ÔIn Ôloco parentisÕ with Sally: a matter of fairness and loveÕ,
by Moira Laidlaw, Oldfield Girls School, Bath.
Sally: (15)IÕm fed up with this bloody school! I hate this fucking school!
Moira: Why is that, Sally? Come on, sit down over here and letÕs talk about it.
Sally: (crying, sitting down) IÕve had it up to here with white Geography, white History, white bloody everything. (Looking at me accusingly) And even white bloody English! When I was in London we learnt about Black culture. The teachers, a lot of them were Black too. I hate this bloody school! I hate it. I hate all the teachers. I just hate everything.
Moira: I remember what you wrote in your autobiography. Do you remember when you read it out to the class? ÔAnd then they cast me out in a white desert.Õ Is that what itÕs like for you?
Sally: Too bloody right. Oh Miss, I want to go home.
Moira: Where? To London?
Moira: Well for the moment that isnÕt possible, is it? What can I do to help you in English here, Sally? What would make you feel you were learning something worthwhile for you? You know that Black Anthology I gave you, how are you getting on with it? WeÕll be studying it next term.
Sally: ItÕs great, Miss. I love Maya Angelou. IÕve started reading ÔI know why the Caged Bird SingsÕ.
Moira: Oh, I love that. Could you lend me it after youÕve finished with it? I havenÕt read it for ages and my copyÕs gone walkabout.
Sally: (laughs) O.K., Miss.
ÔTake the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess youÕve heard me crying,
and admit youÕve seen my tearsÕ.
Patricia Williams: If race is something about which we dare not speak in polite social company, the same cannot be said of the viewing of race.Õ 1997 Reith Lecture.
In all my previous educational research writings, I have tended to feel a confidence in my own intuitions and in the articulation of my own educational values. My Ph.D. thesis (Laidlaw, 1996) and other writings (Laidlaw, 1994; 1995 a,b,c; 1997a & b; Laidlaw & Whitehead, 1995) attest to this confidence in their unorthodox forms of representation and their insistence on the validity of my own educational knowledge and theorising. This paper, however, is different. For this paper I felt the need to read widely in the Literature before venturing to put pen to paper, because I felt I was out of my depth here. I am seeking to explain the processes through which I and one of my Black students, Sally, improved the quality of our learning over three terms.
However, I want to say that the reading did not furnish me with any answers that I needed. I was looking at ways in which I might tackle racist issues in the classroom, but before I did that I needed to tackle it within myself. The reading only served to show me some of the extent of my insecurity and confusion. I knew that I didnÕt know enough, but I knew that without the reading; I have been in education for twenty years, either as a classroom-teacher of English or as a teacher-educator, and in the classroom I have never openly dealt with my own racism, although in my last school in Shropshire I always insisted on including as much Black Literature and Literature of colour as I could in the entirely white syllabus and entirely white school. For this present enquiry, however, I wanted to know how I could develop an educative relationship with Sally fairly (see later for an part-explanation of the term ÔfairlyÕ as I am using it in this enquiry), without reducing either of us to objects of my own study. I believe this paper shows me trying to engage fairly with Sally in order to improve her learning about English as I try to improve the quality of my own educational development.
I have never begun a paper with such a sense of overwhelming complexity before. To contextualise this work as written by a white middle class woman, teaching in a predominantly white middle class girls school in a white middle-class area, is to make a political statement, whose parameters I have never explored in my twenty years as an educator. I have always taught in predominantly white schools in white areas. Before I was aware of the article in a recent Action Researcher: An International Journal (1997, Vol. 3) which questions the racial bias of educational research, I was deliberating about how I could possibly, as a white middle-class woman, articulate anything about a Black girlÕs experience, without falling prey to the racial bias which I am sure could exist within the form of the articulation itself. I have come to the conclusion that I need to do the work within myself to understand the parameters of my responsibilities as her educator as I seek to help her and the others in her class to improve their learning about English. This paper seeks to explain the processes through which Sally and I moved over the last three terms, whose conscious beginning for me was her cry of despair at the treatment she believed she was receiving in the name of education.
I will make claims in this paper that I have learnt something about my responsibilities as an educator. Sally made a claim which she substantiated towards the end of the second term, about her improved learning in English and her ability to give her own life direction and meaning. In this paper I want to explore the ways in which Sally felt able to move from a position of resentment and anger to one in which she is making judgements and decisions which have the power to direct her life for herself. I also want to show how I am moving from a position of ignorance to one of greater sensitivity as an educator.
One of the main themes of my Ph.D. thesis was its concern with how I enabled the standards of judgement (by which I wanted my educational research to be judged) to nurture the process of educational development itself. I do not believe that it is either helpful or authentic to label values in my work as if they are quantifiable in words. I also learnt from my doctoral research that values are not static, but that they grow as I grow: they are themselves developmental. For a fuller exposition of the immanent dialectic at the heart of my educational research writings, please contact Jack WhiteheadÕs Homepage on the Internet at address:
where you will find the complete text of my thesis. I would direct you in particular to The General Prologue, The Introduction, and the Epilogue to Part Four. In these sections I show how the values within my practice have developed as my own understanding has grown and how that has enabled me to develop my own educational knowledge and theory. Indeed these aspects are the basis of my educational knowledge and theory.
In this present paper I would like to point to three standards of judgement through which you might find it helpful to understand the processes I and my students are experiencing. As a teacher I am in loco parentis. At school meetings I have heard this described as acting on behalf of a responsible parent, although the word ÔresponsibleÕ here is open to individual judgement. So what does it mean for me to act on behalf of a responsible parent? I hope that you will feel that this paper is pointing towards ways in which I am trying to fulfil that professional obligation. At times you will see me deliberating about how to act with the girls in my care. For example, you will see me asking questions of the kind:
What should I do? If I do this, what then? What if...? Should I balance
this aspect against that, or does one outweigh the other? ... Is this fair to the other girls, or should they experience this?... Can I change the balance of feelings here in a way which will enable them all to improve the quality of learning?...Is this story too painful for them?...How can I help Sally to take more responsibility for her behaviour in this situation?.. Should
this be happening in the public eye?...How can I guide the group through
this experience in healthy and optimistic ways, given the distressing
nature of SallyÕs story?
These deliberations in the name of education, acting on behalf of a responsible parent, are poignantly paralleled by the subject-matter of SallyÕs writing (which you will read later) in which she is trying to understand the nature of the responsibility being exercised with her by parents and parental figures in her life.
At this point I want to make one thing very clear. I perceive myself in this situation as an educator, as a teacher-researcher. I am not these girlsÕ parent and neither do I aspire to be so. However, in common with how I perceive a responsible parental role, I do seek to enable them to understand themselves, their own uniqueness, the world around them, and what part they might play in it, so that they will lead happy and productive lives. However, I communicate the above through the medium of English as my curriculum subject because teaching English is my paid employment. So, in this paper, do you see me acting Ôin loco parentisÕ ?
The second standard of judgement which I would like you to focus on throughout this account, is one that I mentioned earlier - ÔfairnessÕ. I like the way Davis and Griffith (1995) characterise acting fairly as maximising opportunities for equality in the classroom. In this account I think you will see me trying very hard to be fair, and yet recognising defeat and confusion at times. My understanding of fairness as a standard of judgement grew throughout my thesis and was highlighted in my work with another pupil, Zo‘ three years ago, and represented in The General Prologue to the thesis. You see, I believe I should treat each child with the same respect. This is an educational ideal of mine, which inspires and moves me, but it is also the one which most starkly reveals my living contradictions in practice (Whitehead, 1989, Laidlaw, 1994, 1996) because of my failure (inability?) to treat each child with that same respect. When I realise that I am not acting fairly, it is the biggest spur to improving my practice I know. To live with the knowledge of continued failure is difficult. The title of this paper characterises the educative relationship with Sally as not only a matter of fairness, but of love. And this brings me to my third standard of judgement - love. In the Epilogue to Part Four of my thesis, I explain the way in which love evolves in my practice. I believe that the fundamental motivation for wishing to act fairly in the educative relationship is essentially one of love. For me as a professional educator, Ôin loco parentisÕ it is an act of love to seek the best for the other. It is love which inspires me to act fairly.
Why do we journey, muttering
like rumors among the stars?
Is a dimension lost?
Is it love?
The love I feel for the pupils is not a sentimental or possessive emotion, but one which enables me to do my best for them - to seek every educational means within my power to ensure that I treat them fairly.
I am going to present the following narrative for the most part chronologically through my diary entries, SallyÕs verbal and written comments, conversations with her alone and with her friends, extracts from her autobiography (written entirely at her own instigation), her English coursework, a video end-of-year presentation by Sally and three friends (of Maya Angelou and Alice WalkerÕs poetry), and a videoed interview between Sally and myself about her future career (again at her instigation). The evidence I am presenting here was also negotiated with Sally as part of the development of trust between us within the educative relationship, and some of those conversations also form the fabric of the narrative you are about to read.
The class you are about to meet is a Ômiddle setÕ in the first year of their two year English G.C.S.E. course. From the beginning of the course in September, 1996, I had familiarised the girls with an action enquiry approach to their learning. They devised their own action plans and were given class time on a regular basis to work with self-chosen learning partners on ways in which they could improve their learning in English. Action plans were revised at regular intervals throughout the first two terms.
ÔMy life, so I say
First then, extracts from SallyÕs first action plan (November, 1996) and comments on it from her learning partner, Fran:
Question: What do I want to improve in English?
Answer: I would like to improve paragraphing as I know that a paragraph is changed every time a subject is changed, but sometimes I forget and use one paragraph for a whole essay...
Question: How do I think I could do that?
Answer: I could improve my work by going to the Library and read books as an example for paragraphing...
Question: How could Miss Laidlaw help me?
Answer: Miss Laidlaw could help me by showing me the different ways of sentencing and paragraphing and by teaching me to understand.
Question: How would I know that my English work had improved?
Answer: I know my English work would have worked because I would fully understand and be fully confident to use paragraphing and sentencing properly as a pro.
Comments by Learning Partner: This action plan has been very well put-together, but there could be a bit more detail because I am sure there are many more ways to improve paragraphing than studying books on paragraphing. How boring, Sally. Surely it would be easier to read books where people are using paragraphs properly. Then you can practice through your writing in all subjects!
I felt that FranÕs comments were perceptive, but that Sally had set her sights fairly modestly. From the beginning I was aware that she was highly articulate, particularly in discussions. Her writing, I was experiencing as lacking her oral vividness and energy. For example, in her first essay in November, 1996 on Roddy DoyleÕs ÔPaddy Clarke, Ha Ha HaÕ, she wrote:
ÔIn my introduction IÕm giving you a kind of map of my plan. I will also assess Paddy and notice things about him.Õ
It was as if she were writing to a formula, my formula probably, as I had encouraged them to explain the form of their essays for the reader. The stiltedness of her style surprised me: I was not content with it, even as a first attempt, and wrote:
Ô...I know it is difficult at the beginning of a course to know what is wanted and yet I feel that your Introduction is not your own, but mine. Although this is not easy for you, is there any way in which you can write an Introduction which fulfils the examination criteria, but also your own?Õ
She replied the following day:
I guess so. IÕll work on it.Õ
And she clearly did. In a subsequent essay (January, 1997) on ÔThe Ancient MarinerÕ she wrote this:
ÔI forgot that the Mariner was talking to a Wedding Guest. I felt, as Coleridge suggested we should, that I had experienced a suspension of disbelief because of the power of the poem, and I am proud that I did,
because that means I am on the right track to understanding the poem.Õ
In my data archive (Laidlaw, 1997b) I have various forms of data on all members of the class - tape-recordings, videos, their writing, drafts of essays, taped and reconstructed conversations, journal entries about my reflections on these conversations, about ways in which they could help themselves to improve the quality of their learning through close attention to the processes of writing their coursework essays. I feel it is very important that I have data on each girl, because such a focus of interest enables my closer attention to individualsÕ educational needs. However, in this paper I have chosen to make a study of a singularity (Stenhouse, 1980) because of the educational development which such a study has enabled for both of us. There are many papers I could write about this particular class, but for the time being, my focus is clearly on the educative relationship between Sally and myself. This paper seeks to explain the dynamics within our educative relationship as a fundamental way in which learning something of value was able to take place for both of us. I believe these processes were highlighted more through the racist issues than through discussions about how to improve the mechanics of the writing process, for example. Through confronting some painful issues, Sally and I were able to learn something of value.
ÔGive me your hand.
Make room for me
to lead and follow
beyond this rage of poetry.Õ
Next is my journal entry, written after the third day of an OFSTED inspection from 13-17 January, 1997.
15.1.97. Two days to go! The comments that P.A. made about the Year Ten lesson are so inappropriate for so many reasons. The Year Ten group. Reading ÔThe Ancient MarinerÕ. I had asked them to prepare their favourite verses, to recite them and justify the choices...Sally chose the verses:
ÔDown dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down,
TÕwas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak
Only to break the silence of the sea!
ÔAll in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody sun at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the moon.
She recited it with dynamic energy in the second verse, the first lulling us into a false sense of security. Such powerful qualities she has to evoke tension and atmosphere. Her rendering of it proved her profound understanding...Later in the lesson [she] answered most of the questions, many of the other girls being reticent in front of a (male) stranger, who sat at the back and sighed on several occasions and then interrupted the lesson, upbraiding the girls for not trying hard enough - for me, for goodnessÕ sake. But theyÕre not doing it for me. Or for him... Afterwards he asked me whether I thought Sally dominated too much? His exact words were: ÔDoes that Black girl take over the lesson too much?Õ What on earth did he really mean by that, I wonder? I answered him that her natural oral gifts were a godsend in a lesson often dominated by inappropriate self-consciousness and shyness on the part of most of the girls.
And yet thatÕs where I left it. When I look back at that remark by the OFSTED inspector, it seems to take on another reality. Would he have made the same comment of a white girl, I wonder? I just donÕt know because I did not ask him. Interestingly, I challenged him on interrupting the lesson as being against his brief, and my authority. I did not challenge him on what could have been construed as a racist remark. I make this comment now, not because I wish to make any sort of confession, but because it is the first time that the issue of racism came up in my mind. It also concerns me that I did not challenge him for what could have been merely personal, rather than professional reasons. Personal reasons would be concerned with my own fears of confrontation which were not connected to the educational decision I should, perhaps, have made. Professional reasons would have been constituted by considering what was best for Sally, for that lesson, for the situation with an OFSTED inspector (could I have ÔeducatedÕ him in some way?!) finding out what the rules were about such things, discussing it with Jan (Head of Faculty)...The list grows!
ÔYet darkness brings
no syncopated promise. I rest somewhere
between the unsung notes of night.Õ
I turn now to extracts in my journal which deal with SallyÕs request in a lesson in April, 1997, to read aloud extracts from her autobiography:
ÔToday was amazing. A gift out of the blue. I cannot for the life of me work out why Sally asked to read out extracts from her autobiography to us today, but I am so profoundly glad she did. The lesson started as always. ItÕs the time weÕre upstairs. Girls meander over in dribs and drabs from Main Building. ItÕs certainly not a business-like start... And then thereÕs Sally. Comes over last as a rule (I must talk to her about this), enters the classroom. Makes an entrance. Always popularly greeted by the others and then usually talks about having a singing lesson half-way through, so can she go etc. etc... Today was very different. A ÔMacbethÕ lesson. Finishing off the text in order to set an essay. Well, that was my plan...
Sally: Miss, Miss, (halfway through the door. Others were seated and we had sort-of started already.)
I wanted immediately to snap at her: ÔNot now, Sally, just give it a rest for a moment.Õ
Sally: Please Miss, please Miss.
(All right. This level of enthusiasm is unusual even from Sally.)
Moira: What is it?
Sally: Can I read out a chapter from something IÕm writing?
Moira:WhatÕs it about?
Sally: ItÕs my autobiography.
I held back on any sarcastic remark about the fact she is rather young to be writing an autobiography. Suddenly, I saw her face. There was anguish as well as excitement there, and something else I couldnÕt fathom for the time being.
Moira:Yes (murmuring). Is that all right, girls? Would you like to hear?
(But my question was rhetorical. I knew before it started that something magical was about to happen, and that the best thing I could do as a teacher, as the Ôresponsible adultÕ was to trust her in this situation. She had something important to tell us. It was our place to listen.)
Sally:...I used to look in the mirror to search the glass for his face, but I never found him there, although my mother, she said I had his eyes. Eyes like crescents, she said. I just cried through my eyes when she talked about my father. Why did he leave us? I was only five. What could I have done to make him go? But I am proud of my eyes. They are beautiful and if I have my fatherÕs eyes, then he is beautiful too. I wonder why he went away.
My reflections:I look round at the other girls. Jo is crying openly. Her father moved to the States last year, and she often brings in pictures to show me of where he lives. SheÕs hoping to see him this summer. Emma is comforting Jo, and wiping away her own tears. George is looking at Sally, as if to encourage her. Fran is sitting quietly intent, eyes moist but staring ahead. She is in Care and has just had to have a new Social Worker when she was getting used to the old one. So she has known loss too. She has talked to me about how difficult it is to feel secure in her life when the adults in it keep changing. Oh God, how many of these children understand what Sally is telling us this morning? And Sally is crying as well as she reads. ÔAre you all right?Õ I whisper to her. ÔI want to carry on,Õ she replies. Oh dear, I think we can all hear the power of her story, the beauty and authenticity of her narrative, but are we all ready for this? Should I stop her? Yet there is a part of me saying that we should not shy away from Truth, even when it is unpalatable. This experience is awesome, and it is awesome for so many reasons. She is opening her life to us, offering us something in trust. We cannot turn her away at this moment of unfolding. And yet there are 21 other girls in this room. Is this right? Yet Truth of such a poignant and difficult reality, is part of our lives. Turning away from it cannot be educational. This seems like the time with the ÔAncient MarinerÕ poem, when I was worried as to whether the children should be brought to identify with the horror too closely. There I concluded that I have to provide the safety in the classroom. I have to remind the girls of the context in which this is happening, if it appears to be becoming too much for them...
Sally: My step father, he lived with us after my real dad went away. I wanted him to go away. He used to beat me because I would not call him father. Because I was still waiting for my real father to come home. Every night I would sit at the window upstairs and say, ÔTonight youÕre coming home. Tonight, youÕve got to come home.Õ I would watch for him down the dirty street. ÔCome home tonight. PleaseÕ...
My reflections: Now Louise is upset as well, but who could fail to be? Louise usually sits rather apart from the group, although she is extremely moved now. She seems to think carefully about every word she speaks, and her drafting is always covered in minute commentary alongside each line, almost indecipherable. She can spend five minutes choosing a word. IÕve watched her, scoring through phrase after phrase, retrying another and another, until one seems to stick. She always writes with great sensitivity, but I worry about how reticent she is to commit herself to words. And here she is now, openly crying, openly engaging with what Sally is saying. Last week she told me that she had split up with her boyfriend and how lonely she was feeling without him. And Katie, I wonder what sheÕs thinking, she appears to be impassive. Could she be bored? And suddenly I am feeling guilty. Why? I caught SuzanneÕs eye once before and looked away because I didnÕt want to see what I saw. Suzanne looks stonily through me. Ouch! Mouth set, eyes hard and cold. What is going on here? And should an English lesson have brought out this apparent resentment? She seems to be sitting there as if she is not engaging with what Sally is saying, but her look at me says, ÔThis is your fault! You made me feel this?Õ Feel what? I knew this was risky. This was what I feared, that the girls could become so gripped by the atmosphere which Sally has created, that they would not feel safe. ÔAnd I donÕt have to feel this if I donÕt want toÕ, SuzanneÕs eyes seem to be saying to me, and this suggests she is actually having to work hard not to feel and that she is not succeeding. In that case, then, there is something in this story which touches her so deeply, that only by becoming a brilliant hard surface, can she deflect it. Oh dear, this is worrying, I shall have to follow this up. I should know more about their lives than I do. If I am the responsible adult here, then I need to know.
Sally sits before us and recites her life.
What on earth has enabled Sally to do this? Eyes shining not only with tears, it would seem, sometimes her voice strong and proud, at others subdued and muted. She shines through her tears. I have never seen the group so riveted by anything we have done in English before. These girls seem to be living this experience with her. And what else is awesome? I wonder how often it is that a Black girl offers her experience to a white audience and has such a response. The way theyÕre looking at her is moving in the extreme. All my working life I have wanted people to treat each other with respect. I have wanted to show the pupils I teach a love and respect because as humans we are equals together. I also wanted them to show each other that love and respect. And here, I believe, in the atmosphere that this young woman has the power to create, something of that love and respect seems to be in the air around us all. I can discern no girl not paying awed attention. Apart from the mellifluous sound of SallyÕs voice, and the birds singing outside the window, I can hear nothing at all but the beating of my own heart.
Sally: And then at school I was the one without a father. They bullied me. All the other kids, Black and white, even though some of them didnÕt have either parent.
My reflections: I look over at Fran, who stares ahead, then I catch her eye. I try to show her with my expression how much I care about her and she smiles back, a watery smile, a brave smile.
Sally: And I went to school. I solved the puzzles and wrote the words. I drew the maps and learned the dates, but I hated it. I hated it. It was not my place.
My reflections: I see Becky shuffling awkwardly in her chair. I believe she feels uncomfortable at school too. She doesnÕt like bells and homework, she sits and dreams, giggling with her friends, or staring out of the window. Her written work is often scrappy and her action plans were always the last ones handed in I think she is improving in terms of concentration, and now she is absorbed. Of that I am convinced. She sits, perhaps awkwardly herself, but she is watching SallyÕs face with an intensity that is deeply moving in its seeming innocence.
I look back at Suzanne, whose eyes have changed in tenor, from brittle to sad. I want to wrap my arms around her, to make her safe, but instead I smile at her very warmly, slightly closing my eyes to emphasise the gesture. She smiles back and I feel a relief: sheÕs all right. We can talk about it later.
Sally: But I canÕt take it anymore. I canÕt sing their songs and recite their rules. So they cast me out into a white desert. They move me here to Bath. They make me leave my family and friends. And here I am alone.
My reflections: And Sally looks up, tears in her eyes and we are mesmerised. I donÕt know about anyone else, but I feel momentarily guilty, as I do when I read ÔThe Ancient MarinerÕ and he kills the albatross (see Laidlaw, 1997a).I know I havenÕt done it, and yet I feel guilty anyway. The symbolism of the act speaks to me on such a profound level of human reality: the circumstances and events donÕt have to have happened for me to identify with a similar human weakness in myself. And with Sally, the people who decided that she should move away from South London to Bath, they were white and I am white. They had power and I have power. And here she sits, tearful and strong like a warrior, using her words as her weapons and her banner and her armour. And here I am recognising her power. At last I have recognised her power and in so doing I am in a place I have never visited before. It feels uncomfortable to be here, but profoundly right to have arrived. Now that I am here, what do I do?
When she had finished the chapter she was reading, there was a silence, that was I believe, partly painful, partly bewildered, partly awed. Then Nicola started the clapping, and everyone joined in. Fran, George and Amy left their seats and rushed up to her and put their arms around her. Others came up, hovering, not seeming to know quite what to say but apparently wanting to be with her and show her some support. Still others were still stunned, sitting still, a few crying. I was worried about Jo. She sat looking blank and I went up to her, putting my arm around her.
Moira: Are you all right? (softly)
Jo: It was incredible! (brokenly). I miss my Dad too.
Moira: I know, love.
Ruby: IÕll look after her, Miss.
Moira: Thanks, I know you will.
Afterwards it was difficult to come fully back into the usual Wednesday morning classroom. Somehow I think that most of us were elsewhere, wrapped tightly in our own worlds by the power of SallyÕs words. I know that I could not quite see the classroom as a physical space for a while; it was as if Sally had recreated the classroom in her own image, but also in our own deepest images, and I had the sense that we were all stumbling around in this brave new world trying to get our bearings. And somewhere at the back of my mind I thought about ÔMacbethÕ as a displacement activity! We had twenty minutes to go and I could not allow the girls to wander out of the lesson in the vulnerable state I perceived some of them to be in. I felt somewhat mechanical as I asked them to continue their work through Act Five which we had started the previous lesson. I knew I had the responsibility to enable the girls to finish with the experience if they needed to, or not as the case might be. Interestingly, Suzanne, usually slow to start work, immediately opened her books and began to read and write. Jo stared rather vacantly into space for a few moments and then went to talk to Sally. IÕd love to know what she said. I went to Sally after a few moments and she hugged me and we both cried a little.
Now some comments from my journal the following weekend:
ÔI have given a great deal of thought to that morning, whether it was right to allow SallyÕs reading, indeed to encourage it, or not. I feel that something within the conversations that Sally and I have had, something about the acceptance of others which I try to encourage in our classrooms, something within the trust that has been building up, I am convinced, between us as a group, that has enabled this to happen. And what has happened? Well, I think on Wednesday, Sally felt able to express something of deep and enduring value to her and I am reminded of FoucaultÕs (1980) words:
ÔOnly those directly concerned can speak in a practical way on their own behalf.Õ
Sally told me after the lesson that she had never expressed herself in public in the same way before. She felt ÔdrainedÕ she said, but ÔexhilaratedÕ. However, I have not just SallyÕs educational development to consider. I must also think about what is best for all the other girls in the group. Is it right for their education to be exposed to such an event? Should I simply have got on with the lesson (that is not really more than a rhetorical question. I knew that something magical was about to happen. I donÕt know how. I just knew. I donÕt think English lessons should be manipulated into catharsis for anyone, but when something like this occurs, I think it is too important to miss. SallyÕs resolution was heartwarming, her determination to open herself to her peer-group both brave and touching. I am torn between admiration for her, concern for her future, worry about how I can possibly continue to help her to improve the quality of her learning. I believe that this marks a huge development in her own learning and in mine. I believe that she has realised she can speak on her own behalf about issues which concern her, and I have had the sands of my own preconceptions shifted. So the issue is now, where do we go from here? How can Sally develop from this beginning to a point at which she can take more responsibility for her own decisions and conclusions about how she can lead her life, and how can I help her to do this, whilst at the same time maintaining an appropriate balance of responsibility with my other pupils? They no less deserve and need my attention and care, and yet I wonder how many of them need it in quite the way that Sally does at the moment. I wonder, for example, about SuzanneÕs needs...
...If I can help [Sally] to take more responsibility for her own learning, if I can help her to see that she has within herself enormous power and insight, then perhaps she can become more in control of her own destiny, and isnÕt that what I want for all my girls? I just get the feeling that Sally has been particularly denied this human right. and that her own creative voice has been stifled. I feel it incumbent on me, more than usual with individual girls, to enable Sally to feel safe to express what it is she needs to express in order to grow.
As a result of her contribution to the lessons, I gave her a copy of the Black WomenÕs Poetry Anthology which I had devised for use with Year Ten pupils and will be coming to in the last half term of this yearÕs course. I told her that I was so touched by what she had done, and that I wanted to give her something she might value. She looked pleased!
ÔI keep on dying,
Because I love to live...Õ
The next week on the Monday I noticed Sally hanging around at the door before leaving after the lesson. The following conversation I reconstructed in my journal that evening.
Sally: Can I talk to you, Miss?
Sally: IÕve bought this copy of ÔThe Black VoiceÕ. IÕve highlighted articles IÕd like to discuss with you.
Moira: Wow! Can I read it tonight?
Sally: Yes, except I havenÕt had a chance to read it all yet. IÕll give it to you next week.
Moira: LetÕs have a look at it now, then, if thatÕs all right.
Sally: (seeming relieved somehow) Yeah. ThatÕd be great!
(Sally hands it over, I gesture to a couple of chairs and we sit down. We talk about how difficult it is for her in Bath to find this kind of material, and how relieved she is to have found it at last. I ask her which articles she finds interesting and why, she reads extracts aloud and we talk about them. I watch her face, so intent and enthusiastic and I am moved by her keenness, her life and vitality, her trust in me and her apparent concern to make contact in which she can say what she cares about. But then, donÕt we all want that?)
I could only stay ten minutes as I had another lesson to go to after break. I thanked her for sharing it with me and we smiled at each other and went in our different directions, Sally to Technology, me to a Year Seven group. I reported this conversation to Jan M. (Head of Faculty) whose instant response was to see whether the Library would order ÔThe Black VoiceÕ!
On the Wednesday I set up the video of a cartoon version of ÔMacbethÕ and waited for the girls to arrive from Main Building after registration:
ItÕs getting beyond a joke. Many of the Year Tens are coming later and later on a Wednesday. I know some of them have assembly, or are kept in by tutors, but this tardiness is simply taking advantage. And after the last knot of girls arrives, in comes Sally, fifteen minutes late, full of charming apologies, but very late nevertheless. This time I take her aside, take her outside. I am cross, but that has to be subdued for the moment. I must bear in mind how much she has given this group and how far she has come in expressing what matters to her. It might be better to ask her why she is late (why on earth havenÕt I really done that before?) and also to point out what some of the consequences are of her lateness.
Moira: Sally, youÕre late and IÕve had enough! (Blown it in the first sentence, Moira)
Immediate deadlock. Stands, head slightly averted, but eyes searching my face. Seems mutinous Oh why do I continue to do this, when I know it doesnÕt work? What do they teach you in training college? Avoid confrontation. And if you do get into a confrontation, win it at all costs! Win? I donÕt know whether that is at all helpful here. I think we can only both lose this way. I have always said that to myself that I should be explaining reasonable rules, not simply enforcing them. O.K., another try.
Moira: Sally, letÕs start again. Why are you late, eh?
Sally: I was talking to Mr. A., Miss. HeÕs helping me with my Art and I...IÕm sorry. (starts to cry)
Oh God, no! Remember where she came from in London, where it seems only negative things were talked about her and yet here she is, simply guilty of not organising her time properly. She is trying out everything at school, she has extra singing lessons, she joins things, gets involved. She cares. Yes, she has to learn about time-keeping, but she is a child. I do not believe it is educational to force children to obey rules which they do not fully understand. I agree with the rule about time-keeping. We need to start punctually, but I have an overview on this. Has anyone ever explained to Sally what an overview might look like, or explained to her why it is in her interest, really in her interest to obey this rule? She has such sensitivity and empathy. There must be a way.
Moira: Sally, I am a bit concerned. DonÕt get upset, love. Listen. I really care about you and about how you are getting on. I want to spend as much time as I can with all the girls trying to help you all learn lots and lots, and enjoy it, if possible. (Sally smiles waterily). Sally, a lot of the girls look up to you, you know. IÕve seen them respond to your power and your eloquence. If you come late, then maybe they think itÕs all right to come late too. And thatÕs not fair on any of us, is it?
Sally: They look up to me? (Interest? Disbelief? Delight?)
Moira: Yes, they do. Just look at the way they responded to your autobiography.
Sally: Sorry Miss. (touching me on the arm) ÔI wonÕt be late again. If I donÕt get a better offer, that is.Õ (giggles)
Moira: (smiling) Now go and learn something about Macbeth, you naughty girl!
The following day I received the following memo from my Head of Faculty:
ÔI have asked I.W. whether we can have ÔThe Black VoiceÕ as a regular
addition to the newspapers in the Library. She replied that she would
Ôhave to think about considering itÕ (her words, not mine) before making
a decision.Õ Jan.
I was furious but didnÕt know what to do with my anger. I sensed that confronting the Librarian may not be the best way forward, but I am not sure I was not afraid of accusing her of what I suspected, which was racism. I could not prove it, and yet it rankled. However, it also had the effect of making me even more conscious of the need to continue to support SallyÕs growth towards an emancipation from those constraints she was beginning to articulate, for example, in her autobiography.
have smashed against
crashed up and down these
lain mute and then drained
their meanings out and into
It is now to the end of May that I move, to the conversation that heads this paper. In my journal that evening, I wrote this:
ÔOh God, IÕve never known anything like it. SallyÕs burst of passion, the rage, the sense of impotent fury, that was nevertheless so articulate, so bloody intelligent and sensitive. She hung around at the end of the lesson, as she so often does these days. She had been silent throughout, not even responding to direct questions. Her body-language, instead of being fluid and graceful, was angular and sharp, almost awkward. As if she were not quite sure about what to do with her own body. Her hands, usually so eloquent, were dropped like tired stones in her lap. Occasionally, I caught her looking at me with an expression in her eyes which I interpreted as hostile. I have never known her look at me like this before.
We have been reading through ÔAn Inspector CallsÕ and comparing it with ÔThe Winslow BoyÕ. In the previous lesson, I asked the group what they thought the reason might be for both authors setting the plays before the First World War
Sally: ItÕs symbolic, Miss. ItÕs trying to show that everything is about to break up.Õ
Quite! As so often in her oral work, Sally was streets ahead, expressing herself cogently and sometimes even poetically in class. This hostility came as such a shock this morning. Even her tone of voice when she was telling me how she felt was controlled rage, somehow. She didnÕt scream out of control, she shouted at a volume which commanded my absolute attention. And as she spoke, at me, around me and through me, as she grasped the meanings of her words even as she created them, before either of us could let them disappear, at last I heard Maya AngelouÕs words:
ÔTake the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess youÕve heard me crying,
and admit youÕve seen my tearsÕ.
Yes, Sally. I hear you. I hear you.
At last, at long,
And Sally, sat down, dried her tears and we talked. We talked about her life, her loneliness, her sense of isolation, her need to belong but not knowing where or how she belonged. And I sat there feeling very ambivalent - delighted that she was expressing herself without apparent dissimulation, and yet far more guilty than the first time when she read us her autobiography, because her words were also legitimately addressed to me, her teacher. We were studying almost entirely dead, white, male authors.
Even with all the hints and the declarations, I had not heard her voice clearly above the Ôwhite noiseÕ perpetually surrounding us. I have been reluctant to infer a necessary development of my educative relationship with Sally as having an explicitly racial dimension and I wonder whether thatÕs because I have not felt I could cope with it. I think Sally has expressed it very clearly, that her colour is an issue for her and I cannot fail to hear her voice. I must think about this. I must extend my vision. It is my responsibility to do this. No one elseÕs. Taking the educational responsibility in this situation with Sally would not just be about agitating for Black rights (whatever they might be) within the school, getting copies of a Black newspaper into the Library for example (although that would be a good idea anyway) or just writing documents about equalising opportunities to be filed away in new copies of The Faculty Handbook so that others could read it and remark on its insight. This, now, here and now, is about me as a professional educator coming to terms with my own in-built racism, as I educate individual Black girls, girls of colour and white girls in my English lessons. Would I have been so blind to a white girl? Would I have failed to hear her voice? Would I have not seen her distress and frustration more searingly? Is it possible I would have been touched more profoundly to act differently by a white girlÕs autobiography? I just donÕt know, is the answer to that one. I just donÕt know, and I should know. And another thing, I wonder whether I would have allowed a white girl to speak to me in the manner which Sally did at the beginning of our discussion. Again, I donÕt know and I should.
I am aware of the self-critical nature of the above comments and this paper does not seek to be confessional, but as authentic an explanation of the journey that we both made, as I can reveal. I partly seek to show the nature of the development I have undergone recently in my role as teacher-researcher. I am not saying that I feel wholly culpable for SallyÕs outspokenness. Some of that must clearly be borne by Sally herself. However, I do represent, in my English lessons with all the girls, the authority of the school, and stand as a symbol of their values. In that sense I am culpable, if anything being done in the name of education in this school is damaging a girl, and I subsequently do nothing about it. But for the moment, it seemed to me that I had work to do with Sally as I helped her to improve the quality of her understanding about English.
ÔIÕd call a place
where families are loyal
and strangers are nice,
and music is jazz
and the season is fall.
Promise me that
or nothing at all.Õ
Around this time, I talked to colleagues and friends. I read. I listened to Sally. I introduced the Black WomenÕs Poetry Anthology I had devised a few weeks previously, at the beginning of the final half term of the year.
My journal written on the Monday evening, end of May:
ÔI introduced the Black WomenÕs Poetry Anthology Unit today. With trepidation. I was aware of all my misgivings about tokenising Black experience and suggesting to the girls that because I am a teacher, I know all about Black experience, as I know Ôall about EnglishÕ. I am learning that anything I can say with validity about my educational experience and understanding, must be a living truth and not a theoretical one. To Maya Angelou first.
Moira: O.K., girls, Black WomenÕs Poetry. Now, I have really wondered about how to introduce this unit this term. I donÕt want you to get the idea that this Anthology somehow expresses Ôthe Black WomenÕs perspectiveÕ whatever that is. But we have been doing a lot of white, male authors like Priestley, Coleridge, Shakespeare and Blake. This half term we will be looking principally at some of the work of three Black poets, and as we look through their work, you will see, of course, that they donÕt just write about their Blackness or their gender. Why should they unless they choose to? They write about all sorts of issues and feelings and thoughts. LetÕs start with Maya AngelouÕs poem, ÔPhenomenal WomanÕ. Anyone like to read?
(This said looking over the whole class, trying not to focus on Sally, although I can just imagine her reading it aloud in that dramatic, sensitive and intelligent way of hers. Several girls suggest her.)
Sally: IÕll do it, Miss. You read it first, then IÕll have a bash at it.
Moira: Bash? Mm. Not a very poetic term.
I read it with speed and enthusiasm. By the end I feel I understand this phenomenal woman Angelou is talking about. I feel as if I could become her. Wow, what a poem! The girls clap.
Sally: Now me, Miss.
She reads it completely differently. First, she stands. I remained seated. She doesnÕt copy anything from my performance at all, which I have to admit, is a surprise. She starts more slowly, she intonates her words with almost laborious care at times, not because she isnÕt coping with them, but because she seems to be savouring their taste and smell and shape. Then the tempo increases until at the end, her American/Caribbean accent becomes more and more pronounced, and she is gesticulating fluidly with her free hand (the other holds the pages), each gesture an intonation of the poemÕs meanings. She stops, bows her head. A moment of silence and everyone begins clapping. Cheering. Sally grins with such pleasure and the Anthology is alive in the classroom with us. It can now almost take care of itself. Thank you, Sally, youÕve done it again!
At about this time I had a conversation with my critical friend, Beth, a teacher of Geography at another local school. I had told her about SallyÕs autobiography and she had suggested that I ask Sally to produce something for the Unit Beth was doing at her school on anti-racism in Year Ten.
Moira: Sally, I wanted to ask you something, but I am a bit concerned you might feel obliged to say yes.
Sally: No I wonÕt Miss. (laughs)
Moira: I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches Geography at - School and I was saying about some of the work weÕve been doing in our group. She was really interested when I told her about some of the things youÕve been doing.
Sally: You talked about me?
Moira: Yes, of course. I am so pleased with your work. You know that. The way you express yourself is always so incredibly interesting. Anyway, my friend was wondering, whether you would be interesting in allowing her to include some of your autobiography to be used in an anti-racist unit she is devising for her Year Ten Humanities group.
Sally: She wants to use my work? Wow! Yes, of course, IÕd love that to happen.
Moira: I donÕt want you to feel tokenised here, Sally. You know, weÕve talked about that.
Sally: Yeah, I know youÕre asking me Ôcos IÕm Black, but I know you really value what IÕve written too. DonÕt you?
Moira: ThereÕs something I think youÕve missed out. I really value you too. Sally B.. You are really something.
Sally: Yeah!!! Right!!!
This seems an important development. I felt as I was speaking to Sally that I was able to be completely honest with her. The confusions about my responsibilities as her educator, as someone in loco parentis, seemed to have receded and in their place I was feeling a confidence because of her apparent ease with me. I am claiming here that there is a connection between my efforts to improve the quality of our educative relationship and our growing mutual understanding and warmth. When she said to me that she realised that I was asking her because she was Black but that she knew I valued her work too, I was thrilled. I would have been even more thrilled, if I had not had to remind her of my affection for her but I do wonder because of the growing warmth of our interactions, whether she probably knew it anyway.
In the English lessons I asked the girls to present their understanding of at least two poetsÕ work in an oral form which I could assess for their examination Language folders. This should be worthy of four weeksÕ English time. There were no limits on the form of the presentation, as long as it enabled me to judge their oral contributions. Groups ranged from ÔradioÕ chat-shows with Maya Angelou, Jackie Kay and Alice Walker, or documentary dramas about events in the lives of the poets, to dramatic renditions of the poems themselves.
Over the next two weeks I acted as a consultant with different groups, encouraging some, challenging others, pushing, cajoling, enthusing, upbraiding and the projects began to take shape. Sally worked with her three friends, George, Amy and Fran. Very quickly they asked for permission to go somewhere else on campus and start rehearsals for some dramatic reconstructions of the poems of Maya Angelou and Alice Walker.
George: We donÕt need you, Miss, for the moment. Can we plan things first and go through them and then ask you to come and see us?
Moira: Fine, but at the end of this weekÕs lessons, I will need a report back from each group to see how things are going and what other jobs are still needing to be done. WeÕll do that as a class together.
Fran: You can trust us, Miss.
Moira: I know, you devils, go on, off you go. And itÕs going to be brilliant, isnÕt it?
Sally: It certainly is, Miss!
(they go off chatting and laughing)
4th July. I went round to see each group this morning, again giving suggestions and encouragement where appropriate. George had already seen me in the morning and told me something very special was happening in their group and could I see them as a last port of call? I had already witnessed their exhilarating rehearsal of ÔPhenomenal WomanÕ in which each of the four of them (all standing in a row) were rapping the lines in turn, with Sally doing the refrain. So yet another treat from this group. I went into the old Faculty office, now being used as a rehearsal venue.
George: Hurry, hurry, itÕs Miss Laidlaw. Come on!
Moira: Where would you like me to go?
Sally: Over there, Miss. (pointing to wall at back of room) Right. ÔFirst They Said...Õ
Moira: Oh, the Alice Walker poem.
Fran: Hush, Miss, weÕre starting.
Sally is standing in the middle of the room, head bowed. George enters from off stage and wraps Sally in ropes and pretend chains. Oh God, no, I donÕt think I can watch this. George leaves stage left.
Sally: (voice so sad and soft):
First they said we were...
George: (coming on from stage left, hissing): SAVAGES!
Sally: (voice stronger):
But we know how well we had treated them
And knew we were not savages.
(voice subdued again), head bowed:
Then they said we were...
Fran: (coming on from stage right, bullying): IMMORAL
Sally: (voice stronger, yet still scared):
But we knew minimal clothing
did not equal immoral.
(voice subdued again, head bowed):
Next they said our race was...
Amy: (coming on from stage left, hectoring): INFERIOR
Sally: (voice a little stronger still, but scared):
But we knew our mothers
and we knew our race
was not inferior.
(voice subdued again, head bowed):
After that they said we were
George: (coming on from stage right shouting): OBSTRUCTING PROGRESS
Sally: (calmly, with dignity):
But we knew the rhythm of our days
and we knew we were not obstructing progress.
(voice subdued again, head bowed):
Eventually, they said...
Fran: (coming on from stage left, insinuatingly)
The truth is, you eat
too much and your villages take up too much
of the land.
Sally: (head held high, voice strong):
But we knew we and our children
were starving and our villages were burned
to the ground. So we knew we were not eating
too much or taking up too much of the land.
(voice subdued again):
Finally they had to agree with us.
George: (coming on from stage left, insinuating an arm, in a ÔpallyÕ way round SallyÕs shoulder and drawing off the ropes and ÔchainsÕ, going round and round as she speaks her lines):
You are right. It is not your savagery
or your immorality or your racial inferiority or
your peopleÕs backwardness or your obstruction of
Progress or your appetite or your infestation of the land
that is at fault. No. What is at fault
is your existence itself.
(pushes Sally, now unchained, savagely to the floor, Sally lies on her front, unmoving)
Here is money then...Raise an army
among your people, and exterminate
Sally: (slowly and painfully rising to her feet as she speaks, articulating more and more clearly in this final stanza, her voice tremulous with rage and sorrow and power):
In our inferior backwardness
we took the money. Raised an army
among our people.
And now the people protected, we wait
for the next insulting words
coming out of that mouth!
Evening. I watched SallyÕs group this morning with something approaching sickness. It was so vivid, so full of naked understanding that it was almost unbearable to witness, but what horrified me at the beginning was the idea that the group had unconsciously adopted the racial roles without thinking about them, because if that were the case, then everything we had done seemed to have become invalid. At a stroke. If they were not conscious of what they were doing, then how could we unravel the complexity of what they had presented, and how could I reflect it back to them in constructive and not destructive ways? And how would Sally respond? If I were right, then how could I talk to all of them to recover something educational out of this, because as an English teacher, it is one of the most powerful renditions of a poem I have ever seen? I would give this somewhere in the ÔAÕ category as a GCSE assessment for three of the four girls. I have not yet seen Amy participating enough to grade her at all.
So this was the dilemma. I had to find a way of reflecting back to them something of the value of what they had done without destroying the fabric of our educative relationship by taking away the safe space that we had carefully built up together. Could our educative relationship solve this possible catastrophe? I had to remain calm. I didnÕt feel calm. I felt as if the world might be caving in. I asked them enough to ascertain, thank goodness, that they were aware of what they were doing, and they wanted to create an effect. Sally said they thought it would be powerful, done that way. They knew what they were doing. I went into the staffroom at break and told Jan about what had happened. Her response was immediately to question the educational appropriateness of a performance like that, if indeed the girls had not been aware of what they were doing. But IÕm still not wholly happy with it. I think I will have to bring it up again with the group.
11.7.97. ...I decided to probe this issue again today [with SallyÕs group and the possible racial stereotyping] because I felt it was still not, to my mind, sufficiently explored. Again I went round all the Year Ten groups, paying attention to what theyÕd claimed to have achieved in the previous weekÕs end-of-week report. Then SallyÕs group. They performed their Alice Walker again at my request. The following is a reconstruction of our conversation that resulted. As I write this, I can hear their voices and see their intent faces.
Moira: Wow! (ItÕs a start.)
George: Well, Miss?
Moira: I donÕt know what to say, girls. (sitting, girls join me)
Fran: It was all our idea.
(I wonder whether she is being defensive here.)
Moira: Yeah, I know we talked about this last week, but I still feel somewhat awkward about it.
Amy: DidnÕt you like it, Miss? You didnÕt, did you?
Moira: I donÕt know. IÕll be honest. I just donÕt know what to say. As a piece of English coursework it was brilliant. Absolutely unparalleled in my experience (they look at each other and smirk) but I would like to look at how you set it up.
Sally: Well, I played the slave because IÕm Black. And we thought, you know, if I played it, itÕd be really powerful.
Moira: (repeating, dully) Powerful. Well, itÕs certainly that. (shakes head)
George: Yeah, and then we could come on and do all those things. White people bullying. You know, I really felt strange when I was doing it. Like I was really doing it. Do you know what I mean?
Moira: Yes, I think I really do.
Fran:What did you think of it?
Amy: Come on, Miss. Spit it out.
Moira: I suppose I think youÕre all amazing. It is probably the most impressive piece of theatre I have seen in my career. What worries me was whether you knew what you were doing. (GeorgeÕs brow contracts) You see this term I really felt it was important to redress the balance in the Literature weÕve been reading...
Sally: (smiles) All dead, white males, you mean, Miss.
Moira: Well, yes. And then suddenly I see you acting out some dreadful, racial stereotypes and I canÕt help wondering if there is any way in which this whole thing has not been educational for you. That you have adopted these roles without looking really carefully at what they mean.
George: (bridling) ThatÕs a bit patronising, Miss. Are you saying we donÕt know what weÕre doing?
Moira: Yes, I guess I was scared of that. IÕm really sorry if that patronises you, but I think I had to make sure. ItÕs my job, girls. I have to make sure. What if you didnÕt know and youÕd gone out of that experience just bolstering up those racial stereotyped roles? WouldnÕt that have been dreadful? I think itÕs better for me to be guilty of being patronising, than irresponsible. Look, itÕs my job.
Fran: (stonily) What, being patronising?
Moira: (laughs) I hope not. No, I really do care about the effects of what weÕre doing have on all of us. I feel responsible for a lot of that. ThatÕs all. It means sometimes IÕm not as clear about some things as perhaps I should be. IÕm trying to work it all out at the same time.
George: So, youÕre saying youÕre slow? (grins)
Moira: In a manner of speaking, I guess I am. IÕm trying to balance my job as your English teacher with a concern for you as people. I donÕt want what we do to harm us.
Sally: How could we be harmed?
Moira: O.K., what if you hadnÕt thought about what you were doing in terms of racism? What if Sally had taken the role of the oppressed Black slave because thatÕs how she identifies herself?
Fran: And I took the role of a white bully, because thatÕs part of me?
Moira: I donÕt think itÕs part of you at all, Fran. I donÕt think itÕs a part of any of you, but what if it showed you something, without showing you what it meant and you were just left with it? DonÕt you see, we need to talk about it.
George: I get it. What if we are racist and we donÕt know it, and it just, like, you know, confirms it?
Moira: Yes! Yes, absolutely right!
Sally: Yeah, I get it. (nods)
Moira: Fran, I can see that youÕre insulted by me patronising you and I am sorry, but I needed to ask. Do you see?
Fran: Yeah, I guess. Yes, Miss. (still looking a little truculent)
Moira: (smiling at them all) Right letÕs all go and report back.
I feel this may be one of the most significant educational discussions I have had this term. I felt George and Sally did understand the point I was making, Amy was reticent, and I will be interested to see how she writes about these issues in her G.C.S.E. assignment over the summer. Fran, I think, understands, but I will need to follow up this conversation in tomorrowÕs lesson with her. I felt in that discussion I had a greater sense of purpose and a clarity of my responsibilities as their educator than I had before I started researching my educative relationship with Sally. Sometimes being open about the processes of education I am engaging in with the girls is crucial, and so is prioritising. It felt more important to ascertain what they had learnt from the experience of reciting Alice WalkerÕs poem, than being overly concerned about hurt pride. I am not minimising FranÕs apparent sense of insult, but at that time, I felt there was more damage to be done in not challenging a possible bad piece of learning. It is unusual for me to say it, but sometimes it seems that the ends can justify the means. But when, must be a matter of great deliberation. I must not become complacent about such issues.
ÔThe free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.Õ
On 16th July, 1997, Sally bounced into the lesson waving a sheaf of papers at me.
Sally: IÕve got through to the second round of Talent 2000. (face wreathed in smiles)
Fran: Yeas, Miss, you must have a look.
Moira: Wow! Please let me see it all at the end of the lesson, Sally. ThatÕll be something to look forward to. We need to get the videoing done this lesson. Come on, everyone, letÕs get started. Sally, you take me through it at the end of the lesson. O.K.?
Sally: O.K., Miss. YouÕll like it.
And then I went round videoing the various groupsÕ presentations of their G.C.S.E. oral coursework and at the end of the lesson, when I asked Sally to show me the stuff, I asked her whether I could video her. Her three friends stayed with her as the rest of the class left, and we all said goodbyes. Sally sat at the front in my chair and I sat in front of her with the video. Throughout, she smiled, gesticulated with her eloquent hands, pointing out aspects of the papers in front of her and she shone again, as she did when she read out her autobiography, but this time there was no sign of tears.
And this is what she said:
Sally: (sings a little ditty) Welcome to the Sally Brown show. I got these papers from Talent 2000 from the B.B.C.. What happened was, there was an advert on the telly and it was saying that anyone, any age, just call in and theyÕll get your talent noticed. As I wanted to do acting I decided to Ôphone up. Three months ago. I left a message on the answer-machine. I didnÕt think theyÕd get back to me. I received this first-contact, make-up design, things it involved, workÕs experience, jobsearch, a C.V.. All to get your talent noticed.
I thought this was quite good, so what do I do? I mean, IÕm still in full-time education and a couple of weeks later I got another letter from them. ItÕs called ÔBroadcast and HistoryÕ, and what theyÕve done is give me a chance to make my own project and for them to see what I can do.
And I want to do acting, as I said (big grin). They offer me a chance to go to their studios to show them what IÕm good at - to get my talent noticed in other words. Obviously, IÕm not going to be the only person - thereÕll be loads of people all over the country wanting to do this.
So, what I thought, because weÕve been doing Black WomenÕs Poetry in English, I would choose that as my project. Also I would like to carry the other members of my group - itÕs allowed - so they could come with me and we could do Black WomenÕs Poetry. As an anti-racist issue as well as womenÕs issues. So thatÕs it!
Moira: You seem excited by it all.
Sally: I am, but I mustnÕt be too excited yet because I need to tell them what IÕm doing and theyÕre going to choose the most important ones. Still, I think this is an important issue, so fingers crossed.
Moira: And you can also do that for your Language project over the Summer and put the two things together.
Sally: Yeah, thatÕd be great! ThatÕd be our research for the project as well. So weÕd know quite a lot about what weÕre talking about. WeÕd go there informed. Not make fools of ourselves. (laughs)
Moira: Congratulation, Sally. Fantastic!
After the lesson I talked to her on our way downstairs.
Sally: I feel I have come alive. Reading this poetry (Black Women's Anthology)is like coming home. Do you remember you asked me that question?
Moira: Oh yes, it isnÕt one IÕm likely to forget. Why is it like coming home?
Sally: I am doing what I want. I decide. I say. (tears in eyes) It helps that youÕve helped me, but I make the decision.
Moira: (tears in eyes too) Oh yes, absolutely. ThatÕs what itÕs all about, isnÕt it? Oh, Sally, IÕm so happy for you.
Sally: (big grin) So am I. See you, Miss.
Moira: See you, Sally.
ÔLet others have
the privacy of
and love of loss
Give me your hand.Õ
Before I started teaching Sally, racism to me had always been something Ôout thereÕ, a concept, something I would tackle as Ôa problemÕ rather than through living dialogues which informed all of us, rather than in which I had a set of ideas which I then used as the basis of all future development. It is characteristic of my educational development that I learn through relationship rather than through ideas unconnected with practice. Through my educative relationship with Sally I have learned that only through living dialogues can I develop educationally in a way I believe to be productive and responsible. Only through teaching and learning with her do I feel that I have developed my understanding of my own racism and how I can overcome this in the future for the benefit of the teaching of all the pupils for whom I am in loco parentis. By working with Sally I also believe I have become more insightful about the needs of the white girls in my care. That, however, constitutes another study. There is certainly a sense in which she has taught me something about the lovely profundity of being human together, as we try to engage in worthwhile activities.
And the last word to Sally who wrote a synopsis of her project to Talent 2000 on 17.7.97.:
ÔMy proposal rests on the poetry of Maya Angelou, Jackie Kay and Alice Walker. Whilst combining these poets, all women and Black, I would like to introduce Black WomenÕs Poetry. I would like to share with you their humour, their talent and their struggles. These ladies describe beautifully their fortunes and struggles in the past. For some, poetry [has been] written alongside their motherly chores, but later concentrates more on their experiences of acting, dancing, Black activating and editing. I chose these women to influence me in my project because they find it easy to write reality in poetry, telling it like it is.
Another reason why I chose this project is because it leads me on to another important issue which is racism. Racism is a very big issue itself, but the section I am concentrating on is the anti-racial section. I would like to stress these poets as part of this anti-racial project. It may seem rather ÔdifferentÕ to begin with ÔBlack WomenÕs PoetryÕ, I would like to start differently. Speaking on behalf of the Black section gives them a chance too to be helped by portraying perhaps their points of view. My project will be including: poetry-writing, dancing, singing, research, and drama.Õ
Angelou, M., (1994), The Complete Collected PoemsÕ, Virago Press, New York.
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Laidlaw, M., (1996a) ÔImproving the quality of education through articulating the standards of judgement by which the work can be judged,Õ paper given at AERA (American Educational Research Association) Conference, New York, 8th April.
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Williams, P., (1997), ÔCreating a Colour-Blind FutureÕ, The Reith Lectures, London.