The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, April 19, 2004

Teaching 'Kes', a social realist Northern English text about a boy from a deprived background who finds solace in training a hawk, I had one of those 'bing' moments, those turning points, where one kid, just one kid in the class utterly gets it. We were watching a DVD of Ken Loach's film version, and most kids were lain across their desks, prone, complaining that they (inner London cockerney dialect speakers) couldn't understand what the Barnsley actors were saying, couldn't understand who the little boy was, what the story had been about, and why he was so cheeky to others.
Billy's altercation with the newsagent went largely misunderstood as kids struggled to get a handle on the broad Lancastrian brogue. But Jack - scruffy, macho, dirty, wise-cracking joker Jack - piped up: "they think he's been nicking miss. But he's not gonna, he's given it up."
Billy steals a pint of milk, drinks it, then chats to the milko - the class protest, in uproar - apparently the stealing is acceptable, but stealing from a friend is morally stupendous. Jack watches, intently, as the others bluster and whine.
Coming to the famous classroom scene, where Billy Casper automatically interrupts the master with a reiteration of the World Service Shipping Broadcast, and most pupils miss it. I pause the video, explain the allusion represented by "Fisher / German Bight". Their eyes remain glassy and unimpressed, although some begin to pick up on what it means for Billy to be home alone listening to the radio during the small hours of the night. Jack chimes in again "He's clever, though, isn't he miss? To remember that. He's not stupid." Jack's eyes are shining with interest - he wants Billy to be a bad boy made good.
The boys in the story are getting up early to go nesting. I ask students if they've ever spotted the clutch of dark branches near the top of a tree that gives away a bird's nest. A few have - most haven't ever looked up and noticed. This may be a city, but I've seen four bird's nests walking into school this morning - but I remind myself that in these Stranger-Danger times, it's mostly only the 'Bad Boys' with a reputation who go alone to the park, who wander or ride or climb.
I ask what nesting might mean - is he taking the eggs? Is he looking? Is he destroying? Is he trying to find new species' eggs? Interest is sparked by wondering what sort of hobbies this boy onscreen might find appealing.
The fuss dies down as the DVD starts up again. "I've seen inside a nest, Miss," says Jack. "I've seen a kestrel, Miss. They dive at things."
Billy tries to sweet talk a bossy authoritative librarian into letting him take a book on falconry home. He fails. Jack, excited by the snappy exchange, makes sure the kids notice that Billy failed in style: "he's cheeky right, but he's clever, see - he's got a comeback, inne? She can't get rid of 'im!"
A broad grin covers his mucky face, and he's radiating enthusiasm for the character - defending the underdog with whom he shares more than he thinks. The scene shifts to birds circling a rookery.
"Hawks hunt mice, Miss. That's a kite. I've seen a kestrel. They hover, don't they Tom? They hover, then they jus', jus' drop. Jus' drop. They hunt."
Tacturn, aggressive, disobedient Jack. Destroyer of the uniform, loser of the book, ink spiderer, dog earer of pages, flicker of the wet pellet, last to get to class, wearer of the shirt least related to its birth as white fabric. Jack, who hasn't talked this much since we read 'Lord of the Flies'.
"I've seen a hawk as well, Miss."