Sir. I know sometimes I mess around. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn. Please keep trying with me.
So reads the scribbled note that was pushed under the door of my office, one week into starting my new job. The author of this note wasn’t lying. His name is Aaron, he’s in Year 8, and, when he wants to, he can mess around. Last term, he wasn’t having any of it. It was like he’d given up.
It was with some trepidation then, that for Aaron’s class, I began this half term by ditching my planned unit on Poetry from Other Cultures (Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!), opting instead for a Poetry by Heart unit I’ve just started designing in preparation for next September. The unit aims to develop students ability to memorise information and is focused wholly on William Ernest Henley’s Invictus. The plan is that the whole class will know the whole poem off by heart within 4 weeks.
Aaron was fascinated by the story behind the poem- the poet’s impoverished childhood and struggle with tuberculosis; Mandela’s use of the poem to keep him sane and focused during his 27 year incarceration on Robben Island. After the first lesson, Aaron took the poem home so he could learn more. As did his best friend, Jacob.
And then this happened…
Yesterday, during form time, I found Aaron and Jacob in the library. They normally come to me to read during this time but I told them the Head teacher had just had a pop about the slovenly state of my classroom (fully justified- I care little for classroom displays and my room is reflective of that) and asked if they’d come and help me tidy it up. They obliged, but asked if they could recite Invictus to me and an amazing TA who was also in the library, first. And so, I watched as both Aaron and Jacob, the ‘cheeky chappies’ with endless codes after their names on endless excel spread sheets, recited, word perfectly, the first three stanzas of Invictus. The TA and I were stunned but so was Lucas. Lucas?
Lucas, it’s fair to say, is a bit like Aaron and Jacob. A nice boy for whom education and being quiet and focused in class, isn’t always the number one priority. I don’t teach Lucas, but I knew his name within a day of starting at my new school. He’s one of those kids.
“Sir, can you teach me that poem too?”
Of course I could, I told him, and so Aaron, Jacob, and now Lucas, trudged over to my classroom to tidy up and recite Victorian poetry.
As we tidied up my classroom, Aaron, Jacob and I played a game. We’d recite alternate words of the poem. Like so:
And so on. Anyway, Lucas is sitting there, watching all this, utterly impressed. I’d go as far to say enchanted. Then, he rushes out of the room. Within a few seconds, he’s back, sheepishly pushing his English book under my nose.
“I wrote a poem sir. Can you read it?”
And this is the where the best moment of my teaching career happens. It’s etched on my brain now; I can’t forget it. Before I go on, you should know that Lucas struggles big time with English. He really struggles. But, thanks to the amazing work of the TA I mentioned earlier, and an amazing English teacher who is far more patient than I could ever hope to be, he can get stuff done.
Anyway, here’s the moment. I’ll write it in italics and if you could just play some inspirational music, preferably of the classical variety, in your mind as you read it, that’d be great:
I look down at the page and Lucas’ poem runs thus:
‘People enjoying the evening,
Just wanting to enjoy the beautiful bridge.
Then, a squeal of rubber tyres on Tarmac destroys everything,
Men get out and stab people in the back,
Why can’t people just enjoy their lives?’
I’m welling up, but I almost begin to cry as I look up from my reading and see this:
Jacob painstakingly trying to align my tables so that they’re straight, his lips murmuring the words of Invictus as he does so.
Aaron, now sat down, pouring over the fourth and final stanza of the poem, closing his eyes as he attempts to memorise it.
Lucas’ face, looking up at me in earnest, desperate to know what I think of his poem.
That was the greatest moment of my teaching career. That snapshot just there: Lucas’ poem, Jacob’s efforts to both help me and impress me, and Aaron’s absolute determination to crack that poem.
Later that day, as I was calling the parents of these kids, to tell them how impressed I was, an email popped up on my screen, from the head:
‘Dear Mr Pinkett.
I just thought I’d let you know that after school today, as I was having a meeting with the CEO of the academy chain, Aaron in Year 8 barged into my office and recited the whole of Invictus to us both. It was word perfect and it was beautiful. It’s made my week.’
For me, the most impressive thing, and the thing that makes me proud, isn’t that Aaron remembers the poem. It’s the fact that he’s proud of remembering the poem.
On paper, Aaron isn’t the first kid you’d think of when asked to name a kid who is passionate about learning poetry off by heart. Which, I guess, is fitting. Because, as Aaron showed me this week, what does paper mean, when you have heart?