Educating Yorkshire episode 8: The Moment
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this
Extract from The Moment, by Margaret Atwood
The makers of Educating Yorkshire bookended the series with their A-game. In one, we saw Ryan and Bailey; in this adieu they dropped their smart bombs: Musharaf and Mr Burton. The former, a shy innocent, wrapped in a stammer, the latter a quick-witted, garrulous ringmaster, showboating his kids miraculously backwards through the alphabet soup of GCSE grades.
Musharaf was a kind boy, a prefect stripped of his stripes for a social network misdemeanour. There's a quote that haunts the Internet and inspirational posters everywhere: 'Everybody is a genius, but if we judge a fish by its ability to climb trees it will live it's whole life believing that it's stupid.' It's commonly ascribed-erroneously- to Einstein; I imagine the master of relativity probably didn't give a f*** about multiple intelligences. That aside, Musharaf was the fish climbing the tree, or at least he would be when he sat his imminent exam in English with its 20% speaking and listening component in which he would have to give a speech and well, you get the idea. Somewhere, a fish was working out how to use crampons.
The Maverick Burton was tasked with steering Mush and a gang of C/D borderline students through their English exam resit. And a word on that. Was there ever a less edifying malaise that infected the body educative, than the damnable idea that one group of students- on the edge of a C- should be preferentially coached through the exams? That's not a criticism of Thornhill as such, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the reason schools focused on these and not raising attainment in the gifted or the lost was because they mattered more to the league tables. It's a sad inversion of our duty to educate with parity and justice.
It was a bitter irony that for Mush to achieve his dreams he had to climb an apparently impossible mountain of consonants and vowels that froze and melted in his mouth as he tried to summon them. The fish would never be a lumberjack. Burton tried, but the boy could barely answer a roll call. This wasn't fiction; Mush wouldn't find the answer by Googling 'Public Speaking for Dummies' before walking off into the sunset with a fine lady in braces. Real life doesn't afford us such miracles. We know how kids will do from a long, long way away, and Mush was walking into a car crash.
Except something happened so unlikely you wouldn't have believed it from the Cartoon Network. Burton happened on The King's Speech, winner of 2010's middle-class Oscars, where Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue remedies the stuttering King before his address to the Commonwealth. Fact and fiction fell into a blender, then off a cliff and down the rabbit hole. Burton used Logue's technique of distracting the subject with piped music, and....and it worked. Out flowed the words, like magician's doves, like music. It may have had the metronomic elegance of a Speak and Spell, it may have been leaden and clumsy as Godzilla tap-dancing, but nothing ever sounded so sweet.
The producers must have wept and chest-bumped when they saw Musharaf. He was the Jungian archetype of the hero's journey. After his breakthrough with the fabulous Mr Burton, he took his voice and made a C overall in his English GCSE. And at the end of term, he took the podium, plugged his headphones into the Matrix, and melted the assembly's callous hearts. There was grit in a 1000 teachers' eyes as we watched something that rarely happens; virtue rewarded, justice served, the good prospering. The impulse to celebrate his victory with him and for him, represented everything that was good about the often withered altruistic bone in the human soul. As Plato might have observed, to witness goodness is itself a good.
School is a series of moments, most of them banal, anodyne. It is far, far more bureaucratic and monotonous than any fantasy. In reality, transformative leaps are as rare as centaurs. But sometimes, they happen, and when they do, they catalyse everything. It would be an affectation to say they make all the crap worthwhile, but...they do. And life stubbornly refuses to imitate art; Musharaf's Captain my Captain moment was a leap, certainly, but only that. He still has to win the battle to find his voice every day; he still has other dragons to slay, such as college and university. Happily ever after only happens at the end of fairy tales; this mortal coil is a series of battles until the last breath. It was a good point to stop the camera rolling, and close the chapter, write The End.
It was a perfect moment.
If we're lucky, we'll be instrumental or even simply accidental to the success of a few, all too few in our time. Mr Burton spoke about how far he had come- assistant head in seven years- from the days when he entered the class and worried about getting through each lesson, until eventually he became the teacher he was. Every teacher realises this, if they work hard, never give up and care too much. When they finally stand in the centre of their rooms, knowing at last, how they got there.
And say, I own this.
This has been a brilliant series for education, rare, wise and like the best fables, true. And Mitchell's Academy was a good venue. Every teacher, student and staff member should be proud they took part. There must be a lot of schools like Thornhill, where teachers and staff care about nothing more than the welfare of other people's children. But we don't hear enough about the plain, mundane graft that makes learning happen. You could do a lot worse than send your kid somewhere like this.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go buy a Honda, and I'm not sure why.