The following piece grew from a picture prompt in an online writing session which took me in an unexpected direction.
When I saw the picture prompt, it didn’t lead me to an imaginary land or to a story of discovery beyond confinement, but to a cluttered school library, to myself sitting on one of two chairs pushed into a corner by a round, brightly coloured table – a little too low for my knees – and a ten-year-old boy bent over a reading book. Or a ten-year-old girl, or a nine-year-old, or any one of many possible variables of me listening to a child read in a busy library corner.
The Oxford Reading Tree books – with their magic key and the mysterious ‘door’ which took characters into fables and space and the past and all sorts of story zones – was one of the better reading schemes to have to wade through, over and over, in a fifteen-year career as an English language support teacher.
I loved the scheme’s humour and quirkiness, but that very quirkiness made it difficult to explain what was going on to the kind of children I worked with. Children newly arrived from overseas with limited English, or second-generation incomers who’d picked up the tongue from parents with incomplete English themselves and a poor knowledge of the culture portrayed in the books. Children who appeared perfectly fluent with classmates, chatting about breaktime football or asking to borrow a sharpener from a pencil case, but who guessed a new word’s meaning from illustrations and the limited vocabulary they already knew. That ‘the car swerved’ might be something to do with its colour or that a travel agent was a kind of tropical fish.
These children, when you paused their staccato rendering of a text they’d proudly learned with an elder sibling or their cousin brother, would frown, puzzled, when asked ‘so, what just happened there?’ or ‘what do you think Kipper was thinking?’ Their faces showed frustration at being caught not knowing, at being held up from getting to the end of the book and on to the next, at speeding through the childish picture books we were making them read and on to the anonymity of being a free-reader, allowed to choose the ‘real’ books their English-speaking classmates had.
As I wrote all this instead of some imaginary story of mysterious worlds, with the anxiety of whether I should give up pretending I’m a ‘real’ writer crackling like static in my head, I remembered that once, I did use to finish writing projects, all of them, in the days when they were projects I would use in school and share as resources with my colleagues. Resources I’d made to teach children about other cultures – including the British one – and to give class teachers the confidence to broach topics that were ethically sensitive but very necessary.
And I remembered how, once, I’d wanted to write a reading scheme for children who – unseen by most – thought that a swerving car had something to do with its colour and that a travel agent was a tropical fish.