Anthem for saved youth

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Tuck your shirts in! Where's your book? Sit DOWN!" At last they sit in rows of blue and grass-stained white, all their ties askew; the uniform of sulking youth.

They face a timed essay on Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est". First, they have a lot of examiners' instructions to march through before they reach the front line and start writing. They know they'll need "contextual influences" and "appropriate terminology" to win this war. They have been warned that while a personal response is valuable, they must not go over the top. They have also been told the WWI origin of that expression.

A disorderly bee is dismissed, then they begin. Walking up and down the rows, in a quiet classroom bright with strip lighting and bursts of autumn sunshine, I start to read their scripts. Wilfred Owen has at last been allowed to enter the room. His anguished images begin to come back, reborn in the rounded, childish hand of writers only two years younger than those he died with.

"Bent double, like old beggars under sacks... "; "...blood-shod. All went lame; all blind." There is no way on earth that any exam can dampen the effect of these words. Something does seem to have got through to them.

Bent double over their desks, paper curling as it only does when children press hard with their pens, they're displaying an earnest focus which is quite rare for a Thursday afternoon after PE. Even Darren and James stopped complaining about not being allowed to sit next to each other and slunk off resignedly to their separate bunkers. As for that court-martialled bee, it was a big one, and on any other day it would have caused mutiny or rout.

No, I don't think I imagined it. Wilfred Owen has made himself heard again.

He got through to me, too. An hour ago, I was depressed about the dehumanising blandness of the examiners' criteria. I was seething with cynical military comparisons about young people in the inflexible world of modern education, with its fanatical conformity and complicated rules.

Harrumph, I muttered darkly, they may as well be in the bloody army.

Well, they're not in the bloody army, and no one's been hurt. They've been writing quietly for an hour about young people who differed from them only in their fate. The sun burns green in the leaves swaying at the window. At least they're here. It's just grass that stains their shirts and ink their hands. It's just the school bell that slices through their day.

At least they're here, and not with that other army, trampled in the mud.

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