English Awards 2014 – Millie Morris (Y13)

At Whitbread, our pupils are wonderful at achieving exceptional English results. Their teachers however, are rather pants at celebrating these successes. Therefore, in a series of short posts, I will be embarrassing all the truly splendiferous students by showing their work off like a proud papa placing a drawing of an ambiguous splodge of paint on the fridge door.

Millie Morris is an outstanding all-rounder. Her results last week read like a Scouser trying to placate a fracas: A… A… A…  A student of both Literature and Language, Millie demonstrates outstanding analytic skill and wonderful creativity. For years she has continuously impressed teachers with her well-constructed and perceptive arguments and produced poetry and short stories that could be published in an instant. Furthermore, fully armed with her plethora of highlighters and colourful gel pens, Millie’s notes during lessons are some of the finest examples of contemporary art.

In addition to academic excellence this year, Millie has also had great success in the coveted Lancaster Writing Awards. With hundreds of entries from exceptionally gifted sixth formers across the country, Millie came second in the fiction category. This is a truly phenomenal achievement, and it gives me great pride to post her outstanding short story below.

 

The Runaway Orphan

London, 2093 AD

I’m running away. Away from the camp, away from the ghost of my mother, and towards Cole. My time is up – I am scared and tired but I have no alternative – today is the day of my 16th birthday.

They tell you, when you’re younger, it’ll never happen to you. You’ll stay with a loving family who’ll pay for your upkeep, and, when the time comes, your usage tax. They skirt around the topic, move onto other things. “This isn’t on the curriculum.” “None of you are orphans, so it don’t matter.” They don’t mention what happens when your parents can’t afford to pay the tax, although everybody knows.

My mother couldn’t pay. She was reaching old age and the end of her use, her tax increased and she was killed. I was there. There was blood.

I shut it out, ignored it, was taken to an orphan camp but I was dangerously close to the end of my “free” childhood. No investors. No other option but to get rid of me. So I ran.

I stumble on a rock, lose my footing and fall, arms flailing madly, into the thick ashy mud at my feet. I scramble up, using my sleeve to rub the dirt away from my eyes and mouth and stare around at my surroundings. London city. Destroyed, but still beautiful. It’s own kind of poetry.

To my right is the stinking, polluted river they call the Thames. England’s great water motorway, I remember being told. I rack my brains but for the life of me I can’t remember what a motorway is – maybe the great expanse of murky water, dancing like dirty, liquid diamond would mean a little more to me if I could. I doubt it.

I stare at my camp-issue watch, bright lights still twirling in front of my eyes. It’s 7:45 pm – I’ve been alive for two hours, 42 minutes longer than they had planned. I wait for the feeling of success to fill me – I’ve achieved the impossible, I deserve elation, excitement. None comes. Why do I not experience the delighted relief the characters in the books I read always feel? Have I not passed the climax, achieved my goal? Surely there is only the resolution to come. I curse the names of Tolkien, Doyle, Rowling. Perhaps my life does not qualify for the adventure story I took it to be. I squeeze my eyes shut, willing the feeling into existence.

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

I do not like the dark. The darkness brings other things. Resting behind my eyelids, assaulting me when I close my eyes, are the people I’ve lost. My mother and father, Cole, Mo, 321, 453. Others whose names and numbers I can’t remember. All  but Cole were gone because their usefulness ran out, and nobody could pay the tax required to justify them using this world’s hopelessly limited resources. Cole simply disappeared.

When I first arrived at the camp, the leaders were optimistic that I’d get an investor. Intelligent, healthy despite my asthma, and not too noisy. My obsession with books and my advanced use of language, they said, would only be minor drawbacks. But it soon became clear that despite my low tax and high usefulness level, the investors who initially showed interest disappeared with weak excuses. I scared the first one off with a metaphor; the second one spotted my copy of Northern Lights;  the third left bellowing profanities after I answered the question “What’s your favourite colour?” with “that orange colour Cole’s hair turned in the sunlight, like the edges of the rays themselves”. Poetic or creative language is seen as rebellious – I learnt that soon enough.

But word travels quickly within the upperclass, and there were no more interested investors. Apparently, the merits of paying my tax and thus getting a share of any salary I make was not enough to warrant the rumours now surrounding me. So I ran. Cole must have managed it, how else had he disappeared? I had a theory he had set up camp, was waiting for other orphans or penniless people to join him. I figured he’d head to central London, as it was a wasteland, stripped of it’s capital city status after the London Raids – London rebelled. And it had been subdued.

I had been walking for almost 15 hours and I needed to rest. It was growing dark, and I wanted to be asleep before night fell entirely. My footsteps had become slow, my feet sinking deep into the black mud before I pulled them out again with a great sucking sound. I figured that the grassy patches were no longer helping muffle my steps and altered my path so I was walking on the cracked, ashy slabs of stone I assumed were once a path following the course of the river. I kept my eye out for a place to rest.

I took refuge in a small concrete shelter with smashed windows but a stable roof. I stared out at the huge metal wheel it stood by – bigger than anything I’d ever seen: magnificent, muddy, murky glass pods stationed at regular intervals around it. Despite its size, it remained standing and likely structurally sound, a metal sentry to the collapsing buildings surrounding it. I fell asleep taking guesses as to its purpose.

I was shivering when I awoke, late at night, the darkness almost tangible, covering and caressing my eyes with its inky black hands. I did not like the dark. I sat up, letting my eyes adjust and soon the dark veil obscuring my vision lessened, as though fabric was switched from velvet to lace. There was a cold wind rushing through the empty window panes, but aside from its howling I could hear nothing. I stood up. I blinked. I could still see very little by the light of the moon – only dark shapes that unnerved me. I did not like the dark.

I thought of Dickens, of Poe. The darkness that concealed potential attackers also hid me from them. But before I could help myself my thoughts had turned to The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven and I heard the lone sound of a bird’s caw overhead, echoing around the abandoned city and I screamed. I covered my mouth a second later. I did not like the dark.

Then, methought, the air grew denser.”

The bird’s call unnerved me. I had heard nothing of life for so long in this wasteland I assumed no animal dared inhabit it. For the first time, I felt as though there was a hostile presence on my tail. I wasn’t alone in London tonight.

I swung my small bag of provisions over my shoulder and edged out of the little building, cursing my scream, cursing the bird for frighting me. Anyone could have heard me. Somebody did.

In the darkness, I had missed them. They stand only a short walk from my resting place. Four of them: tall, dark, Governmental figures. And standing in the middle of them? Cole.

Relief, pain and confusion flash through my mind in quick succession. I don’t know what to do or what it means but he is standing there. My brother. My flesh and blood, alive.

I can’t find my voice. Words, always my comfort and my weapon, have failed me. A hoarse whisper, barely my own, murmurs “Cole?”

“482.”  He says. It’s wrong. Too businesslike. My number, not my name. He  gestures to the man next to him. I don’t understand the motion. My heart is screaming at me to move closer and greet him and little is stopping me. I feel as though my brain hasn’t caught up yet; my thoughts are jumbled, panicked. I take a step towards him. I cover the rest of the distance without noticing.

I throw myself into his arms, crying, before my brain can warn me otherwise. I feel his hands in my hair, his lips at my ear, urgent. “I’m sorry.” He whispers. My brain catches up.

I turn and there’s a gun at my head. One shot only to kill the runaway orphan.

And my soul from that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted – nevermore!”

 

 

My Life as a Daddy in Books

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 I am a daddy. Not a ‘father’ or a ‘dad’, nor ‘papa’ and definitely not ‘Puff Daddy’ the last time I checked. This informal word encapsulates everything I hold dear in life, and as of 10.07 last Thursday 31st July, I blissfully and worryingly became a daddy for the second time.

If you’ve had the unfortunate pleasure to spend more than thirty-eight seconds with me, you will know that I have a beautiful daughter named Ellie. She is used in nearly every metaphor I make in the classroom, included in all digressional anecdotes that only I find funny, and is definitely the cause of my rapidly receding hairline. It’s her second birthday in less than two weeks, and her early birthday present was called Toby William and weighed a whopping 9lbs 9oz (or the equivalent of 74 Big Macs). Ellie already loves her little brother as all big sisters do: in a different room entirely. ‘Chubba Tubs’ as he’s been nicknamed by his evil and despicable dada, has cheeks the size of a male orang-utan and a plethora of chins to rival Rik Waller.

My favourite educational heroes are currently writing blogs concerning the books that make them the wonderful folk that they are. As I could never match their witty and erudite responses, I thought I would muddy the water a little and reflect upon the books that have made the greatest influence on my bumbling attempt at fatherhood.

The Newborn Stage: On Accepting Responsibility and Becoming an Emotional Wreck

Before daddyhood I think I could count the amount of times I have cried as an adult on one stoically-clenched fist. Only The Land Before Time and The Lion King had the ability to draw a single tear from my barren ducts, in addition to the heart-wrenching closing sequence of The Incredible Hulk (the classic 80’s TV series kids, not the recent film when Iron Man rocks up like he’s drunk and at the wrong party).

However, one book managed to break me. I often have the tough kid at the back of the room who thinks that books can’t reduce bad-asses to tears. So I tell them a story. A story of a young man who continuously fights against his social background to fulfil his dream of becoming a university graduate from society’s most elite institution. The hero falls for the wrong woman at the wrong time, before meeting the woman of his dreams, his cousin (you get over the weirdness), and settles down with her to start a family. Cue evil woman arriving back on the scene, proclaiming to our protagonist he’s got an heir, before jaunting off on her merry way again. Newly adopted son takes it upon himself to reduce the stress in the family, by hanging his two half-siblings and himself in the wardrobe. The hero’s lover abandons him as she believes that their relationship is impious and doomed; he returns reluctantly to his wife, before dying of illness and a broken heart.

The tough kid then looks at me, and I’m all like desperately fighting to retain my own street cred by not bawling pitifully, and he like, states with gusto, “Sounds pretty shit, Sir.” I pay the biggest chap in the class a tenner to take full opportunity of his ridiculously low-hanging trousers and give him the wedgie of a lifetime.

Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is my favourite book of all time. When I first read the moment Jude and Sue find their beautiful babes hanged, I was unfortunately travelling to work and had to be consoled by an 80 yr old lady sitting next to me for about half an hour; I believe I still have the handkerchief she charitably offered me to mop up my snot-covered mush in my sock drawer. This harrowingly bleak moment in the novel haunts me, as the thought of losing a child is something quite unbearable.

However, Jude’s ambition has inspired me to constantly break constraints and try to achieve unimaginable success; yet his flaws have taught me how to value the more important aspects in life and know when to realise that some dreams are unattainable. Although Jude’s failure echoes the fallibility of Icarus, the novel encapsulates the poor and disadvantaged’s struggle to find their place in a bourgeois world perfectly, and can radicalise a young mind to take full advantage of their education in order to achieve aspirational feats.

Other significant texts that have impacted on my sense of responsibility are Mary Shelly’s philosophical epic Frankenstein, John William’s heart-wrenching Stoner, Cormac McCarthy’s gritty dystopian The Road and Tony Parsons’ moving novel that’s very close to home, Man and Boy.

The Babbling Stage: On Role Models and Super Heroes

When I was five my Mother bought me a Batman costume. For seven weeks and three days I wore nothing else because I believed that my superpowers would diminish if I wasn’t dressed as the Caped Crusader. Within a year, I also asked for a Spiderman suit and Superman cape to add to the collection. At every opportunity, I would badger my Mum to let me don my Dark Knight outfit and pretend to protect and serve the community, with such missions as saving snails from the soul-crunching genocide by Doc Martin soles after it had poured with rain. I grew up on DC and Marvel comic compilations by stealing them from my older brother; but it wasn’t until I started my degree that I found the critically acclaimed wonder that is The Dark Knight Returns.

Possibly the greatest graphic novel of all time, Miller’s masterpiece has a variety of complex themes embedded throughout. However, the transition of the ageing and morose Bruce Wayne to the gritty and dark Batman represents the difficult decisions that have to be made to protect and inspire others. Now, I’m in no way comparing myself to the crime fighting hero, but I take great comfort in the fact I’m trying to be a role model for my children as much as possible and if that means reading What the Ladybird Heard seventeen times before bath time, then that’s fine by me.

Another book that had a great impact on me was written by one of my real life heroes, the explorer, writer and lover of all things derring-do, Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Deep down I always wished for someone to define me as Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, but the fact that I enjoy listening to James Blunt and soaking in a nice bubble bath probably limits my chances. However, Fiennes’ autobiography of this name has inspired me to achieve many gruelling challenges and I look forward to all the adventures I will accomplish with my children. At the age of sixty five and the oldest Briton to do so, Fiennes finally achieved his life-long dream of summating Everest (his third attempt), and in the process made a total of £2.6 million of charitable sponsorship on behalf of Marie Curie Cancer Care’s Delivering Choice Programme. Furthermore, in 2003 he ran seven marathons in seven days in seven continents only three and a half months after a massive heart attack, three day coma and double bypass. Add to this his other achievements of crossing the Antarctic continent unsupported (the longest polar journey in history), discovering the lost city of Ubar, and being thrown out of the SAS for being ‘too nails’, and you basically get the greatest chap on the planet. The detailed accounts of his triumphs makes you want to push your own mental and physical boundaries to the limit, and the beautiful way he describes his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Ginnie, who sadly loses her battle with cancer, forces you to appreciate the wonderful people you love.

Other inspiration books about role models include: The Worst Journey in the World by the excellently named Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Alexander Dumas’ swash-buckling tale The Three Musketeers and Homer’s epics, The Iliad and Odyssey.

The Toddling Stage: On Innocence and the Power of the Imagination

Shockingly, each year I receive a few letters of appreciation from students who are leaving and it is interesting to note the similar adjectives pupils use to describe me: “enthusiastic”, “passionate”, “mental”. I take these sentiments to heart and they really are one of the highlights of the year. However, the greatest compliment I ever received was via a parent who stated that their child liked my lessons because I was the teaching equivalent of “Tigger on speed”. I try my hardest in the classroom to have the perfect blend of high expectations, rigour, challenge and fun. Critics may argue that dressing up as a tramp to teach a poem about homelessness is superfluous or singing Bob Marley while students analyse Agard detracts from the learning outcome and reduces authenticity, but I’m afraid I don’t give a hoot. At home, I don’t have to worry about the fact that my children have to pass a plethora of demanding exams yet, so I just get to be Tigger in all his drug-fuelled excitement.

A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh speaks directly to the child within us. The anthropomorphic Bear of very little brain ironically has one of the finest philosophical minds of all time and can always bring a smile to me even in the darkest days of controlled assessment season. Furthermore, his lyrical ballads and happy hums are the work of a creative genius. Pooh’s thoughtful, considerate and loving relationships with his fellows in Hundred Acre Wood should be replicated in every friendship and I can’t ruddy wait to read these marvellous stories with Ellie and Toby.

Other texts that influence me to become an excitable and passionate papa include: Danny Champion of the World by the delightful Roald Dahl, Marius Zusek’s heart-wrenching holocaust novel, The Book Thief and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

The Terrifying Stage: On Loving Too Much

198. 178. 201. 211. 184. 192.

Each number represents my baby boy’s heartbeat on his dynamic cardiac monitor, which I have obsessively observed for the past five days.

I started writing this when Tubby Toby was three days old. On day four, he obviously disagreed with his new abode and decided he was going to return to the comfort and constant cooing of the midwives. After being pricked by more needles than an acupuncture patient, Toby’s white blood cell counted significantly above average (see, my lad’s already above average!) and the doctors started an aggressive course of antibiotics and antivirals. Within a few hours, the senior consultant visited us to state that Tubs had either viral or bacterial meningitis.

Now, the worst thing you could possibly do in this situation is whip out your smart phone and Google ‘what the deuce is viral or bacterial meningitis?’ But that’s exactly what everyone does and shares the same poop-in-your-pants experience as you read all the catastrophic after-effects of such a horrendous infection. Your eyes draw to one type more than others, and sadistically that’s the one the paediatrician proclaims your son to have, like he’s won first prize at the most bitchin’ disease awards. Congratulations little fella, you’ve successfully contracted Group B Streptococcal meningitis.

During these difficult days, a few books and lines from my favourite authors have returned to me. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles sparked a love of reading in me when I was a nipper, but while at university I stumbled across his beautiful reflections on bereavement, A Grief Observed. Throughout this collection of four notebooks written after the death of his beloved wife, he argues with, screams at and kicks God right in the gonads with angry violence. After helplessly watching ‘H’ succumb to cancer, Lewis questions his own faith and the theology he dedicated his life to. Unlike Lewis, I’m not a religious fellow at all, nor do I consider my love of Chubba Tubs to be in the context of God’s love; however, his description of the anger and most of all fear in these experiences strikes a chord with my current situation and I find his sentimental comforts honest and brave. I recommend this courageous text to all those who have dealt with bereavement or grief.

On a similar theme to Lewis’ reflections are Jean-Dominique Bauby’s masterpiece in the face of adversity, The Diving-bell and the Butterfly, Mitch Alborn’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and the book that’s currently making teenagers (and English teachers) cry that really ugly, snotty face cry, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

Finally, my chap is more stable and is considering returning to the mad house he’ll call home. When he does so, I’ll happily have the highlights of the 2003 Rugby World Cup final ready and waiting, a song sheet of The Fresh Prince in Bell Air rap, and looking forward to read such literary classics as Owl Babies, Cows in the Kitchen and Pig’s Knickers.

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