To make efficiency savings in the education sausage factory, story time is being squeezed from the school day. It is being replaced by convenience texts and narratives reduced to their constituent parts. Classic tales are served up in bite-sized bits that have been dried out, reconstituted and served snack-pot style in order to aid digestion. But what’s easy to swallow isn’t necessarily nourishing.
Here in the twilight of my career, I will make a last ditch attempt to keep great children’s stories alive. I will make a stand against literature-by-numbers and low attention thresholds by reading Charlotte’s Web from start to finish. Over the years, I have developed unique voices for all the characters that never fail to keep children engaged. Wilbur is a slightly excitable Welshman, Zuckerman has an unmistakable Barnsley twang and Templeton is pure Cockney geezer.
The only problem is that, right now, I don’t know where my personal copy has disappeared. I suspect Miss Bright of using excerpts from it to teach anthropomorphism to her six-year-olds, but I have no proof of this. And Ms Lemon is adamant that her papier mache construction of the solar system is made entirely of pages from the Sheffield Star. I scour the library to no avail. There is only one place left for me to look.
I believe that if Charlotte A Cavatica was still alive today, the cupboard where the dead books live would be an ideal place for her to take up residence. It is dark, mysterious and full of cobwebs. But most important of all, it contains an almost infinite number of awesome, amazing and astounding adjectives that would be ideal for use in her peculiar form of web design.
Helped by two small children (let’s call them Fern and Avery), I eventually unearth an ancient copy of E B White’s classic tale. Its cover is partially missing, but its yellowing pages appear to be intact. Avery flicks through them to check and suffers a bout of coughing that leaves tears streaming down his cheeks. I hope it doesn’t turn into a full-blown asthma attack, because I didn’t write a risk assessment or ask him to bring his inhaler with him.
“I’m allergic to dust,” gasps Avery. He sips water while Fern tells us that, according to her dad, dust is human skin that is dead – and that if Avery is allergic to dust, he must also be allergic to dead humans. I explain that dust is also composed of other things, including microscopic bits of paper. It is more likely that the dust Avery breathed in was mostly tiny fragments of old books.
I have almost forgotten about Avery’s coughing fit when we reach the point in the story where Charlotte dies. It is a poignant moment and even now, more than 30 years since I first read it, I still get a little choked up. I stop reading in order to gather myself and to clear my throat, but just in case any child is worried their teacher might be crying, Avery reassures them. “It’s the dust,” he says. “He’s allergic to old stories.”
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield