Categories
Uncategorized

They just said the quiet part out loud: time for some fascist PSHE!

Image
Image

I’m writing this having just got home after a long day at school – I don’t really want to be. I’m not in the best place for writing. But this feels urgent, so forgive me if the urgency shows through in the rushedness of the writing. I’m frightened.

Some background: recently, the government has made it mandatory for students to be offered sex and relationships education as part of PSHE. Most students were taught SRE as part of PSHE anyway, but it hasn’t been statutory until now. When the decision was made, it was presented as a progressive victory – SRE is good, yes? Young people knowing more about relationships, being more informed about sexual health, that’s… good, right?

Of course it’s good, and of course the right wing press hates it, because its capacity to generate wealth depends on a population frightened and badly informed, about sex as much as anything else. This seems to be the reason – or one of the reasons – why the DfE chose this occasion to issue some truly chilling guidance about political materials in the classroom.

The guidance is in this document, and is buried about halfway down in the sections “using external agencies” and “choosing resources”. I’m going to go through this bit by bit and try to unpick it – in terms of practical implications and messaging. First, we are told:

Schools should not under any circumstances work with external agencies that take or promote extreme positions or use materials produced by such agencies.

What’s an extreme position? The DfE has attempted to define ‘extremism’ before, but always does so in extremely vague and wishy-washy terms (see: Prevent guidance, which is very clearly targeted at Muslims but can’t say so). But here, they’ve gone ahead and defined extremism very specifically – I’m going to go through each definition one by one.

promoting non-democratic political systems rather than those based on democracy, whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise

Huh. That’s weird. Why would sex and relationships education be promoting non-democratic political systems? It’s almost like they’re trying to prompt us to think about a specific religion here.

teaching that requirements of English civil or criminal law may be disregarded whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise

The phrasing here is fascinating – “requirements [of law] may be disregarded”. This seems specifically phrased to catch not just active lawbreaking but civil disobedience.

engaging in or encouraging active or persistent harassment or intimidation of individuals in support of their cause

Again – why would makers of sex and relationships education resources doing this? We’re clearly being prompted to think about “cancel culture” here.

promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society

Here we go, then. Here’s the quiet part out loud. “Divisive or victim narratives”. What the ever living fuck is a “victim narrative”? What is the term “victim narrative” doing in a DfE document? Signalling, is what it’s doing. Not so much dog whistling as dog full concert orchestral symphonies.

selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions

Again, super weird phrasing if we’re still talking about organisations offering sex and relationships resources, but we’re very clearly not. State institutions? Like the police, you mean? And unsubstantiated – by whom? By the legal system? Who is being spoken about here?

A quiz question: can we think of any organisations who use tactics of civil disobedience, who are often accused of being “divisive” or “playing the victim”, and who are deeply critical of state institutions?

In case we haven’t got the message, there is an odd semi copy-and-paste of this further down the page, when it is yet again reinforced that we should not be getting our sex and relationships education resources from organisations “who take extreme stances”. There is another set of mind-boggling bullet points defining what extreme political stances include:

a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections

Democracy, okay, sure – wait, what? Capitalism?

opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience

Seems fairly innocent, but juxtaposed with the first bullet point, I think we know whose speech is considered free and whose isn’t.

the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications

Hmmmmm.

the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity

a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property

This one is probably the scariest and the clearest for me. Violent actions against people or property: done in their name. This is incredibly broad – a ’cause’ or a ‘name’ covers a huge amount of different kinds of organisation and action, and seems designed to catch large, non-hierarchical organising groups and banners. And people pulling down statues. It seems very obviously designed to target Black Lives Matter.

Read at face value, this is all just fucking bizarre. Which schools are buying in their sex and relationships education from radical political organisations? Who in Black Lives Matter is targeting school sex ed as the next campaigning frontier? There’s no real issue being addressed here – it’s propaganda. But why?

As I said earlier, I think some of it lies in the fact that there’s a risk for the government in mandating sex and relationships education – that’s a threateningly progressive thing to do. So these obvious swipes at organisations like Black Lives Matter score the government some vital fascism points when it might be at risk of losing them. In claiming to guard against the non-existent threat of radical communists coming in and teaching your children about octopus erotics (for example), it creates that threat in people’s minds. The threat of children being sexually corrupted by disruptive forces who also happen to be agitating against white supremacy? It’s the core of fascism.

A comrade on twitter pointed out that this may be a nod to a moral panic in Australia in 2016 over a school sex and relationships programme that got axed because its founder was discovered to be a “hardline Marxist” teaching “radical gender ideology”. If this is the case, it would definitely make sense – there is significant dialogue between the DfE and the right of UK education twitter, which in turn is closely connected with right wing educators in Australia.

Although it’s clearly absurd that the next BLM campaigning front line is going to be a year 8 PSHE lesson, it’s also worth thinking about the kinds of resources this guidance might genuinely exclude. If anyone who’s organised under a BLM banner (which is going to be a lot of activists, and especially activists of colour) wants to give talks on consent, transformative justice, or any other topic which might be of particular benefit to racialised young people, they won’t be allowed to (even if the talk itself contains no “extreme” content). Any trans-led organisation which includes anticapitalist critique in its approach – which lots do! – will be excluded, leaving only the most mainstream corporate-friendly pink washed organisations. And we know that the mainstream is not a good place to get your information about trans people.

To move back outside the classroom again, the final thing that scares me about this guidance is the environment it creates for leftist teachers (and especially leftist teachers of colour). The guidance doesn’t say that teachers aren’t allowed to support movements which would fail these tests (BLM, prison and police abolition, even things like XR). But if you can’t book external speakers with these views, doesn’t it stand to reason that teachers shouldn’t have them either? That would certainly be the view I can see a right-wing paper taking. Do we want these people teaching our children? If you can’t get one of these filthy violent leftists in to do a one-off talk for an hour, how on earth are they allowed to be with our children all day long?

I’ve been listening to the Blood and Terf podcast a lot lately, and it’s taught me two concepts which are really useful here. The first is ‘Little Timmy’ – the figurative child always used in the what about the children?! frenzies about trans people transing all the kids. Little Timmy must be protected at all costs – in this case, from communists and/or literally anyone with criticisms of the state and capitalism. The other useful concept I’ve learned from them is ‘stochastic violence’ – rhetoric which creates an environment where violence towards a group becomes possible, legitimised, encouraged, necessary even. The DfE might have stopped short of saying teachers can’t be leftists (and that Black Lives Matter are going to come and trans your kids), but it’s hinted it so insistently that it will only take one right wing columnist or radio host one step to get there. That means only a couple of steps to doxxing, harassment, getting people fired, and maybe worse. Combined with the constant threat of violence towards racialised people in this country, it must be an utterly terrifying time to be a leftist teacher of colour.

I don’t know what to say. I’m frightened. I’ve been trying to explain how bad things are for a while and I hope people are listening now.

Categories
Uncategorized

Masks: compliance, tolerance, excuses

Before I started training as a teacher, one of the things I worried most about was “behaviour management”. There is an idea – exemplified in the ridiculous phrase “don’t smile until Christmas” – that new teachers will not have the required toughness or authoritarian heft to ‘control a class’ until they’ve perfected a stony-faced expression and impressed their stony-mindedness on their classes for several months in a row. I worried about this, because I am not, and have never been, tough. I have a soft face, a soft voice, and I’m a chronic people-pleaser. I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve, and the idea of not smiling for several months in a row was ridiculous – how could I control my face for that long? My face just does what it wants. I did not think “behaviour management” would be a strength of mine.

As I moved through my training, it soon became apparent that my skill in “behaviour management” very much depended on what you meant by the term. My classrooms were often noisy, often a little chaotic, but I had good relationships with my classes. I realised over time that there was a split in my ability to ‘manage’ students. I was good at persuading students to do things I cared about them doing – ask me when you need help, work together, give things a try, don’t hurt others. I remember I once explained to a pair of year 7 boys why they should stop saying the word “triggered” as a joke, going into detail about how it trivialises PTSD, and was stunned by the sincerity of their apology and commitment not to say it again. I think they had responded to my own sincerity in asking them. Conversely, I wasn’t at all effective with rules I didn’t believe in. Chewing gum, forgetting your pencil, looking out the window or not wearing your uniform properly – I just didn’t care about these things. When I performed caring about them because it was expected of me, my students saw right through it.

This is one of many reasons I could never survive teaching in a zero tolerance/no excuses school. The idea behind these schools’ policies is that compliance itself is a virtue worth teaching: that students need to learn the skill of compliance so that they can go on to be compliant as adults. This is not grand theorising on my part: it’s very clear in the policies themselves, which emphasise following instructions straight away without question. It’s all there in the ‘No Excuses’ slogan – nothing you might say to explain or excuse your behaviour will change the punishment I, an adult, am giving you. My word is law because it is my word.

It’s important not to forget that, as teachers, we are all relying on some degree of compliance. Fundamentally, our students are all compelled to be there (via legal obligations on their parents), so we can’t pretend to be operating in an environment totally free of force and obligation. As well as simply being in the room, we need to be able to prevent our students from coming to harm: we need to know that if we say “stop” as they are running out into the road, they will listen. Beyond that, it’s mostly about convenience and the logistics of having a large group of people together in one room. We might want students to lower their voices when asked so that we can hear ourselves think in the classroom. We might want them to pick up their stuff from the floor so the room doesn’t get in a mess. I found that I was by far the most effective at persuading students to do these things if I explained why I wanted them. “Please remember to write the date, because when I mark your books it takes me ages to find the work otherwise” proved much more effective than implying that there’s any intrinsic moral value in writing the date. “Please be a little quieter so we can all hear what we’re doing, plus it’s really boring and annoying for all of us if I have to keep shushing you all the time” proved much more effective than trying to enforce silence for its own sake.

In some ways, zero tolerance/no excuses settings are explicit about this dynamic. They have no shame in stating that you should act in ways which are convenient for your teacher. The difference is that they assign this compliance-with-convenience moral virtue, and make it totally non-negotiable. While it might be more convenient for me if all my students are quiet while they’re working, it’s not what they naturally want to do, and so there’s a negotiation: how much am I going to try to persuade them to act differently, and how much is it worth it? In zero tolerance/no excuses there is no such negotiation: the teacher learns that they automatically have the right to dictate their will. They don’t have to think about why they want something, or the balance of benefits and drawbacks for everyone in the room. The student learns to comply with the person in power, and learns that compliance is good.

You might think, then, that zero tolerance/no excuses schools would be perfectly positioned to impose the mask-wearing mandate that’s recently been introduced (or has it? or will it be? I have no fucking clue any more, honestly) for secondary schools. Come September, I was fully expecting to see gloating photos of perfectly masked-up children in ZT/NE schools, along with snarky comments about how don’t we all wish we worked in schools where students were conditioned to do what they were told? Surely if there is one argument for compliance, it’s the example above about running out into the road, and a mass public health crisis seems to be about as close to that as we’re going to get. Don’t these people love uniforms?

It seems I will be spared the gloating class photos, however, because the ZT/NE crowd have come out against masks. In retrospect this was predictable: they are deeply connected to the far right, and rely on being able to broadcast their dog whistles in the education sphere. The far right have decided anti-mask sentiment is a handy talking point and recruitment tool – quite a clever one, since masks are kind of annoying and uncomfortable, the government’s policy on them has been totally inconsistent and confusing. And so the ZT/NE media stars have to be anti-masks too, which puts them in a fascinating rhetorical position: they must simultaneously claim that their schools create perfect environments of compliance, and also that it would be cataclysmic to ask their students to do something according to a government directive. If they can make their students walk silently through the corridors; if they can make them track teachers with their eyes at all times (yes, they do this: google SLANT); if they have the incredibly high levels of attendance they claim to have; can they not make them wear masks? Can they not make them behave sensibly with a mask on?

The answer is obvious: they could, but they don’t want to. This is what’s laid bare by the convoluted rhetorical gymnastics they’re doing in order to stick to the far right anti-mask hymn sheet. When it really comes down to it, they’re like me. They don’t want to enforce rules they don’t care about. Their claim to be teaching compliance as a moral virtue and useful life skill falls apart: it’s not that they want kids to be able to follow rules in general. They want kids to be able to follow their rules that they like, and they only like rules that perpetuate hierarchy and prop up their ideological project.

In resisting this, I think we need to be careful that we’re not just echoing the ZT/NE compliance obsession. I know it’s frustrating that such an apparently simple thing is being turned into an extremist talking point: believe me, I spend most of my time freaked out about this kind of thing. But responding with incredulity that anyone could possibly be so stupid as to doubt mask-wearing is playing into the far right’s hands. Anti-mask feeling is such an effective recruiting tool because it plays on people’s confusion and powerlessness in the face of the pandemic. Yelling “WEAR A MASK, STUPID” just fuels that. We can’t just expect compliance for its own sake. We have to make our case, we have to say why it matters, we have to build relationships.Our media and political discourse are in a terrible, terrifying place, and I’m not naïve enough to think that just being ourselves and hoping for the best will fix it all. But I know that I was never able to persuade people based on compliance first: I had to tell them why I cared.

Categories
Uncategorized

Transcript – video for Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators

I made a video for the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators campaign. I’m providing a transcript here for accessibility, or if you prefer a written form.

This is my video for the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators. They’ve asked us to answer three questions to join the movement, so these are my answers.

Question 1 is “why do we need anti-racist education?”. It would be really easy to say something here that’s general, and about everybody being human, and obviously that’s true, but the urgent reality that we need to be able to talk about is that all over the world, in the US, in the UK, Black people and people of colour are being murdered by white people, and if they’re not, they’re watching it happen to their friends and their peers. And if that’s not happening, they’re being discriminated against in every sphere. Every sphere at the moment is having a kind of reckoning with the way that white supremacy structures… everything. And we as educators are  not only not exempt from that, we’re morally compelled to take our system to bits and rebuild it in a way that resists white supremacy.

 

Question 2 is “what does anti-racist education look like?”. And I think the most important thing to say first is that I don’t know. I don’t have an anti-racist curriculum ready to go. I think that, as white educators, it’s really easy – it’s kind of how we’re trained – to expect to be able to attend a CPD session on anti-racism and then achieve our anti-racist certificate and then put it in our folder and move on. And if I know anything about what an anti-racist education might look like, it needs to look like the opposite of that.

Question 3 is “how can we become anti-racist educators for life?”. And I think that goes back a bit to what I was saying for question 2 – that we have to accept this as a lifelong commitment. Not as a moment where we’re briefly righting some wrongs and then moving on. We have to confront what makes us uncomfortable. We have to find the things that Black people and people of colour are asking for that we instinctively perceive as ‘too much’ or ‘too difficult’ or ‘too idealistic and impractical’. And we have to really sit with that and think, well, why? Why do I not think that that’s possible? Why do I think that that’s too much? And we have to stay in that discomfort, and we have to listen, and accept that the listening won’t always be fun, or easy… and accept that that’s not just an add-on, something extra we have to do as educators, it’s completely fundamental.

Categories
Uncategorized

Resource: shopping social story

I made a quick social story for going to the shops – it explains social distancing, queueing and mask-wearing. It doesn’t mention the coronavirus by name – just talks generally about “getting poorly”.  Click here to see it.

Categories
Uncategorized

On the side of the angels – our heroes, between two deaths

Image

It’s been getting worse for weeks, the breathtaking hypocrisy, the #clapping and #solidarity with healthcare workers with no meaningful action to make their conditions better, indeed from people who’ve consistently voted to make their conditions worse. I’ve tried not to be too miserly: the rainbows in the windows might be sweet for children, the clapping might have been moving for some people. But this front page takes a step beyond that.

“On the side of the angels” is a song title, and it’s got a reassuring cadence to it. It’s like the funeral cliché, “he’s with the angels now”. Because although this front page claims to be “raising cash” – as if charity donations for a supposedly public health service are anything but tragic – it’s doing more than that. Suspended in the sky, the row of white women (and one brown man) smile uncannily; while the rest of us panic, they laugh; while the rest of us suffer in our selfishness, they are safe, because they are angels.

“He’s with the angels now” means that he’s dead. Angels live in the afterlife. Depending on where angels fit in your theology, perhaps they intervene on the earthly plane, but not materially. Angels don’t get coughed on or clean up sick or attach ventilators – they don’t reach into this world with their bodies. Maybe they were once people, but not now.

Angels do not need to be paid, or given masks.

The French psychoanalyst Lacan says that we die twice; once materially, when our bodies cease to function, and once symbolically, when society acknowledges our death. Strange things happen when the two kinds of death don’t line up: we end up in the zone “between two deaths”. When natural death happens before symbolic death, when bodies die before society is ready for it, we get dead bodies refusing to die, ghosts and zombies, lifeless bodies which keep pushing for acknowledgement, rattling the doors and howling. Symbolic death without natural death is less ghoulish but more real and chilling; Lacan’s example is Antigone, walled up in a cave and dead to society, already dead in all but biological fact.

They’re with the angels now: they are the angels now. These angels, these nurses, these heroes, who float above us, who we throw our spare pennies at in the hope of a blessing; in this front page, they are already symbolically dead. It is entirely in the interests of the right wing press to announce this symbolic death — so that when their natural death comes, and it will, we will be less shocked. Angels ascend, heroes die, it was always going to happen, it has already happened. There was never anything to be done.

 

Categories
Uncategorized

What is a teacher? #1: “Oh, you must be so patient…”

This week I’ve been jumping back into education research. Last year I’d started an MEd, but had to take medical leave due to my accident – I resume the course in April, but have been starting to think about warming up to research again. This is the first in a series of blog posts summarising my research so far, and experimenting with presenting it in a less formal way. I hope you like it!

My MEd research project, on students in SEN schools’ perceptions of their teachers, arose from my experience moving into an SEN teacher job, and noticing how I was perceived by others as I did so. After being turned down from four different mainstream secondary jobs, receiving feedback like “you’re a bit of a wild card” and “you were certainly our most interesting candidate, but…” I had begun to lose hope that I’d ever found a school I would fit into. Then I discovered it was possible to move straight into SEN jobs, and took a chance on applying for one – I got it, and haven’t looked back. I remember going back into my mainstream teaching placement the day after my SEN job interview, and saying I’d been successful. My colleagues were happy for me, but I felt something in their voices – relief, almost. “Yes, I think that would be a really good job for you.” Very slight, but noticeable, emphasis on the “you”.

Once I began working at my SEN school, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in being spoken to in that tone. All my colleagues recognised it. “Oh, you must be so patient…” “Oh, how lovely…” “You must be such a kind person…”. Emphasis on kindness, patience, love… all good qualities, but why the emphasis? Why not qualities like intelligence, confidence, planning ability, organisation? And conversely, why does nobody tip their head to the side and croon about patience and loveliness and care when talking to mainstream teachers? A-level physics teachers in mainstream schools need patience and care and generosity too, but for some reason they don’t hear about it so often.

So I began to wonder if this tendency had been noticed anywhere in research, since it was such a given anecdotally among my colleagues. I found that it had – there are studies showing that, for example, teachers in schools for students with social, emotional and mental heath needs experience a ‘courtesy stigma’ – a stigma that echoes the stigmatisation of those they teach. There are studies which note the gendered implications of all these associations with love and care – for example, noting the way that SENCOs at once embrace and try to move past a “maternal” image. While only a few relate directly to SEN schools, there are a great many studies on teacher identity – perhaps understandably, since many education researchers are current and former teachers. Looking through all these accounts of teachers’ refections on themselves and their colleagues, I began to think that something important was missing – a contribution from students.

I don’t plan to try and use students’ voices to uncover some kind of core, essential teacher identity. There will be no Scooby-Doo style pulling off the mask:

Screenshot 2020-02-23 at 13.20.26.png
What my research ISN’T going to be

Instead, I want to try and find ways of capturing and reading students’ thoughts about who their teachers are, in a way that can add to the discussion about who and what a teacher is. What do students have to say about all the gender and power questions raised by the studies I’ve talked about? Do they think that SEN teachers are different from teachers in mainstream schools? Is the difference meaningful to them?

In doing this, I want to gesture towards some of the writing on teacher identity I’ve found most interesting – writing from the critical pedagogy tradition. Critical pedagogy takes as a given and a starting point that teaching is an inherently political act, inseparable from power relations. As such, it tries to imagine ways to flatten the power imbalance between students and teachers. In our current education system in the UK (and in neoliberal nations in general) we are deeply embedded in what Paulo Freire calls the “banking model” of education – that is, seeing students as empty piggy banks into which the benevolent teacher drops coin-shaped nuggets of knowledge, aiming to produce a valuable economic unit as the student moves through education. SEN schools do not escape the banking model, and most teachers employed in the UK in whatever context will be obliged to work within it to some degree. I plan to write about this in a future post. For now, I’ll just say that I want my research to be (small) a site of resistance to this model by positioning students as co-theorists – not as a data source, to be coded and tabulated and analysed dispassionately, but as a voice in a discussion, the continual dialogue that produces possibilities for what a teacher might be.

 


 

If you enjoyed this post, you can buy me a coffee to show your appreciation.

Categories
Uncategorized

Culture, curriculum, richness and resonance – Mozart vs. Stormzy, or JS Bach vs. Weird Kids’ YouTube

In 2019, a charity called Youth Music called for an “urgent transformation” of the music curriculum in the UK. Youth Music had designed a bespoke music curriculum around grime and hip-hop, with the help of the music industry, and delivered it to to 974 young people in UK schools at risk of exclusion. They found that these students went on to have generally higher attendance rates, a lower risk of exclusions, and better maths and English scores. These were unequivocally good results, and shouldn’t have been controversial at all – but this is to grossly underestimate the power of the UK media, and the UK education discussion sphere, to make a culture war out of anything at all.

Because despite the excellent results from this charity’s work, despite its sensible and uncontroversial recommendations to the DfE for an engaging and vibrant music curriculum, just one soundbite from the press release made it into headlines. The charity’s director said “we’ve seen the benefits of students exchanging Mozart for Stormzy as part of a re-imagined music curriculum”. This was presumably a bit of rhetorical flourish meant to imply swapping old for new, classical for modern – but it was reproduced in the press as a diktat, a suggestion that all schools should do a Find and Replace on their syllabus, extract all the Mozart, and parachute in Stormzy as a direct replacement. The pseudo-debate had racist overtones – or perhaps just tones – as pictures of Stormzy tearing it up at Glastonbury were put next to serene oil paintings of Mozart, and the charity’s suggestion was reformulated into a demand:

Screenshot 2020-02-01 at 15.31.36.png
From The Sun. No, I’m not providing a link.

 

Image result for stormzy orchestra"
A typical image from media coverage of this story, this one from Sky News. Note Stormzy positioned as if he’s yelling directly at Mozart, and Mozart looking like he’s about to say that he doesn’t like Stormzy’s tone.

This, of course, led to frenzies from the right wing of edutwitter, pitting Stormzy and Mozart against each other like pro-wrestlers competing for the one coveted Music Curriculum Spot. As if any music teacher would make their curriculum a binary choice between these two, as if the two artists are totally unconnected by an unbridgeable gulf. While the progressive side of edutwitter mounted a spirited defence of the cultural value of Stormzy, there was (with some notable exceptions) not much critical discussion of how this needless culture war had been constructed in the first place, what cultural ‘value’ actually means, and whether these are terms we want to be fighting on. The smartest responses were from Youth Music themselves and from Stormzy, both of whom rejected the terms of the “debate”:

 

In my corner of teaching practice, I don’t have to deal directly with much of this nonsense. This is because UK headline writers, and Tory edutwitter, and the government itself, are largely uninterested in what is taught in specialist schools.¹ Nobody is getting very upset about whether my kids, who have severe learning disabilities, get Stormzy or Mozart. Which is just as well, because it would not mean a great deal. My students don’t have a conception of the difference between so-called prestige and popular culture. “Relevance”, to them, is perceived and judged from moment to moment – do I want this? Do I like this? Do my senses and my interests make me want more of this, or less? They do not know or care that Mozart is dead or that Stormzy just headlined Glastonbury.

I have music every day in my classroom – it helps the students to settle into the room after break times. Disney songs are popular choices, as well as some of the slightly trippier corners of kids’ YouTube – they love music from the Learning Station, including this, which is probably our class’s current favourite:

It’s brightly coloured, it’s bouncy, it has silly actions, it has a large man inexplicably dressed as a small boy with an eerily fixed smile. It’s relevant to them because it meets their needs in that moment – they need to move, they need actions to copy, they need something familiar. And it’s got jokes in, it’s joyful. (In case you’re wondering how I ever get it out of my head… I don’t).

On Thursday, we had a professional cellist come to visit us. She happens to be a parent of a child in the class, and we have just had an Arts Week where we were encouraged to take time off-timetable for arts-related things. I didn’t give her any direction – she just brought her cello and played some Bach for us. The children were utterly transfixed – we don’t have anything like a school orchestra, so most of them hadn’t seen a cello before, let alone been so close to one. It can take a lot to capture their attention, but sitting in a circle looking at the cello, they were silent. They took turns to come to the centre of the circle and have a go at playing it, feeling the resonances through their whole bodies, exploring what happened when they moved the bow.

The students seemed delighted by the experience, as did all the adults watching. Part of the joy for us, I think, was seeing our students – who, we know, have to live in a world which generally does not want to include them – have an experience like this. Seeing our students play the cello felt radical and exciting precisely because our students do not normally get to play the cello. Part of me felt troubled to be feeling this way. Isn’t this just holding up the “prestige” vs. “relevance” debate again? Is there anything intrinsically more special about a cello than a homemade shaker or a plastic boomwhacker?

The answer, I think, is in following my students’ example and escaping sideways from these hierarchies. They loved the cello because of its physical existence in the world as an object, as a thing which made sound and vibration in a way they hadn’t seen or felt before. The deep resonance of the wood, the fragility and texture of the bow, its size and shininess. They wanted to be around it, wanted more of it. This is the same with the kids in the Youth Music study and their amazing-sounding grime curriculum – it made them want to be there. It boosted their attendance and reduced their risk of being excluded because in very simple terms, it made them want to show up.

The obvious answer to “Stormzy vs. Mozart” is Stormzy and Mozart, and The Learning Station and Bach and and and and, all of it, as much as possible. Stormzy knows this, I think Mozart probably knew it. We want our students to be able to be curious, to ask, what makes me want more? What do my senses need and want in this moment? What moves me? I believe these questions, and providing a rich variety of possible answers to them, are at the heart of what we are doing when we educate students in the arts from the early years to higher education. Youth Music knew it and I was reminded of it this week. As ever, when you pay attention outside the mainstream, you find the answers that would help everyone have a richer and more resonant life.

 


  1. It’s not that there aren’t vital discussions to be had about the specialist school curriculum, about what and who our curriculum is for – if anything, these discussions are more urgent than those about neurotypical and abled children. When our students leave the education system at 19, or 25 if they manage to hang onto their legal entitlement, they will enter an ever-more-hostile world where their opportunities for supported employment and living have been cut to almost nothing by austerity and pre-existing indifference. How can we teach them to survive in this world? How much do we concede to this status quo, and how much do we insulate them from it within our walls?
Categories
Uncategorized

Making one whole body – the hard work of losing diet culture

In August this year, I wrote a piece about my body. I wrote about how I have seen it and felt about it over the years, as it has grown, as I have gone from below-the-national-average-size to above it, and how it’s been impacted by the life-changing brain injury I acquired nearly a year ago now. I’d encourage you to go back and read it if you didn’t at the time, because this piece is a companion and a follow-up to it. But to summarise quickly: ever since I was a teenager, I have thought my body was too big, and tried to shrink it, and it has continued to grow anyway. This year, after severe injury, I’ve finally stopped trying to shrink it, and tentatively begun to accept and even celebrate it.

After I wrote that piece back in August, my friend josie and I had a conversation about it. It is very often the case that josie’s reading of my work expands and extends my thinking, and this was no exception. This was one of the first times I’d written openly about seeing my body negatively, been open about internalised fat-hatred and trying to change myself. Josie wanted to apologise for not having known before that this was how I felt: she said at times she’d even felt envious of me for having the “right attitude” – in air quotes we both understood – to my body, while she had struggled with disordered patterns. I said that no apology was needed, because appearing to have the “right attitude” – performing body positivity – had been a part of the cycle I’d been stuck in, somewhere between viscerally despising my body and trying to pretend I didn’t have one. Sometimes I had really tried very hard to affect liking my body for a while, before swinging back to hating it. Because really, they were two sides of the same coin – make myself better by getting slimmer and more attractive, or make myself better by becoming a beautiful beacon of body positive self-love.

Our conversation revealed that while I’d been envying josie’s proximity to the “right” body shape, she’d been envying my performance of the “right” attitude. We both understood the irony and what it meant. I joked that, between us, we almost added up to one (1) socially acceptable person. But of course, the imagined hybrid-person couldn’t possibly exist, because the “right” attitude and the “right” body are not only both impossible, they’re even more impossible to hold at the same time. The only way to get the “right” body is to push, punish, restrict, withhold. And the only way to get the “right” attitude is to be carefree and unaffected. Attaining one, even if it were possible, would preclude attaining the other.

Image result for dove real beauty
An image from Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, otherwise known as being incredibly conventionally attractive and performing “acceptance” of one apparent “flaw”, such as “freckles” or “having short hair”

I have had this follow-up piece in mind ever since my conversation with josie, but I am moved to write it now because of the date. It’s a new year soon, and this is the first New Year I can remember where I haven’t resolved to lose weight in some form. Some years the resolution would be explicit – a trip to the bathroom scales, a goal, a number, an app – but some years, and increasingly more recently, it would be a guilty secret, buried in my heart. Guilty because I’ve known I’m not supposed to want it. I’m supposed to love my body, to be indifferent to constant cultural messaging telling me it’s horrendous. I’m supposed to be too smart for diet culture. So I would tell myself it wasn’t about weight. “It’s just about health”, “it’s just about exercise”, “it’s just about taking 10,000 steps in a day, because that’s for some reason extremely important“. Every time I’d tell myself something like this, there’d be a hopeful little voice that said “… and you might lose some weight, too!”. I was trying to be that mythical, wholly socially acceptable person – to rise above diet culture, but magically get thin anyway, just by accident. Right body and right attitude.

Except of course when I inevitably didn’t lose weight with each of these efforts, when I got fit enough to run a 10K, but still didn’t drop any dress sizes, the little voice that was hoping I might lose weight would get louder, drop its mask and become hateful. And this time I had double the reason to hate myself, because I’d failed twice over – at changing my body and at loving it. “You stupid bitch, you can’t even love yourself properly” might seem like a ridiculous thought if you’ve never struggled with a self-sabotaging brain – but if you have, hopefully you’ll understand.

Screenshot 2019-12-29 at 21.30.09.png
Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch singing “You Stupid Bitch” in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the most immense Mood if you have a brain like ours

So what has changed this year? Well, I explain some of that in my previous post – but essentially, what happened was brain injury. For most of this year, there has been absolutely no question of dieting or exercise – I had to just get through each day, build my strength for getting out of the house, going back to work. All of my effort, physically and cognitively, has gone into reconstructing the levels of activity I had before. So trying to add more activity, or trying to restrict calories when I’m always approaching my last scrap of energy, just hasn’t been possible. And I put on weight. And there was no question of “doing anything about it” by trying to lose it. I had to accept I was at maximum capacity already. So when the feelings of body-hatred came – and they did, intensely – I no longer had the choice between trying to change my body and trying to change my attitude to escape them. The “body” option had been taken off the table – attitude was the only thing left.

Realising this, I set about trying to change my mindset like all the other times I had tried. But my hopes were not high – it had never worked before, after all. But this time was different. Maybe because the “try to lose weight” option had been definitively removed, but also because this time I’ve been able to learn from others whose perspectives helped me escape the narrative of self-love as just another self-improvement initiative. In the Q&A at a Sofie Hagen gig, the first event I’d been to outside the house since my brain injury, I asked Sofie about how they deal with feelings of perfectionism around body positivity – how do you stop yourself trying to be the best and most body positive person ever? Their answer was to gently correct me on the use of ‘positivity’. You don’t have to be positive, they said – you just have to be neutral. It’s not realistic to expect yourself to be radiant with love about your own ankles every day – you’re just a human being who has ankles. Being able to think that thought, without revulsion – that’s the goal. And then maybe replace ankles with legs. And then – harder – thighs, and even stomach. These are body parts. You’re a human who has them.

Sofie’s book also really helped me. A confession that shows how much I needed it: at first, I was nervous to read it in public with the cover showing. What if people saw me reading a book called Happy Fat, and thought that I was… well, happy with being fat? The shame I felt at that idea was deeply illustrative in itself, and reading the book on the bus became a proxy for dealing with all my other feelings – as I progressed through it, I began to hold it up straighter in front of me, Sofie’s gorgeous cover more and more visible to onlookers. At the back of the book, there’s a list of instagram accounts to follow which feature beautiful photography by and of fat people – I followed them all, so my feed is now a riot of colour and joy and tummies and thighs and bums. And slowly, slowly, I began to move towards the neutrality that Sofie described. Not constant, not foolproof – it probably never will be – but slowly but surely more secure.

Just recently, I’ve read No Big Deal by Bethany Rutter, a young adult fiction novel about a fat seventeen year old named Emily. In some ways it’s a typical YA novel of the type I’d have loved as a teen – coming-of-age, boy drama, witty asides – but in other ways it’s extraordinary. Emily is fat, but. She isn’t on a diet, she isn’t mired in self-hatred, she isn’t apologetic. She fundamentally likes her body. At the beginning of the novel there’s a scene where she gets dressed for a party in front of the mirror. Despite knowing that Bethany Rutter had written this book, when I visualised Emily walking up to the mirror and looking at herself I still felt a shudder of dread: programmed by twenty eight years of consuming mainstream culture, I expected her to look in the mirror and sigh, cry, grab rolls of her stomach, wistfully visualise a perfect thin version of herself, and then throw on a black sack. But she doesn’t.

Standing in my perfectly high-waisted Marks and Spencer black knickers and my T-shirt bra, I see cute freckles over my face, light brown hair dangling to my chest that’s gorgeous and thick (so I can tolerate the frizziness), pale blue eyes that don’t even need accentuating with brown eyeshadow (…), slightly overlapping front teeth . . . and fat.

There’s a lot of fat.

Soft, pale thighs, squidgy tummy, deliciously squishy upper arms, round bum… not so much in the way of boobs… OK – enough posing. This outfit isn’t going to choose itself.

No Big Deal, pp. 12-13

Emily knows she’s fat. She knows what her body looks like and it’s not painful to her. There are parts she loves, parts she’s ambivalent about. The novel doesn’t erase the difficulties of moving through the world as a fat person – it begins with Emily getting stuck in a too-small dress in Topshop – but those difficulties all come from the outside world, shop sizing and diet ads and useless boys. The mirror scene – and the whole novel – makes it clear over and over that there’s nothing wrong with Emily’s body, only people’s reactions to it. She doesn’t envy her thin friends’ bodies – she envies their freedom to move through the world without being forced to think about their weight.

As Sofie and Bethany both articulate beautifully in their work, there’s a reason that forcing “body positivity” on myself never worked. It’s because, like the prospect of weight loss, “body positivity” as a mainstream, corporate-feminist concept is just as unattainable. As Bethany says in the afterword to No Big Deal, 

real, meaningful self-acceptance has to be based on truth rather than illusion, and you can’t truly accept a body you don’t accept you have.

This is as true for bodies as it is for minds. The illusion of a self-loving, relentlessly positive mindset is alluring and beautiful – but it’s an illusion just like a thin body. And just like a thin body, it can’t be magicked into being – and the harder you try, the more you try to force yourself to fit into a certain shape, the more it will hurt. Diet culture, misogyny, corporate vested interests in our self-loathing – all of these are real material forces, having a real impact and doing real harm in the world. Escaping their clutches takes real, difficult work, that never really ends.

I’m committed to trying, though, in the hope that if I have a daughter, it won’t take a brain injury to force her to accept the body she has. Hopefully, with more work like Bethany’s and Sofie’s, she might be able to take that as a given, and the concepts of having the “right body” and the “right attitude” will each be as meaningless as the other.