-aggrandize, as her student poets often do, they are controlling their experience. And if they do more, “if they dig deep, and find effective images, and make a good poem out of the truths of their lives, then that is not just control, but power. It is different from being happy; it isn’t a cure for anything, but it is profoundly worth having.”
Clanchy’s insistence that feeling oneself a valid, meaningful person—being legible to others as a fellow human being, sadly much rarer than you’d think—lies at the root of the book’s most inspiring idea. She calls it “patrimony,” by which she means the abilities, interests, and dispositions a child brings to an educational situation. Instead of worrying—as middle-class parents in the US and UK routinely do—what school will give their kid, we should consider what their kid will bring to school. Writing about the decision she and many of her well-educated friends face—do we send our kid to the local school (more diverse, less highly ranked) or to the “better” one?—she concludes, “You are taking something away from the community when you withdraw your child.” Moreover, to do so is to destroy a virtuous circle. Because it isn’t just the community that gains; it’s also the child. Here’s the balance she draws up after she and a friend decide, inciting much neighbourhood consternation, to send their boys to the local school:
What they received at school: those grades [her son did just as well as he would have done at the “better” school], a special card from Faroq entitling them to free minicab rides in exchange for all the help in Maths, the ability to knit, an acquaintanceship with kids from every corner of the globe, and the confidence that if they walked across any rough park in town, late at night, and were approached by a hooded gang, it would probably just be Mo and Izzat, saying hi. What they gave: their own oddity in the rich mix of the school, their Maths coaching, their articulate voices in class, their academic demands, their parents’ informed labour, their high grades to spike the stats, their evident wellness and cheer to act as advertisement for other parents… And one other thing they got: the knowledge that they had something to give—a patrimony—as well as something to take, from the communities they joined.
Clanchy disparages academic streaming: “the good done to the selected minority is always smaller than the bad done to the rejected majority.” By contrast, she values special classes for struggling students—what at least at the time of writing was called in the UK Inclusion Units (IU). These beliefs are contradictory only from the position of equality, rather than that of equity. Many, even in the education system, disparage the IU as holding lower performing kids to lower standards. But “higher standards” is almost always a code for “what rich, white, well-adjusted kids know how to do.” Standards in the IU, where Clanchy teaches poetry once a week, are in fact challenging. “It’s just that the IU acknowledged that for some kids, very simple things were challenging.”
I love how Clanchy’s mixes tartness (evident when she demolishes streaming) and generosity (evident in her writing about the IU). She’s always ready to counter received wisdom, always ready to imagine why people do what they do, even when those actions seem self-defeating or dismaying to middle-class norms. Writing about why so many girls in the IU got pregnant, for example, she concludes:
The IU girls did it to contribute to the family home, to be like their families, or because even six months in the council mother-and-baby unit as you waited for a flat was better than living in an unhappy home. [From a US perspective, it’s amazing how generous the UK benefits system seems. That is not a compliment to the UK.] They did it because they didn’t know anyone who had done it differently, and middle-class choices such as university seemed completely unreal. They did it because they weren’t willing to reject everything about their own upbringing, especially when people from different backgrounds had not been helpful to them. They did it because they wanted someone to love, and because they believed, as we all do, that they could make a better job of it than their own mothers. They did it because it was the only route to a bit of independence and status realistically available to them. They did it because they weren’t stupid, not because they were.
These analyses are even easier to take on board because Clanchy doesn’t spare herself. Take, for example, the story of Kristell, a girl in the IU who is bombarded with unwanted attention by boys (they snatch her papers, they read aloud over her shoulder, they harass her in all sorts of petty, maddening ways). One day Kristell plaintively asks why they do it. Because you’re so beautiful, Clanchy replies, because they want your attention, because they like you.
Kristell’s face crumples: You’ve got it all wrong, she says. They hate me. No, Clanchy tuts, that’s not right. But later she concedes that Kristell knew what’s what. And the problem wasn’t just the boys. She was right
to tell me that the boys’ attention was a form of hate; it was, and so was my attitude to her, so was the attitude of our entire society, the attitude that identifies disruption as coming from the young girl, not the gazing man, that attributes power to such a powerless person.
Clanchy’s writing pedagogy aims to chip against this structural disparity, to replace, even just a little, even for the kids as expert in self-sabotage as Kristell—that is, as resourceful in finding even this desperate and Pyrrhic strategy for responding to the impossible situations of their lives: Kristell writes poems about self-harm and rape—powerlessness with power.
Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me has many fine qualities. It’s often funny—a student at a debate tournament makes a long speech “about climate change, linked, as it so often is, to littering.” It’s often heartfelt—to a colleague who, having dedicated herself to the IU and done so much for so little recognition, despairs over the value of her work, Clanchy stoutly insists, “‘It was a great thing, what you did in the IU. One of the best things I’ve ever seen.’” And, as these and the many other examples I’ve been compelled to quote suggest, it’s always wise and generous.
I wish this book would be published in the US, but I bet it won’t. US publishers are parochial and the book’s necessarily specific to the UK education system: seldom have I so enjoyed a book I understood so little of. But Some Kids will speak even to readers who, like me, don’t know what GCSE stands for or what a comprehensive is. Not because growing up is the same everywhere (though some bits are) or because everyone could learn from Clanchy’s way of teaching (though many could). But because to write carefully about particular situations—to indulge our fascination about the details of our lives—is to write for wide appeal. Some Kids recently won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. Maybe that will entice someone to give it a try over here.
Clanchy starts the book with a little hymn to September, “school’s New Year.” A time to start afresh, to meet new students, to see how old students have become new people over the summer. A time when it’s easy to remember the wonderful parts of teaching, perhaps most importantly, she suggests, how the classroom takes her out of herself.
This line resonated strongly with me—I’ve always found the classroom a way of both being and escaping myself. That’s how this introvert can thrive in that performance space; that’s why the crap of daily life can fall away for an hour. This September will be the first time in twenty years I won’t be in the classroom—given how fraught, how dangerous this fall is likely to be, I’m even more grateful for a fortunately timed sabbatical—and I know I’ll miss it. But I’ll be thinking about it. Instead of being in the classroom I’ll be writing about it—or trying to, anyway. It’s time to give myself the chance to write a long-imagined book on teaching the Holocaust. I’m frightened of this opportunity, at least half-convinced I’m not up to the task. I read Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me as an example of what I might write. Often I was daunted. How will I ever write anything this good? How will I capture my students so vividly? How will I blend narrative and analysis so elegantly? Then I thought about Clanchy’s idea of models. I remembered what she said about writing poems. First you read some, and then you try them on for size. You imitate them, you tinker, you improvise, you bring your inimitable self to the thing you’re copying.
Deep breath. Here goes.