When I was at secondary school, my favourite lesson was English. I tolerated the other subjects, always hoping that I’d learn something interesting – sadly, I never did. The only lessons that I remember from school was English. I had an amazing teacher. She was the head of the English department, I couldn’t tell you how old she was, she could’ve been in her late thirties, early forties..I’m not sure. But I adored her. She loved her subject. She loved it when her students would be excited about learning.
When I was in secondary school, I was painfully awkward. Self conscious about my weight. Hideous glasses. Loved reading and wanted to do well at school – which, to many of my peers, was just not the done thing!
I tried my best to stay invisible. It was hard to make friends because I just didn’t fit in. But the only time I felt alive was during those English lessons. The only time that I felt that I was noticed, was during English. I suppose it was because Mrs Hines made me feel that there was something special about me, and that my voice mattered. What I thought, mattered. What I wrote, mattered.
I always feel sad when people say that they don’t enjoy reading, or that they didn’t enjoy English at school. Apart from History, when else are you allowed to escape into a different world, be that through poetry, plays, short stories or novels? I think I can remember every story, every poem, every play we read at school from Year 9 onwards. We read ‘Roll of thunder, hear my cry!’; ‘A Special Occasion’ by Bill Naughton; ‘Death of a Salesman’; ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’; ‘Persuasion’; ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’; ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’; poems by Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin and John Keats…and then the most amazing short stories.
One of the short stories that stayed with me was one called ‘The Flypaper’ by Elizabeth Taylor (the author, not the actress). It’s such a brilliant story – a story with a twist. It was actually made into an episode for ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.
The reason that it stays with me though isn’t because it’s a really good story…it’s actually because of way the story was told to us.
It was an oppressively hot summer’s day. The classroom that we were in seemed to have no air, even though the windows were open. We each had a copy of the story, and Mrs Hines sat on a table and read the story to us. And it still makes me smile to this day, that even though I was 14 years old and completely capable of reading the story myself – there was nothing as wonderful as being read to…as though I was a little girl again.
The story follows a young girl called Sylvia, who is looked after by her Grandmother, who is uncared for and unnoticed, and how she is trapped, like a fly on a sticky piece of card, unable to escape…
If you haven’t read the story, you really must! When I was 14, we’d never heard of paedophiles before, and the worst thing was – because of the nature of a short story… the fate of the girl was left to our imaginations. In that one story, we were introduced to so many themes and also the concept that not all stories end happily. I’m sure that it wasn’t just me who was blown away by the story – my class of 30 teenage girls were all aghast by what we had just heard/read/heard!
But at the same time, I was delighted (not because of the plot of the story, I hasten to add!!). It was because suddenly, my mind had been opened up to another type of story. Another type of narrative, where the writer doesn’t actually do all the work – the writer skilfully spins a yarn….then let’s in unravel – and you, the reader, have to put everything back together again and wonder what just happened! How could you have missed it? One minute, you’re blissfully unaware and reading, plodding along quite nicely …and then bang! Suddenly, you’re in a new place and completely disorientated.
After ‘The Flypaper’, I never read stories in the same way again. I kept training myself to look out for clues, expect the unexpected..and I get so excited when I am taken by surprise, which has happened on occasion…Micheal Morpurgo’s ‘The Giant’s Necklace’; and Anthony Horowitz’s ‘The Hitchhiker’. They are officially children’s books – but I love those stories so much, and when I used to teach older children, I would be almost dancing about in excitement at the thought of reading these stories to them, because I could already anticipate how much they were going to enjoy those stories. Stories with a twist. Stories that buck the trend.
I only hope that over the years, I have helped children to fall in love with reading. I pray that I notice the ones who are unnoticed, and make them all feel as though are they are most important people in the world. I was lucky with Mrs Hines. I hope that I’ve been able to pay her kindness forward.