Early years in teaching and William Burroughs and censorship
When I went into teaching I was determined to approach it in a different manner to the experience that I had imposed upon me in schools. A lot of my teachers were tyrants and I hated them. I refused to have the distant hierarchy of teacher and pupil. I insisted the students called me by my first name. For me teaching was a privilege. I was not there to force-feed reluctant kids with turgid facts; I was there to enlighten and expand minds, to promote thinking, questioning and discovery and turn on kids to the awe and wonder of the universe.
It did not quite work that way.
The world was not ready for me. The teaching staff thought I was a rebellious nutter and the kids thought I was being weak and played up.
Over my first year or two I had to adjust to find the balance. It was a lesson in life. People liked order and to be told what to do. The kids preferred a strict vicious teacher to a weak one. They felt safer. They knew where they were. That’s why we elect psychopaths and sociopaths; they are strong, clear and black and white. You know where you stand with fascism.
I found a middle way.
At lunch-time I shunned the staff table and sat with the kids. I ran clubs, played sport and got to know them.
I believed teaching was not about power but more about relationship. That learning was not about knowledge so much as the skills and qualities necessary to experience life. I still do.
The students found me interesting and we developed good relationships. They asked me to contribute to a student magazine. I wrote a piece for them. The Senior Team thought it was not appropriate and banned it. The students published the magazine with a space where my story should have been with ‘CENSORED’ written over the pages.
One of the brightest of the young rebels, a certain Stephen Ellis, won a prize for speech day. That meant that he received a sum of money towards a book of his choice. He came along to me and asked my advice as to what book might be a good one to purchase.
Without too much thought I said that probably something by Kerouac, Ginsberg or Burroughs might be good. He bought a William Burroughs.
The day before Speech day, when the prizes were to be distributed, the lads took their books in. The Religious Education teacher went apoplectic when he saw the William Burroughs book. He took it home to check.
The next day he brought it back. He had painstakingly cut out all the offensive bits. Now anyone who is familiar with Burroughs will know that he is renowned for his straight talking offensiveness. The book was a colander of holes. There were as many holes as words.
I thought all those cut out bits were right up William Burroughs street. He was famous for using the cut-up technique. That would have been something – to make a new book out of a rearranging of all the offensive bits!
Stephen was marched off to the Headteacher to explain why he had chosen such an extreme book. I thought my short career might be on the line. Stephen did not mention me. He feigned innocence. He seemed delighted at what had happened. All this fuss was exciting. It was all a big game.
I think he went on to become a solicitor. I hope he still has that book.