Did you ever read the books about the First World War by Pat Barker? (Yes, I know one of them is missing – someone, not looking at any of my relatives, must have pinched the first one.) I did, some time ago now. I bought them when I was the kind of person who had the time to hang around in bookshops on a Saturday afternoon, browsing those big tables, piled with not-quite-skyscrapers of paperbacks, looking for something to spend my disposable income on. I haven’t read them in a while, but I remember them vividly. Whenever I have a clearout of my bookshelves (which I do on an infrequent, but regular basis, contrary to public opinion) I hold them in my hand, weighing up whether or not I wish to pass them on, and so far, the answer has been, ‘no’.
A couple of things stand out in my memory of them. A couple of things that struck me, and have continued to strike me, over the years since I first sat dreaming, transported to a world gone by, by a skilled writer. The first is the enforced femininity of trench warfare. The endless waiting. The powerlessness of the men over their own fate. The obedience to orders they had no power to challenge. The care and concern by the officers for the men, over their wellbeing, their health, whether they had enough food, shelter or clothing. The difficulties that some men had in bending themselves to an unfamiliar state.
But the thing that echoes, the thing that haunts me, was the look in the eye, the shared experience, in this case of the horror of war, that asked, ‘Have you been there? Do you understand?’
In many ways it’s a bit like childbirth. Or traumatic childbirth, anyway. Or the bringing to life of a disabled child, of Down’s syndrome, come to that. In a sense, unless you’ve been there, you don’t understand. In many ways, no matter how many of us write or speak in our attempt to make the experience about the universal, you can’t. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what it is like; the forced femininity of powerlessness.
We think we might understand, because we have children of our own, or we hope to one day; we think it is enough, but we betray our assumptions with the questions we ask. So busy to show we understand, we forget to listen.
It’s the same with teaching. Like nursing, or the law, it’s a profession with an illusion of transparency because we’ve all been in that classroom (pretty much), we all (pretty much) send our own children there. But it is an enclosed world. Even within the sector, our differences make only some of our experiences transferrable. Our own experience overlays understanding. Unless you’d been there, you wouldn’t know.
And how easily we forget. I forgot, when I went on my ten year maternity leave, what it was like. It’s so easy to know your own child, in the early days, anyway. You watch them so closely – you have to or you fear they might die – and you forget that it’s impossible for a teacher to know them like that, to be able to adapt like that. You have your home set up to accommodate their needs, a nearby toilet, quiet spaces, freedom of choice – and you forget that when you teach, you just can’t do that.
You forget, when you know them so well, that it takes time to get to know a child, and that that knowing comes from spending time with them, in context, and not on a piece of paper, for yourself, and not through someone else’s eyes. When you have a child, the responsibility can feel overwhelming. When you have a disabled child, even more so. You will be accountable to them for the rest of your life. But you forget that other form of accountability, when you work as a teacher, the one you have towards multiple children, all equally deserving, towards government, parents, inspectors, the boss.
How easily you forget the never ending pile of things to do – the stack that grows by 30 every time you teach a lesson. You can see it in school leaders who merrily state in staff meetings, ‘it should only take a minute’, while the classroom staff quietly look at each other under their eyelashes and wonder who will point out that what seems so reasonable when you times it by one, is not a simple matter, when multiplied up. What seems so simple, from a distance, from the computer screen or from the office – from the home, even, when it is played out in the classroom, is, indeed, complex, and that the description of the complexity leads us into ethical dimensions that take time to work through, time to understand.
When I went back to work after my long absence it was a was a wake-up call. It was a reminder that I wasn’t perfect – and neither should I, could I be, that entrenched positions of enmity never help the child. It was a reminder that, while I held responsibilities, I didn’t hold them all. I could not hold them all. Being something and nothing, a split person, a balancer along the tightrope, one of them and one of us, helps. Because when you walk in someone else’s shoes – or you put your old ones back on – you remember.
Have you been there? Do you understand?