On ‘Some Kids’, some structures, and some folded lies
‘What follows are my thoughts on Kate Clanchy’s memoir of teaching, Some Kids and What They Taught Me, published by Picador in 2020 and republished by Swift in January 2022 and the furor which has surrounded it. To me, the matter is so much bigger than one book: it is about structural inequality, a frankly indolent spread of misinformation in broadsheet publications (and others), knee-jerk reactions from all and sundry, including misplaced and fanciful outrage at alleged book burners, and the failure of many people to reflect on privilege and agency, laws protecting minors and the critical social dynamics of who holds the balance of power. I need to establish that my background has been, for years, with young people, partly as a secondary English teacher, and that two of my own children are SEND; one, autistic. Some Kids was very triggering in that respect.
It is not, ultimately, those ‘kids’ or even their parents who hold that balance of power: it is the teacher and memoirist. Readers have worried about their own children because, for example, they are autistic; those parents have seen teachers find the text exemplary, despite its dismissive and pejorative language towards this pupil group. What will be thought of their child? Let us return to this: the author, on a learning journey, ought not to be mining the lives of minors, in a book, without all due diligence, correspondence and protocol, allied with compassion for one’s charges. Because of my own context, I know that schools are required to ensure a duty of care for all children in their setting. This duty of care starts before their lives are potentially turned into anecdote by a visiting adult, regardless of whether the depiction is allegedly a ‘composite’ or retrospective permissions might have been obtained from a selected number of students. Therefore, media coverage of some student poets coming forward to support KC as their teacher and accompanying self-justification via the author and Swift Press, the new publisher, do not support best practice for duty of care. Furthermore, the comments by the author about how you cannot ‘cancel poetry’ in January 2022 fly entirely in the face of what is being said by those who have been upset and worried by the book. They seek to cancel nothing. They ask for reflection and a sensitive, thoughtful reparation. What is more, I have not yet seen any evidence that any educational establishment/s knew about the book in advance, and, without their knowledge and critical participation, it is hard to see how adequate safeguarding protocols could have been ensured in that setting.
Until the summer of 2021 I had only been aware of the writer and teacher KC through her students’ poems on Twitter. As I write now, I feel I ought to have been more aware. Writers and teachers had been saying much, and I had missed it. Disability campaigners had commented. Now, I went back to 2020 threads when, just to give one example, concerns were raised about racism in the text. I could not believe what I was reading in a book that had been widely praised as exemplary in the concern it showed for young people. Beautiful in its multiculturalism, a book to be seen in every staffroom. Really? Here is one quotation from the Picador text: ‘I was having difficulty, as Prince Philip had with Chinese people, in telling them apart.’ Or how about two autistic children: ‘More than an hour a week would irritate me.’ ‘If I set them a task, they will stick at it, not deviating, for hours, and never ask why. This is fun.’ These two quotations were removed for the Swift edition, but an absolute wealth of comments on appearance, skin colour, plump, fat, and furry, remain in the updated text, worst of all a comment on a teenage boy’s erection which, try as I might, I cannot contextualise to make appropriate. Lower ability children are referred to as ‘dead weight’ more than once. Some students are apparently ‘just drearily mediocre.’ And that Blake might have been autistic because he was a ‘perverse and difficult polymath’… ‘with his love of abstruse and autodidact learning…’ is troubling and, I would, argue, ignorant. It is not surprising that there was an open letter to Picador from over 350 teachers and others expressing detailed concerns and we know that writers and teachers did receive messages from young people (which cannot be shared because confidentiality was promised) who recognised themselves in the book and were not happy. This has been glossed over, while the author continues on the cancellation tour and complains about the focus group and the ‘Readers’ in a tone of deep irritation.
After discussion, after a worryingly long silence and apparent failure to engage by the publisher, it was announced in early 2022 that Picador would republish the text in the autumn of 2022 with passages and descriptions expressed ‘more lovingly’ and the onslaught continued. Some students came forward to say that had been pleased with their teaching and felt supported, but respectfully that is not all students – because if you are a class teacher you will teach huge number of people over the decades – and what is more, writing to say that you are happy as an adult is consent after the fact and is not commensurate with safeguarding, awareness of the Equality Act 2010 or Rights of the Child. This is important to remember for future children, for future books. These are their lives, as children, and they are extraordinarily precious. This is something that the press, then as now, absolutely failed to reflect on. This is entirely because of an establishment protecting its own. As a SEND mum, I often felt sick following the story. Yes, the children are explained by KC as composite, but that does not make any of this acceptable and never did. It is wonderful that twenty five students – you would think it was every student ever taught from some of the very recent newspaper pieces – came forward to express support and appreciation, but respectfully two things: it is, I must argue, unlawful to portray children in your care in such ways because it contravenes the The Equality Act 2010(I would also draw attention to safeguarding policy and The Rights of the Child), specifically ‘its ‘protected characteristics’ section; moreover, if you have been a teacher for twenty two years you may, teaching across the school years, have taught thousands of students. Who and where are they? What did they think? Did just one of them look at the book and recognise themselves and I could write this piece solely on the peculiarity of ‘we’ in the narrative – an inclusive pronoun that has done an invidious job of exclusion, in my view; a feint which allows the reader to imagine more generally what teachers think and do. ‘We teachers are tough’ wrote the author in a broadsheet newspaper, January 2022. Again, the invidious pronoun. I have met teachers who made the voice in Clanchy’s book familiar; I mean those I have worked with and those I have encountered because they taught my own boys. Flaw, bias, and bad behaviour exist, to a certain extent, in all classes and staff rooms: I will not have been without it myself – and that is why we must go back and look; to reflect. Thank goodness for those teachers who pointed out the wrongness of KC’s peculiar taxonomies of childhood in the book.
I am furious at a teacher’s reckonings passed off as knowledge because this percolates into misunderstandings and gets passed on as fact and scholarship. She has authority, but a lie, or a half-truth – a folded lie – has been formed. It is hard to understand the publishing, legal parsing, editing, prize-winning when these are minors described in this way. I am embarrassed for and furious at the people who came forward – doubtless without all having read the book – to moan about canceling. witch-hunts and censorship. Clearly, the discussions around the book have again exposed the stiff old arguments of not being able to say ANYTHING nowadays, which is, as ever, radically ill-informed, predicated on privilege – your freedom, that is – and plain cruel and self-indulgent
Going forward? I think there must be clear and difficult discussion about things. I certainly feel differently about publishing now, about some journalists, and about a lot of teachers – those I still see defending the book and saying, with unintentional rich irony, that children will be denied a voice. I also do not accept the notion that someone meant to do well and be kind and therefore their behaviour and tropes – how can she be cancelled for not being born woke? asked (shamefully) a journalist in one of the biggest newspapers – should be exonerated. A writer – or teacher – needs to work harder than that and understand both that it is the outcome which is of significance and, also, that within an apparent kindness may be arrogance, ethnocentricity or, an area of particular concern for me, ableism. Within serving and trying to raise people up, there may be pity and, for example, the press of an unacknowledged and invidious bias. We need, also, to have truly clear guidelines – in consultation with those who are specialists in educational law and the rights of the child – so that damage of this kind is not done again. And I worry. The book was immediately republished. Yes, the most often quoted words and phrases have been removed in new editorial, but the book does not seem demonstrably different and I have read them both; moreover, it feels like little of the hurt caused has been acknowledged. Why else would the new afterword refer to changes made ‘after a twitter storm’? The author says that ‘despite a prolonged and distressing campaign urging them to do so, no young person portrayed in the book has come forward to say they were hurt by it.’ Consent after the fact is not commensurate with what is appropriate as a teacher and within both best practice and law. Twenty-five students may have come forward – and they have my utmost respect – to say they experienced no ‘safeguarding or consent issues’, but this still does not obviate need for concern because it is not for the then child or the now adult to decide, but is, instead, only incumbent on the teacher in charge. the school and their safeguarding officer or team. Beyond that, I am afraid I know that damage is insidious.
I repeat: my context is education and SEND mum here. Centre the students, not yourself.
In conclusion: what has happened is about so much more than the book. It is about structural inequality, privilege, misinformation and both lazy journalism and lazy reading. It is about racism, ableism and classism – about body shaming, and being happy to place others in harm’s way – others who would rather not have to challenge at all but get on with their lives and their work. They raise their heads above the parapet because of moral compass and social conscience, not as something predicated on a ferocious ego; in this case because they were concerned about children and young people – the point we must keep returning. These were minors, in schools. With freedom comes responsibility: that you need to be accountable and open to challenge. Your views may be outmoded, or never acceptable in the first place because they were based on presumption and their result was cruelty. In publishing, education and in British society, I know we can do so much better. It might be painful to have to reflect on your attitude, but it is much less painful than being unheard, marginalised and in danger. And as for myself? It is taking me a long time to get over this book: I believe it is the worst book I have ever read twice.