The Help by Kathryn Stockett – Book Group

Before leaving my place of work last Friday, I wanted to share a piece on what happened when we had a book group on The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The demographic of the group was mainly British-Bangladeshi students in Year 10 and 12, with maybe one or two white students, and four white members of staff. I feel this added an important dynamic to the group, with a book centred around race. There was no passionate argument asserted with regard to the book, perhaps because, although about race, the students were able to distance themselves from the plight of the African-American characters rather than see white supremacy as an obvious oppressor.

It is also true that the white members of staff, despite wanting to encourage an open discussion on race relations, would have had an influence on the discussion merely by being present as figures of authority. Within that position, I created a Power Point that brought up questions to challenge their initial gushing positive comments. Nobody doubted that Stockett is a talented writer – I read it over the Christmas holiday period (2015), and also agreed that I felt engaged throughout it. Hence it was a best seller at the time of publication, and was made into a film, which I had seen prior to reading the book.  However, when it comes to authenticity, did Stockett have the right to publish such a work of fiction?

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Through the discussion, students reacted at first that the characters were realistic, but were able to consider this thought when asked to think further on which characters were fully developed, who was driving the narrative etc. We didn’t touch on the fact that Stockett had also been in the middle of a lawsuit on just how real her characters were. A tale of a coming together of black maids and one white outcasted woman, I would say that the target audience is white women. That is to whom the feel-good factor appeals. As we went on, we gradually began to touch on deeper issues in terms of Stockett’s benefiting financially from writing of the oppression of a group that is not her own.

The students gave a balanced view and were comfortable with the greyness of enjoying a book, yet being able to critique it.  We connected it with another successful book depicting a similar “white saviour” narrative, written in the 1960s – that is, of course, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. So, overall, yes, we can enjoy reading such books, but we must remain critical of them too. I haven’t read the sequel Lee wrote, though am interested in the perspective that Atticus turned into a racist. Because over 50 years on, surely we should know more about those such as Anne Moody and her autobiography written before and during the Civil Rights Movement, and stories should move beyond the depiction of black people as subservient to white people, and authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie should be the kinds of writers we read when book groups meet to discuss works of fiction (whose Americanah I suggested before my departure).

National Poetry Day

I celebrated National Poetry Day by taking some of my intervention students to NPD Live at Southbank. Then I went to a slam with some recycled poems, plus one from my Nasty Little Intro that I learnt whilst waiting.

I came joint first place in the Genesis Slam (there were only three of us…) Sadly I will have to Skype/send videos in for the final in December as I’m on unpaid leave for an Arvon writing residency (exciting!). I also managed to forget my lines in a poem-song I did because there was a head-to-head to attempt to get a winner, but I took a RISK, and that happens.

I am also very happy about getting fancy cinema tickets for two, plus pie and mash!

Basically, this is OUR language, yeah?

I’m an Academic Mentor for English at a community secondary school, both my parents are teachers and my Dad has spent many years teaching in Harris Academies. He’s now working at a private school, and despite missing the variety of children who go to state schools, he sees this as a long-term move. Anyway, it was through my Dad that I found out about the idea of Harris banning certain words which are deemed to be slang. Firstly, this is obviously ridiculous. It’s like some weird social experiment. As an Academic Mentor, I understand that speaking correctly will help you write correctly (hello grammar police). So, why would I have a problem with it? Okay, so here’s why it’s ridiculous:

1. The words that are being banned don’t even distinguish between slang and colloquialism.

2. There’s only a small amount of banned words anyway. There’s a lot more where they came from.

3. It supports class division, as poet Anthony Anaxagorou stated in his article, most of this banned lexicon targets working-class kids. I’m trying to rack my brain for some “posh slang” but all I think of is someone from Made in Chelsea saying “awesome”.

4. It stiffles creativity; I remember reading something about how we are all the masters of our own language… I think it was A.A.Milne? Yes, we should be aware of the words we choose, but there is no reason to enforce a ban. I mean, look at the sign. This has to be a joke right?

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I pointed out to my Dad that some teachers would find it hard. This could result in either embarrassment or provoke discussion. Is the teacher saying “you was…” going to be laughed at or laughed with? It depends on how serious this ban is and whether it is actually a light-hearted experiment for everyone at school. Slang has never suited me personally; someone once told me I was too middle-class to say “wicked” which upsets me because I actually like the word. I did cringe over hearing a friend use the word “bare” when we grew apart as friends at school (probably because I just wasn’t cool in any circle!) However, I’m a serial offender for ‘like’, ‘basically’ and ”cause’. I’m also partial to a bit of ‘defos’, ‘obvos’ and ‘ridic’… in an ironic way, obviously… I’m not that posh… Or, okay, yes, I am that posh. I’m the guy in Made in Chelsea saying ‘awesome’ (just kidding – like ‘bare’, ‘awesome’ is another of my pet hate words). I’ve corrected spellings here, because I think that’s the part that really highlights how the policy victimizes the more working-class students.

Anyway, despite my unashamed, self-confessed middle-class status, I am ultimately a lover of language, a poet, a writer, a master of my own words. I teach students to encourage them to love literature and to be as creative as possible when using language. To tell them they can’t use words they own is counter-productive. The only way it could possibly work is if it’s just for, like, a day… that way it’s a bit like that game when you can’t answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a series of questions. But, it’s not like that, is it?

And one more point in my ramble… slang and making up words is all part of being a kid. Sometimes we made up code words and things to communicate. It’s creative and fun and when you’re older, you can look back at all the silly things you said. From the “fruitbrunettes” to the “Lisa Mafia Crew” (I was “Soldier Mafia”) I will treasure those memories despite the time that has passed. If you think that banning words is a good idea… that’s just facety man… (or shabby).

Shake the Dust: East Regional Finals

Friday saw the East Regional Finals for Shake the Dust. I was working with the Netherhall School in Cambridge as a Poet Shadow with Ross Sutherland. I had never done anything like this before so was quite nervous but very excited too! For my first workshop, it was going well as I was over an hour early. However, I got the bus from the wrong stop and ended up being 10 or 15 minutes late. Typical.

As soon as I entered the classroom I had to introduce myself and perform a poem. I hadn’t brought any material, but thankfully my memory didn’t fail me and I did Cinderella (which you can preview here from my book/eBook). It feels like a long time ago now but at the same time it went so quickly. It was great hearing the poetry the students generated and as the first workshop was based around autobiography it was nice to feel like I was getting to know what they were like already.

Although it doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was their age, I am nearly 10 years older than them! At the same time, I did feel a lot older than them, especially when I encountered some rudeness from a couple of girls from the non-competing team. All a learning experience anyway! I also didn’t expect how easily distracted they were, especially as the two hour sessions went so fast. That said, they produced their final poems with great timing.

After celebrating turning 23 I was back at the school and the students had mostly memorised their poems, and by the final session were all performing their pieces really well. Ross and I had swapped the groups we’d been working with and so it was amazing to see the transformation of them both from the mish-mashed bits of texts they had started out with when they were forming the poems. I learnt so much from shadowing Ross, and was also given lots of opportunities to share my ideas and work independently with some of the group. One girl had to join the group for the last session and she picked up the poems fantastically, and ended up being given the “Most Changed” award.

The day of the final was a long one, but an amazing experience. the excitement started at 10.30am when we picked up our t-shirts. The schools started to arrive and it wasn’t long before we headed into a studio for the first workshop with half of the students. The workshop I was in was lead by Tim Clare and consisted of different drama games. It was quite nerve wracking due to the fact that being in a position of authority it was vital I showed that I was experienced and confident through the games. It was really fun and useful in terms of my own pre-performance preparations.

At lunch time I lost Ross and didn’t realise I was to stick with the school, who had already headed off to Chapelfield Gardens with their lunch. I managed to find them but Ross wasn’t with them. Still, I sat down and began to eat. However, mid-meal, there was a big ‘SPLAT!’ sound and we all wondered what it was. I looked down at my leg and I had been POOED ON BY A PIGEON! They all freaked out and one girl was sent into a panic that it had landed on her. No. It had landed on me. Yuck. I sat there in shock for a while, then scraped it off with a twig. Still in shock, I stood there whilst the others moved themselves further from the tree. Luckily, it didn’t land in my hair or anywhere else so I just went back to The Garage to take off my tights and wash my hands. Then it was onwards and upwards as I tried to tell myself that it was good luck…

We did the same workshop again but with different people and it was good feeling more prepared about what was to come and hearing what different people came up with on the spot. I spent our dinner time mostly with Catherine Woodward, who I knew from university, who had taken my place as Peer Mentor and was doing a great job. I’d met quite a few great people that day, including Lara who was from the Writers Centre Norwich, and sounded like she had a most enviable job! We had a quick warm-up with Drew Taylor and then took our seats.

The show itself ended up being fantastic. All the pre-show nerves were turned into adrenaline and everyone gave amazing performances. Although The Garage team were not included in the competition, their pieces throughout were inspiring and moving. As were Drew and Tom’s joint piece about the friendship they formed through the project. My team ‘Can Everyone Get Up And Leave?’ did a great job. Though one of the guys berated himself for forgetting a line, he pulled it off so smoothly that nobody else in the audience would have noticed. They went away with the ‘Best Line in Poem’ though the judges (Luke Wright, Charlotte Higgins and Francesca Beard) asserted there were so many great lines they couldn’t really pick just one! We also got inside info from Luke that he was rooting for us to win the competition overall, but didn’t quite make it to first place.

The National Shake the Dust Slam Final is held at Southbank between July 5-7th.