Ever been quiet in class?
Really quiet – not even turning round or nudging your mates? For a whole lesson, for forty-five minutes?
And you expect me to believe you? Well, all right then, but it was never anything I could manage when I was at school. Anyway, this is about my finding a whole class of fourteen-year-olds who were prepared to remain silent while I read to them the first two chapters of a book called dunno.
The class was waiting for me, with a student teacher, in a school that I had never visited before. I was standing in for their English teacher and no work had been left for them. I reached into my case and took out a copy of the book.
“What I’m going to do,” I said, “is to read the start of a book to you. It’s a book that I wrote and I would like to find out what you think of it.” I looked around the class. They seemed happy to go along with this – they wouldn’t have to do anything, except listen.
One of them called out, “What’s it all about?”
So I told them, about Jon being in trouble with everyone and not having any real friends, of never having known his dad and his mother being a real pain. Now, I told them, he owed money to another boy in the area and this lad had a really nasty big brother.
“Why’s it called dunno?” someone asked.
“What do you say when your parents ask you where you’ve been, or why you haven’t done your homework, or tidied up your room, or remembered to pick up something from the shops?”
For a moment they were lost and then the penny dropped; it’s the answer you give when you don’t want to give an answer.
Then I got started and they listened as Jon broke into a house that turned out to be the house where he lived with his mum. Once he had taken money from her room he was off again, out onto the street where he snaps rudely at a nosey neighbour, escapes from some girls from school, is reminded by Dean that he owes him money, steals food from a super-market, is picked up by a teacher when he’s bunking off lessons, catches a smaller boy and robs him, catches his arm on a sharp spring under his bed, is taken to hospital by his mum with a badly bleeding arm and meets Steve, a nurse.
For a few minutes I pointed out the importance of this encounter, how Steve would come to help Jon grow up.
There wasn’t time for more than the first two chapters and the class wanted to know what was going to happen to Jon and I had to tell them very quickly how Dean’, to bunk off school altogether, find an illegal job and get his life together.
Then Jon rescues his mum when she is beaten up by her boyfriend.
“What happens at the end?” I was asked, and I told them how one of the girls is still around and Jon bumps into his mum’s violent ex. Then the bell rang and all I could say was that they’d have to read the book for themselves and that they could get it from Amazon or they could order it from the library.
Before I left the classroom I saw the student teacher, standing there amazed; “I have never known them pay attention like that for a whole lesson – they must have liked your book.”
What do you think the writer was up to when he told the class that he wanted to hear their opinion of the opening chapters of his book?
Is it important for teachers to explain what they want you to do?