The Oldie

School Days Sophia Waugh


The world, it turns out, is a glorious place. A light has come into these troubled times and restored my faith in humanity.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece in which I complained about the dogooding teachers who spent hours making little packets of crayons (because your future is bright) and paper clips (hold on to your dreams) for their GCSE students before exams. I wrote, truthfully, that, if I had the money, I would love nothing more than to buy my students some holiday reading.

And then heaven split in two and down came an angel. A reader of this venerable organ wrote to me, via the Editor. He said that, as it happened, he had some spare cash and would love nothing more than to buy books for my students himself. He said he would give me £1,000, two years running, to spend. (In the event his generosity ran away with him and I received a cheque for considerab­ly more.)

His only caveat was anonymity, and a promise from the school that the money would not be diverted into any other fund, however worthy. The benefactor is a total stranger to me and has no links either to my school or (as far as I know) even to the West Country, where I teach.

So after I’d finished hyperventi­lating and squealing, the fun began. First we had to decide who would receive the books, and why. ‘I think it would be fun if we bought a collection of books and the children could borrow them and swap them,’ suggested one of the teachers.

But this to me was totally contrary to the spirit of the thing. We have a library already; I wanted the children to own books; to feel the heft of them in their hands; to know that if they didn’t feel like reading them yet, they didn’t have to do so. I wanted children who loved reading to have the pleasure of beginning to collect their own libraries. I wanted the books to be hardback and good, but not necessaril­y ‘worthy’. I had a bookplate designed for them (pictured).

The criterion fixed upon in the end was that the award was for nothing more than a love of reading. These could be children who were not necessaril­y gifted, or even very clever. If too many children were nominated for the funds, we would prioritise the PP (disadvanta­ged) and EAL (second-language) children. Only above-13-year-olds would be considered, as 13 is the age at which enthusiasm for reading begins to drop off.

I asked for nomination­s from English teachers and from form teachers. I began randomly asking children what they were reading: you can tell from a child’s face if they really love to read, just with that question. I had some wonderful surprises. And then I began to choose the books.

I chose Graham Greene, Margaret Atwood and Anne Brontë. I chose Primo Levi, Wilkie Collins and poetry. Some of the teachers gave recommenda­tions for their students; in other cases, I winged it. The real joy was choosing for the students I knew, and being able to say enough as I presented the books to show I had been thinking of each of them in particular.

And were the children pleased? I went into the end-of-term assemblies and told them of the windfall: even the least bookish among them cheered. They could not understand why a stranger would want to buy them books, and the very wonder of it made some of them want to read themselves.

One teacher told me she had watched a boy (PP and EAL, in this instance) after he accepted his book ( Brighton Rock). ‘He sat back down in his place on the floor and began to read,’ she said. ‘He did not lift his eyes from his book for the rest of the assembly. I don’t think anything like it had ever happened to him before. Please, say thank you to the donor. He needs to know the effect this is having.’

Today, a girl approached me at the end of the lesson. ‘Miss, are you in charge of the book presents? Only I’ve never read much for years and I know I should and there’s a book I’m really interested in reading and I wonder…’ She’s a hardworkin­g girl, but is very dyslexic and finds reading hard. Encouraged, I asked her what the book was that she had in mind. ‘ Mein Kampf, Miss. It’s by Hitler.’

I’m not sure that that particular title will find its way to the next round of beneficenc­es, but a reading buzz is a reading buzz…

I am grateful to the point of tears.

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