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30 Years Ago

The challenge of turning pupils on to education exercised the novelist William McIlvanney, then a teacher, who in his regular TES Scotland column confessed to a fondness for "small subversive moments" (April 30, 1976):

One concerned a boy in second year who was emanating apathy with an intensity that almost made it a positive force. He responded to the study of English as if it was Chinese. Having badgered and cajoled him for a long time, I finally discovered that his mother had recently run away from home and that quarrels with his brother and himself were a nightly occurrence.

The irrelevance of the kind of ritual demands I was making on him embarrassed me out of my teaching persona - more or less permanently, I hope.

The other involved a first year boy who suddenly began to cry. When I asked him why he was crying, the complexity of his tears astonished me. They were about what was happening at home, what was happening at school, the shabby clothes he wore, what some of the other boys had been saying about him.

The glimpse I got of the complicated machinery he was enmeshed in impressed me with the futility of any standardised approach to his problems. It's something I hope to forget as rarely as possible.

Such graffiti moments, when the individual breaks out of the ritual responses which the establishment invites him to make, remain marginal, of course. They bloom briefly wild, denying by their very nature the possibility of our systematising them or eliciting coherent educational theories from them. That is their value.

Leader 22

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