The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The sixteen year olds have reached that stage in the year where they turn up after class and beg three hours' extra help with literature coursework, on a daily basis.

Yes, that's right, two weeks after the final deadline.

Tonight, while waiting for me to rush mark 8000 words of essay (religious allegory in 'Frankenstein', film meta-genres, a Chandleresque spy narrative, and an analsyis of audience response to kitchen sink drama), Rami decided to tell me what he'd done about his failing grade in a spoken assessment.

Rami's a very persuasive public speaker, accustomed to getting A grades, but he really, really doesn't know when to shut up.
Unfortunately, railroading your partner in an oral exam so they can't speak more than a line at all means that I didn't witness him 'listen with discrimination', 'develop a point further, or 'identify ambiguity' in another person's argument - any of the things that allow access to the upper grades.
Moreover, he'd fallen victim to the easy meat of encouraging his audience's laughter. In a persuasive appeal to an audience on the topic of poverty and homelessness, that's not really on: merely to pass, he has to match his speaking style to the topic and the people who listen.

So he gained an E grade.

He was horrified.

I pointed out at the time that he had several other A grades to select his final scores from.
Not good enough.

Tonight, Rami explained to me his fiendish plan for erasing that ignominious E grade from his record altogether. With a friend from another class, he has been videoing another speech, delivered to camera, but also incorporating interviews with people who have suffered injustice.

Yes, Rami's been interviewing the local homeless gentlemen. He narrated to me the difficulties of finding a time when said gentlemen are happy to be interviewed, and of keeping a morning appointment to film when one's interviewee has clearly come off somewhat the worse in a fiery exhange with a can of Tennant's Super.

He explained his problems with lighting and sound, too; some of the interviewees had sported massive facial bruising, or spoke haltingly through a marked nervous stammer.

I wondered if Rami might perhaps be telling me this out of alarm at such a strange, new experience. Children don't often meet adult strangers these days, much less interview them in their hostel.
I was actually a little worried about the safety of what he was undertaking.
When he referred to an mpeg video clip he wanted to intersperse, from the illegal bootleg video 'Bumfights', my alarm only grew.

I guiltily recalled the days when an eleven year old Rami had had to be moved from my class for consistent attention seeking, immature behaviour, even bullying, and feared the worst.

Until the sympathy and maturity in his voice began to slowly illuminate such dark cynicism.

Rami explained how difficult it had been for the men he'd interviewed to organise themselves to speak clearly and confidently, and explained that it was their circumstances that had reduced them to the early drinks, the fights, the nerves.
He informed me authoritatively of how hard it was to get off the streets, how many homeless succeed in holding down jobs - in situations where housed individuals without employment might find it hard to survive.

He described how he'd wanted to use a clip of 'Bumfights' to satirise not the homeless victims of the video, but the heartlessness of the consumers who propagate such things; to persuade them that their humour rests upon the pain and misery of other human beings. He wanted students to look at the homeless and not see a gaping chasm between themselves and one of society's less fortunates.

I asked him when his video would be complete. Apparently, emailing clips back and forth with his friend is proving time-draining, so he's going to spend his pocket money this weekend on a CD writer to speed up the editing they share.

He'd spent last week's money on a Bob Dylan CD - after watching the sequence in 'Dangerous Minds' where they dissect 'Mister Tambourine Man' as poetry, he'd thought it the perfect sound overlay for the sequence of homeless men fighting.
But, in the end, he added, he probably wouldn't use it, as the visual look of the sequence reminded Rami more of the cultural ideas he'd found in 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', so that needs changing yet again.

Then, Rami continued, if I watch it, and I like it, could I possibly change the grade, and let him show it to the class? He'd really like to try and change their minds about these people whom they laugh at every day.
Stunned, I asked if Rami were studying Media at GCSE. No. Drama? No. ICT? No. Sociology? No, never.

I asked if anyone knew what he had been doing, filming this video. No.

I asked if, when he goes to his interview at Prestigious Local Sixth Form next month, he'd thought about telling them the lengths he'd gone to in order to change a lowly E grade on a topic that didn't much count. Not really. Why, do you think I should?
Kids like Rami don't come along often.

And it's heartening to see that when they do, they emerge butterfly-like and radiant from the same obnoxiously, loudly, misbehaving, recalcitrant cocoon of childhood as any number of other apparently irredeemable bruisers in our schools.

Rami, I asked, do you know how much you've changed since you first came here?
Yes, Miss L, he replied. I've really grown up a lot, haven't I?