I went to Wolfson College, Cambridge, recently for a tour of its gardens. Not much of a gardener myself, I was struck by a remarkable species of tree. Wolfson’s giant redwoods are an imposing sight, soaring ever upwards and flexing powerful, bicep-like branches.
The most remarkable thing about these trees though, is their resistance to intense heat. Due to a property within their bark, these giants can survive the ravages of forest fires, overcoming pressures other trees can’t.
Marvelling at these incredible plants, it made me wonder how I might help my students become more like giant redwoods, better able to withstand life's pressures. Bullying, social networking, family breakdown, worries over body image - being a young person nowadays seems pretty fraught to me.
It’s welcome news, then, that mental health appears to be heading back up the political agenda with the recent appointment of a Shadow Minister for Mental Health and recognition from the government that more needs to be done to tackle the issue.
Current statistics make disturbing reading. 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression; 45% of children in care and 95% of young offenders have a mental health disorder; almost 300,000 young people in the UK suffer from anxiety.
Proposals on tackling the issue in schools include the introduction of emotional intelligence and life skills education onto the curriculum, but, to my mind, students should learn how to look after their mental health across the curriculum, not least of course in English.
With all this in mind, I started wondering how I might encourage greater academic resilience in my year 9 students through our novel study. After considering a few options, I plumbed for ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy.
As a dystopian novel this might appear to be a really bad choice, but it’s actually a great story which is full of hope. It’s a captivating means of introducing and provoking discussion around some of the ways young people can develop greater resilience.
The boy in McCarthy’s novel is vulnerable almost throughout, but he manages to get through the challenges he faces because he is in the company of a trusted adult, his father.
Though they appear infrequently, safe spaces do materialise and allow both father and son respite from their last ordeal before the next appears.
For both McCarthy’s protagonists, the future appears bleak, but they have a future mapped out with a clear aim to reach warmer, more hospitable climes.
We also witness the man helping the boy to manage his feelings as he models behaviour which sees his son’s resilience increase.
Ultimately, the boy develops to the point where he handles a great loss and thereafter assumes even greater control over his future.
Thankfully, ‘The Road’ has proven to be a popular choice, particularly amongst the boys, and one which has allowed for meaningful discussions around a serious issue. Though some scenes chill to the bone, it is still an incredible tale of ruin and resilience. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Tobias Fish teaches English in the East of England