“I still want to change the world and think that school is an excellent place to do it”.
If you ever feel dispirited at the end of a school day or week wondering whether what you do is worthwhile, then I urge you to read these two books. These autobiographical accounts have little in common but both served to renew my faith in the power of education and educators to transform lives.
Educated by Tara Westover (2018) exposes the determination shown by a young girl from rural Idaho to pursue an education. Her perseverance against the odds to become ‘educated’ eventually liberates her from her strict, dysfunctional Mormon family and abusive older brother.
Conversely, Some kids I taught and what they taught me (2019) by journalist and English teacher Kate Clanchy shows us how one teacher’s passion for poetry has encouraged the disaffected as well as young immigrants and refugees to explore their emotions and express their experiences. Organised in chapters titled with the children’s names Clanchy paints vivid portraits of the most memorable teenagers she taught during a 25 year career in English and Scottish state schools – from Glasgow to Essex – and the particular circumstances or dilemmas they presented. The stories are in turn inspirational, poignant, funny and frustrating as the characters, their backgrounds and the challenges they face are depicted without judgement or sentimentality. The author’s own reflections on her successes and triumphs are also peppered with her ‘regrets’ where she questions whether she could have done more. This feeling is one I am sure won’t just resonate with me as a teacher but with many of us who have navigated the social and pastoral minefield of working with teenagers.
Clanchy also communicates a clear political message throughout the book about the role of education and the importance of governmental support. She is adamant that words and poetry have the power to liberate students struggling with English as an additional language and to help them process loss and memories as they adapt to life in the UK. In her introduction Clanchy openly states that amongst other aims her book examines ‘how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom’. She offers rational, credible and well-articulated opinions on mixed ability setting, prizes, the curriculum, school uniform and exclusion. Her chapter about church schools and the middle class domination of ‘good’ secondary schools is particularly personal as Clanchy examines her own background and biases whilst explaining and justifying the choices she made for her own children.
Homosexuality, HIV, religious tolerance, teenage pregnancy, eating disorders, mental health and poverty are just some of the subjects tackled in the book with a directness that betrays experience and genuine concern. As teachers, these issues are those we are faced with that we often feel the least equipped to deal with. Clanchy explores the fine line between educator and social worker all the while stressing how it is impossible to teach effectively without taking a child’s context into account.
It is perhaps a cliché but teachers really do have the privilege of forming and shaping young minds and influencing them before they become jaded or damaged by ‘real’ life. Indeed, we can help young people develop a resilience and immunity during their school years which can set them up for ever. This book reminded me of this and that is why I thoroughly recommend it.
Further reading: England: Poems from a School (2018) edited by Kate Clanchy
My second recommended read is equally remarkable. Tara Westover’s account of her childhood and determination to become ‘educated’ is an admirable story of grit, determination and emancipation which has been a bestseller in the US (Educated, 2018). Now a writer and Cambridge-educated historian Westover describes the steps she took to access the schooling most of us in the developed world take for granted. Supposedly ‘home-educated’, but in reality uneducated she sacrificed friends, family and all she had ever known to teach herself through the high school ACT examinations and eventually attend university. Westover struggled to adapt to this alien environment at first but was soon overwhelmed and enthralled by the new world she had access to and the different vision of life it offered. Evidently a gifted academic, Westover persisted in her reading and learning to plug large gaps in her general knowledge, re-write her view of society and eventually graduate with honours. Although she struggled to function socially in a context devoid of the repressive rules and norms with which she was familiar Westover nevertheless excelled academically, earning prestigious scholarships and entry to the world’s top universities. Her doctorate awarded in 2014 is the ultimate symbol of her freedom from her past albeit tinged with sadness because of what it cost her to get there.
From the opening pages Westover plunges into the harsh and often violent world that is her family home and scrap metal business where she grew up with six siblings. The strong Mormon community which eschewed modern medicine as well as school and government, is presented ruthlessly, although her love for the landscape and its seasonal changes shines through. The physical suffering of Tara and her brothers in a family where modern medicine is perceived as a curse is particularly lucid and certain incidents such as her father’s accident in the scrap yard made me feel positively squeamish.
This book could be seen as a kind of therapy; Westover remembers her past and questions events in her childhood, how they were dealt with and challenges her own memories, sometimes re-defining them in the light of the present day. Westover’s father’s irrational and unpredictable mood swings are understood in retrospect as the symptoms of mental illness but no excuses are offered to justify the behaviour of other members of the family, such as the abusive older brother Shawn. Her relationship with her mother – a herbalist and homeopath – is more ambiguous as Westover seeks her acceptance, redemption and understanding which is never fully granted. Her mother’s subservience and loyalty to her father and brother in the face of evidence of their cruelty are a source of frustration and confusion to the author.
This story is about the power of education to provide stability and sanity in a twisted world. It also celebrates the strength of a young woman to facing up to the violence and restrictions imposed by men in a dysfunctional family. For Westover ‘Educated’ is synonymous with ‘Emancipated’ and I read this book feeling grateful for the ease with which I was able to pursue my own education.