Teaching teenagers: a morality tale

Having been a teacher for almost twenty years, I know that the classroom can be a frustrating place to teach and learn, and I’ve seen how easy it is to become bitter about the whole process and concept of education. Dealing with racist, lazy or wilfully ignorant students is a strain, and the staffroom can be a uniquely cynical place. There’s the constant cliché of teachers complaining about their students. All my students are so unmotivated, uninspired and hostile to the very idea of learning, teachers complain. All your students?, I think. What’s the common denominator? Then, the next day, I find myself moaning in much the same manner.

I’ve had little contact with the world of mainstream education, meaning I’ve avoided for the most part having to deal with both the classroom management of recalcitrant teenagers and the implementation of ever-innovative forms of bureaucracy designed to reduce education to the imparting and absorption of SOW-dictated lesson content. I’ve escaped all the immensely frustrating and tiring rigmarole of box-ticking and hoop-jumping of the Age of Ofsted (which now I come to think of it does sound like a character from The Handmaid’s Tale). Nevertheless, working mostly in the field of private language education, I have witnessed the way in which it is increasingly thought of and programmed as and like a business, with the teacher as mere service provider overseeing the delivery of the kind of content which can be easily converted into measurable and marketable spreadsheet data, with schools (and, increasingly, universities) desperate to guarantee students a specific level and speed of progress. Thomas Gradgrind would be delighted to see just how much the system is deigned to make students and teachers knuckle under; Paulo Freire, on the other hand, would turn in his beard.

Such system places immense pressure on the emotional, physical and social security of both students and teachers. While the mass abandonment of the teaching profession is a demonstration of just how hard it is for both teachers to maintain motivation, students find their own ways to drop out, either morally or physically, making the tasks of teaching and learning even more demanding. Secondary classrooms thus become environments where it takes immense emotional strength to even breathe. Who would willingly throw themselves into such a cauldron? As it happens, from next week I’ll be back to teaching secondary school teenagers for the first time in many years. On the one hand, the prospect terrifies me; on the other, I do kind of think what kind of teacher are you really if you can’t teach children?

I’ve long stuck by the adage that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. Education involves the building of a relationship, a mutual sharing of knowledge and experience rather than the mere handing-over of merchandise. Two preconditions for this to take place are respect and empathy, especially in mainstream education when dealing with kids from extremely challenging backgrounds. The teacher has to demonstrate a convincing interest in the lives and enthusiasms of the people they are teaching. Perhaps the video above (which was made in 2010 and very quickly went viral) shows us one example of how to achieve that. It’s certainly entertaining and enjoyable.

However, some things about the rap battle make me uncomfortable, starting with the way it’s framed: Teacher vs student. My reservations have been encapsulated in the form of a poem (part of a longer piece called (‘SOME VIOLENCE)’ by (ironically) my former poetry teacher, Wayne Holloway Smith, whose collection ‘Alarum‘ features class, masculinity, education and violence as central themes. His poem begins:

‘On YouTube an educated man is telling teenager that he is uneducated and will never amount to anything’.

In watching the video, it’s impossible to set aside this question of status. The confrontation is not, even for a second, a battle of equals. With immense wit and charm, the teacher patronises the student, divesting him of his self-definition as articulate, in control of language. He does so (argues the poem) on behalf of a State whose main function is to force him to value himself in its terms, to see himself through its eyes, to discipline and direct his energy, explicitly telling him:

‘Let me introduce you to the value inside the language of my particular group: I am better than you’.  

The students is thus subjected to authority’s withering gaze and found wanting: ‘You’ll never amount to anything’.  It is the teacher, not the student, who is ‘articulate, witty‘, who teaches him a lesson, which is that: ‘this language (that which the teacher, ‘wearing a suit and his hands casually in his pockets‘, commands) finds you ridiculous’.

Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence (itself an example of the kind of intellectual capital which the teacher has access to, and the student doesn’t) is brought to life in the following part of the poem, in which a bull is tormented by ‘a showground of people making it mean to them violence‘, forcing it to recognise itself through their eyes:

     and the slow-breathing creature is thinking
pulling this name Bull in and out of its nostrils

and the man understands the creature further with flailing arms
helps it to understand itself with pit-sand thrown in its eyes

and OK suddenly it understands

the man: for a moment, a pulsing orgasm, lust hung in the air
cue: screaming; cue: the world has realised it was right all along
cue: the animal being taken to a place where they can correct its evil by sword

Mark Grist (like Kate Tempest, a poet who became a rapper) addresses some of these aspects in a comeback in which he expressed his frustration and anger at the way the video was presented online and in the media as a morality play.  I understand his anger, but agree with Wayne Holloway Smith in that I think the form lent itself to that interpretation. There’s largely where its entertainment value (and certainly its online appeal) came from. Both combatants employ sexism and threats of violence, but Grist’s is knowing, informed by ironic distance in the form of jocular self-awareness, whereas (in the words of the poem) ‘when the teenager responds it is cliché‘. The teacher (and, by extension, the audience, drawn to the video by the promise of seeing foolish aspirations brought down to earth, ‘bound to agree‘ with its conclusion) provokes vile attitudes from the student, responses that confirm what we ‘know’ about such people, much like the treatment of the bull in the next part of the poem.

Despite my sense that the format of the rap battle between teacher and teenager was inherently problematic, Grist’s solo poems, which often draw and reflect on his experience as a teacher led onto, are often hugely compelling. I found this one deeply affecting:

It forced me to reflect on some of the more unpleasant episodes of my teaching career, those moments when my response didn’t match up to my ultimate responsibility for a student’s emotional well-being. The poem confronts both the classroom and the staffroom at their most bleak and difficult. Like many poems, it’s a novel condensed into two minutes, humanising its subjects in a way that reminded me of a passage from a recent George Saunders article about writing fiction:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.

Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.

What should education do but make us into humans, i.e. people who are ready to grant each other the status of fully-realised characters with our own specific experiences, memories and complexities? Surely our job as teachers is to help our students see that the world need not be as ‘irrationally cruel’ as it appears to be. I hope that I’m up to the challenges of the next few months, and don’t fall back on the self-serving cliché that it’s the students, not their teacher, who lack energy, imagination and motivation.

London to Rome: Why I will always prefer bookshops to the internet


Here are two sets of coincidences that begin in the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and end, for the time being, in Rome.

In December 2015 I went to an exhibition by Emily Jacir on the life and murder of her fellow Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, a translator who took refuge in Rome but was murdered by Mossad in 1972. There were photos of his bookshelves containing a number of books I’d also read and quotes from his own books from which it’s clear he was an intriguing and exemplary engaged intellectual. At the time of his death he was translating ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ into Italian. His letters also show him to be an unusually perceptive and trenchant critique of imperialism, as well as a firm opponent of political violence. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret services and murdered on his own doorstep.

I’d been thinking about Rome as a safe haven. At the time we were living in Mexico but there were reports that the security situation in the areas where we lived was breaking down, with a new wave of threats against local restaurants and bars and a couple of murders on our doorstep. (I wrote about this here.) Around the same time I was reading a novel by Tomasso Pincio. I’d noticed this writer in bookshops because his nome de plume is a deliberate reference (and also adjacent on the bookshelf) to my favourite American novelist, Thomas Pynchon.

The novel I was reading is called ‘Cinacittà’ and is a murder story set in a future Rome which, due to global warming, has been abandoned by the locals and is now inhabited solely by Chinese people. Its epigraph is a quote from an ‘American writer’ taken from Federico Fellini’s film ‘Roma’, which I hadn’t yet seen. It talks about Rome as “a wonderful place to witness the end of the world”.

In August 2016 I go back to the Whitechapel Gallery and browse the bookshop. This is something I usually prevent myself from doing as, like the LRB and ICA bookshops, the Whitechapel is like a crackhouse for me. I usually come across at least six books which I know I have to read immediately. Sure enough, there’s one I’ve seen before but realise is exactly the book I need to read right now: ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, by Ben Lerner. It’s a book by a poet about how difficult and in some ways how annoying poetry is. I’ve been actively struggling with poetry for the last couple of years. Just up the road, in Limehouse, I did a series of courses which involved discussing poems and then trying to write them ourselves. The first part I loved, the second continually defeated me. When it came to writing, no matter how much expert guidance I received or exercises I did, I didn’t really understand what a poem is.

Lener argues that it’s easy to love poetry, but individual poems themselves are often too much of a challenge. Poems aspire to the condition of poetry, but always fail. I like his tone of voice and wonder what his poems are like. As it happens, the name Ben Lerner rings a bell. I see that he was the author of a 2012 novel called ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’; as I once lived in Madrid, I’d noticed the title but never thought about reading it. Reading reviews of the novel on my phone I realise it’s right up my street. It’s about a pretentious young expat poet living in Spain and pretending not to be American, smoking spliffs and looking down at other foreigners “whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise”. I can relate to that, and the description of his prose as ‘precise’ appeals to me.

I start reading the poetry book as I walk down the street. In the first couple of pages he mentions his favourite poet, one which (as he correctly predicts) I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder who mine is. One name that immediately springs to mind is Luke Kennard, whose work has the advantage of being hugely entertaining (one of my favourite words when it comes to poems). I should read this guy’s novel, I think. As it happens I’m heading down to the South Bank anyway and I have a Waterstones voucher card that’s been in my wallet for months and which I can’t remember if I’ve ever used. My day now has more of a purpose to it and I speed up my stroll towards Trafalgar Square.

It turns out that the card in my wallet only has £1.01 on it, which means I really should think twice about also buying Lerner’s second novel, but it’s described as “a near-perfect piece of literature” and was chosen as ‘Book of the Year’ by 15 reputable publications.

Now I’ve got three new books, all by the same author. I walk across to The Royal Festival Hall, where I’m meeting a friend at 5. It’s only 4.15, so I decide to kill time in Foyles. The first book I see when I walk in is a volume of poetry by Ben Lerner, a compendium of his three collections. I have no intention whatsoever of buying it, but I pick it up because I’m keen to see what his poetry is like. The inner cover has a quote from Luke Kennard: “I look forward to Ben Lerner’s poetry the way I used to anticipate a new record by my favourite band.” Right next to the quote is the price: £14.99. If I buy it I will have all the published work by my new favourite author, one by whom I haven’t yet read more than a few pages. I snap it shut and make my way to the cash desk.

It occurred to me some time ago that it’s deeply ironic that although I grew up antagonostic to capitalism on the whole, I also spent my youth obsessing over sales charts. If The Jesus and Mary Chain burst into the pop charts at number 11, or if New Order managed to get onto Top of the Pops, it felt like a personal victory, and I would feel downcast for days if The Smiths failed to get into the top ten. There was an article by Simon Frith in the Pet Shop Boys 1989 tour programme arguing that their music celebrates and mourns that moment of melancholy just before you hand over the money for a new record or just before you fall in love, when you know that disappointment is inevitable. That’s the nature of commerce: it involves an emotional investment in something you know won’t satisfy you. Given that the emotional and intellectual payback of novels and films is deeper than so much else we consume, capitalism promotes their addictive qualities. There’s also the aspect of cultural capital, that we place cultural products in our personal shop windows to attract others – or, less cynically, that they allow us to identify (and be identified by) others who have shared often very intimate and personal experiences. In other words, we also use them as a form of bonding with others of our species, which is the very much the point of being alive.

I find it hard to track down the film ‘Roma’ online. In any case, I first need to rewatch ‘La Dolce Vita’, and then ‘8 1/2’, which I can’t remember ever having seen. There’s also Bertolucci’s and Antonioni’s films to catch up on. Some of these things I can find online but in most cases I need to get the DVDs. Luckily there are lots of market stalls selling €3 copies of classic films, the ones previously sold as promotions with newspapers. In Pigneto I chat to the owners and other browsers, who recommend a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I quickly build up a collection of Scuola, Moretti and Pasolini. Then it’s a question of finding the time to watch it all.

The (very) English writer Geoff Dyer lived in Rome and suffered from depression. He writes about it in ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, his chronicle of his failed attempt to write a book about DH Lawrence which is also, finally, a book about DH Lawrence. He describes staring for hours at his TV, wondering if he should turn it on. Rome initially strikes me as a strange place to get depressed, but then I work out he must have been here in winter. Winter in Rome is (increasingly) short but very grey, with a cigarette ash atmosphere coating the city. Dyer then recounts how he escaped from his depression: he took an interest in it. He started thinking and reading about depression, and then had to leave the house to track down books to learn more. His mood lifted as he became part of the city, its bookshops, literary events and galleries.

Another writer I hugely admire (Nick Currie, aka Momus), has written persuasively and with his customary eloquence about how, in a globalised and digitally connected world, you can live the same life pretty much anywhere. He writes about moving from Berlin to Osaka and continuing exactly the same lifestyle. My own is essentially the same whether in London, Mexico City or Rome- pretty much wherever Amazon delivers, in fact. I noticed that my English language students in London were generally happy with their accommodation as long as it featured basic furniture and services, few disturbances and a very fast internet connection. It was by far the absence of the latter that generated the most complaints.

My own youth fed on record shops, bookshops and libraries. I was lucky to grow up in a age and a city in which there was an abundance of all three. Of course, I’m privileged now too. I can buy books if I want and I have time to wander round and enjoy what cities have to offer. I’ve lived in a succession of capital cities, all with a huge range of bookshops. Nevertheless, I miss record shops and haven’t felt the need to go to my local library since I lived in London. Like almost everybody on the planet I am far too dependent on the Internet for my cultural life.

The internet gives you access to everything. It has an infinite number of channels. But without a purpose it can be a medium for depression. After too much time online I sometimes feel like a polar bear in a zoo, pacing back and forth, scrolling and clicking aimlessly to the point where I lose all sense of what I want and who I am. Our physical selves thrive on fresh air, trees, company, exchanges of words, glances and embraces. I need to get out of the house. Luckily in Rome (we finally move here in September 2016) I have no internet on my phone and a whole city to explore. After a couple of weeks I finally track down one of my favourite bookshops. Invito alla Lettura is a dusty clutter of crumbling hardbacks, stacks of old editions of magazines, fascist pamphlets from the 30s, and a pleasant café (in Mexico it would be called a cafebrería) . Or rather, it was. It apparently shut down in April 2016 after nearly 25 years. From the owner of the Almost Corner bookshop in Trastevere I learn that food outlets are pushing out more established business, just like in London.

Humans will always need on-the-spot food and drink, but books, music and films you can get hold of online. There will always be a demand for places where you can go and browse them and maybe meet and fall in love with other people who share the same enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean the market will necessarily provide such places. Bookshops and record shops were never primarily about buying, much more about communing with others who share a need for new ideas, impressions, experiences. I hope that when my baby daughter comes of age there will still be places where she can go to explore and celebrate whatever books and music she comes to love and, in the company of others, discover more. At least Rome has such an abundance of excellent bookshops, from Altroquando via Fahrenheit 451 to Minimum Fax, that it’s reasonable to hope that it will hold out longer against the forces of the global market as marshalled on the internet. Forse Gore Vidal, as in so many other things, aveva ragione.

On ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ by Wallace Stevens

Poets tend to get annoyed when asked to explain what a particular poem ‘means’. If I could have expressed it in any other way, thinks the poet, I would have done so. In the words of one particular poet, a poem should not mean, but be, and in a quote which I now can’t track down T. S. Eliot apparently once remarked that the meaning of a poem is akin to the bone that a postman throws to a dog, a metaphor presumably designed to stop slavering strangers insisting that he ‘explain’ The Wasteland to them on the late-night tube. In my ongoing struggle to experience poems in a meaningful way rather than simply being intimidated and thus bamboozled by them, I tend to cheat, asking not what they mean but rather what goes on in my mind when confronting myself with them. Trying to memorise poems is one way of unlocking them; reaching a point of semantic saturation is a means of getting beneath the surface, to get at the poem’s sense and effect, or maybe of slowly allowing it to detonate; after all, in the words of Ezra Pound, poetry is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. An imaginary bomb with real shrapnel. Or, if we want to be more esoteric,  a pheasant disappearing in the brush. That line is from Wallace Stevens, whose work has, since I was introduced to it in a consistently rivetting poetry class in Limehouse (given by someone I think of as the Angela Carter of poetry), presented an ongoing challenge to any tentative techniques I have developed for handling poems. Stevens’s poems seemingly mix abstract modernism with mystical, often gnomic images. Here is a particularly enigmatic example:

The Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

It would be wrong to think of the poem as presenting a riddle to be solved. There is no key or set of keys which will allow me to ‘get’ this poem or any other; it is not a cryptic crossword clue. Whatever is happening, it is going beneath the surface.

If we begin with the first word and syllable: an I, presumably that of the poet. This being poetry, the difference between eye and I is often moot. The eye, like the jar, is round, and seeks to take dominion over what it surveys. Some have pointed to Emerson’s eyeball: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” It might even be the eye of a blackbird:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only thing moving 
Was the eye of the blackbird.

In both cases the I/eye unifies the universe, placing itself at the centre and organising the world around it: The wilderness rose up to it. In this poem, the jar contains the I. It is the poet who has consciousness, not the jar.

Given the difficulty of making sense of this poem one sensible approach is to walk away,  to take a step back, and to get a sense of the scale of the absurdity. Does placing a jar on a hill give that jar dominion over the surrounding countryside, somehow over a whole state? Or a city?


On Saturday morning, 10th December 2016 someone placed an empty tube of paprika-flavoured Pringles on a wall outside the Vittoriano Museum in the centre of Rome, overlooking the Foro Romano*. It jarred in its landscape. After all, litter is ‘matter out of place’.  

Oddly enough, just up the road, there is this. Someone ordered it placed there.


Trying to memorise Stevens’s poem in Rome draws my attention to all the domes and other round things placed on hills, all embodying consciousness and seeking to impose order on the landscape. It makes me think of the architects’ drawings and models that must have preceded them. All architects are in a sense utopians, imagining a world transformed with the embodiment of their vision at the centre, colonising and framing the landscape, making the wilderness surround what they have placed there. Maybe one counterpart for the poem is ‘Ozymandias’, another example of power centring the universe around it. Then, on a different scale from the Colosseum: this blog. In writing it I am also claiming dominion. This is my perspective, and simultaneously a container, one which claims a certain domain. Such interventions in the landscape are now nothing new – indeed, they go back almost as far back as the human species.

The difference here is that Stevens isn’t actually placing a jar, or even, in a sense, pretending to. The jar does not have the properties of consciousness and dominion; it is the I who places the jar who imputes them, or rather, it is the writer of the poem, or rather it is the I reading it who does so. Let’s be glib: the jar is an empty signifier (or at least it is until we throw a match into it); the jar-as-poem is just a vessel for the meaning the reader puts in it. The poem is the jar. Hence it has often been read as a commentary on art itself. In 2009 the artists Miroslaw Balka placed a literal shipping container in the Tate Modern, and in another flawed attempt to centre the universe on myself I wrote about it. As for Steven’s poem, the only true response would be another poem (beginning I placed a tube of Pringles… **) or another work of art. Some have argued that the poem can only be read as a response to Keat’s ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’, and to the claims it makes to a unity between of consciousness and nature. Steven’s poem seems to refuse such a claim – the jar apparently dominates the wilderness, but it is not part of it. Others have looked at the biblical allusions. We can  easily picture the jar as a cross on a hill, and the echoes of the phrase ‘burning bush’ certainly evoke this sense. There are obvious political interpretations: imagine the jar as a flag. Or a burning flag. Or a phallic object.

This may be cheating. The poem is explicitly about a jar, one that is gray and bare. It seems odd, then, that someone identified the type of jar in question – a transparent glass jar. The claim that it is a mass-produced object evokes Warhol, and also Duchamp taking the piss (possibly in the jar). But while Ai Wei Wei smashed up Ming vases as a comment on his own cultural heritage, this jar seems to represent nothing but power, dominion, a colonising consciousness. If the poem were called Dominion it would be less mystifying. But that would be (again) cheating. We have to deal with the poem as it is, which is hard on initial readings, because it jars, not just in the landscape but also in its form: while most lines feature four stressed syllables, there are two which break the rhythm, with only three. I’m counting Tennessee as two stressed syllables, which may be why he chose that particular state; or maybe it was because he was in Tennessee and he did place a jar there. It is after all an anecdote.

I am now going to memorise ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’ and then see what happens. A poem may emerge. A poem may not emerge.


* To quote the 21st century Jamaican-American poet Shaggy, it wasn’t me.

** Except I didn’t.