Click if you dare
Carl Wilson so hates Celine Dion that he begins his book by arguing she is “bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast”. Harsh. Given his burning dislike, when he’s subsequently requested to write a retrospective about Dion’s 1998 album “Let’s Talk about Love” (the one involving the nauseating My Heart Will Go On) he feels entirely unprepared for the task. In order to avoid writing pure bilge Wilson throws himself into a three-month quest, finding anyone, anywhere who has ever loved Celine Dion, all of which culminated in him writing the most strangely powerful book I’ve read all year. In its pages Wilson weaves a complex history of Canadian Kitsch acts alongside stories of ballad-loving refugees and transvestite impersonators. Through the journey Wilson’s icy heart begins melting until – suddenly and quite inexplicably – he finds himself weeping inconsolably as he watches Celine belt out her album’s title-song at a Vegas sell-out uber-concert. Accompanied only by the tiny Filipino lady sitting alongside him (a woman who we come to presume has spent her life savings to be in this precious moment) is also teary and she, like everyone else in the room, is understanding what he feels. It’s at moments like this throughout the book that Wilson can barely remember why his hatred was ever so important. Love, it seems, really does matters – even to a cynic.
Yet love is hard to talk about. Just last week a conversation on Twitter blindsided me about this very matter and it’s stayed with me ever since:
As the words above leapt from my keyboard I could hear my inner demons yelling. “You’re going to get hammered for this” I thought, hearing the sound of hard-line dissenters on the horizon…. “LOVE? Love’s all very well but what about exam results? What about life chances? What about escaping poverty? Must teachers do it ALL?”
And, of course, I don’t disagree. Exams are important. Life chances are important. But lack of love also affects how many children do in exams and, far more importantly, in their life going forward. In my opinion, lack of love (and the confidence it belies) is one reason why even the most incredible schools – despite all their money and selective testing – still can’t manage to get every child to achieve as well as could be expected given talents previously shown in the classroom. Some of it is neurons, or rubbish teachers, or “lack of motivation” (though at what cause?) – but at least, in part and for some children, this difference is down to love.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think such children have parents or carers who are consciously not loving; often they’re trying their damndest in the face of inadequate models from their own childhoods. This inadequate modelling is all too commonly paired with the thinly-veiled ‘adulthood’ coping mechanisms – addictive behaviours or abusive relationships – which then compound things even further, so that as the parent . And attempts loving their own child they miss the mark and the end result is a child who does’t even have a minimal feeling of being loved. And before you jump to conclusions; this isn’t about poverty. It’s about love. I can assure you that being wealthy doesn’t protect anyone from addictive behaviours, abusive relationships or the emotional markers of lost love.
You see it all the time in teaching (particularly if, like me, you’ve ever worked in a classroom on a hidden corridor away from prying eyes). You see children who sit in your classroom and sob because they’ve been abandoned to an aunt they barely know, or they’ve been ignored for weeks in favour of a parent’s new partner, or their clothes aren’t getting washed because their parent is busily drinking the night away, and now they know they smell but there’s no detergent left and they don’t have the money to go and get some. While still young, some of these issues are notionally resolvable through child protection pathways, though inner wounds tend to hang around even once the immediate neglect dries up. Then, as students get older options wane and all too often they end up taking on more and more responsibility – so that by 17 they’re feeding, clothing, consoling, paying for their younger siblings: an army of the unloved trying to stop their fate from spreading.
Now imagine among the neglect, and lack of love – and the practical problems it brings – there’s school to traverse with its weird bundle of daily lessons. Do you have a protractor for trigonometry? Possibly not, if your parents have never bothered to get you one. Food is of course provided to students most in financial need, but this is about love, not cash. And there are many children who’ve looked in wonder at children whose parents always provide a ready-wrapped meal, or who remembered to put their money out for lunch each morning, and wondered what it must feel like to have someone care about how hungry you are every single day.
Inevitably someone will now suggest that “children are resilient” and that “lots of children with miserable childhoods nevertheless do great”. It’s true, they do. Some children turn school into their escape and learning is their joy. These students become ‘miracle stories’ and teaching them is unbelievably inspiring. But, sadly, other students seek belonging elsewhere – gangs, sex, sometimes both. Or they turn their lack of love into self-hatred, and then turn that hatred into eating disorders, self-harm, obsessive behaviours, aggressive behaviours, all of which begin to distract from studies and start stripping away the chance of getting those longed-for ‘test results’ which were perhaps once thought might bring the so-desperately-craved love but it now all seems like more effort than it’s worth. After all, if no-one’s going to love me, whatever I do, why bother with this school crap? Especially if it’s difficult and the people that do love me (the gangs, the partners) don’t care about it? And that’s when we start to lose them – not because the curriculum is ‘too easy’ or because of ‘low expectations’ but usually because of the hopelessness. And with time, and effort, listening, consistency, we teachers can try to be a proxy for that love, but it’s not our priority and it never can be when we must (rightly) worry about the academic minds of 30 people all at once six times a day.
Yet, though we teachers know this and see the issue time and again, we never even breathe a word about it. Maybe because we fear there’s nothing to be done. Instead, as Sam says, we talk of ‘engagement’, ‘collaboration’ ‘school culture’. We don’t talk about why, really why, some of our students never make adequate progress. No, we talk about levels and pedagogy – the important adult rational stuff. But if we can’t talk about the lack of love in some children’s lives then there’s no chance for trying to improve it. We’ve given up before we’ve even tried because we taken the cynic’s pill and we believe it’s just not possible. Not trying, however, seems too defeatist – and even if I think it can’t be solved, I’ll be damned if I think we should continue pretending it doesn’t matter.
So the ‘policy’ I suggest is this: Let us, whenever it feels appropriate, not be afraid to talk about the importance of love and its impact in education. We must mention how the lack of it (or a wonderful abundance of it) has made a difference to children, to staff, even to us. It’s not really a policy, of course, it’s more a… personal stance. But it’s one that I’m asking you to think about taking. People won’t be impressed at first. They’ll want to get back to the ‘safe’ and manageable concepts: knowledge, ‘engagement’, exams. That’s okay, it makes sense to want to focus on what we “can do”. Plus those things are all very, very important and I don’t want to constantly distract from them. But, no matter how much we want to kid ourselves, they are also not everything, and the occasional reminder – when it feels relevant – shouldn’t require an argument with oneself in order to be able to ‘say it out loud’ either in reality or on Twitter. And from now on if it seems important I’m going to speak up.
And what of the hard-hearts among you still left crying that love is irrelevant? Those who say it’s only for the weak-minded with no interest in knowledge? About you, I do not worry. Somewhere out there in the world I am certain that a small Filipino lady is awaiting you and one day, when you least expect it, she will be right there to remind you that you are a human too, and that being so is difficult, it involves pain and it means needing to feel like others are willing to stand with you and understand you. Because that’s what love is. And it matters. Even to a cynic.