Kate Clanchy, tall, fast-talking and slightly intimidating, lays out more than a score of slim books on the kitchen table in her Oxford home. They are collections of poetry written by children she taught, published with the help of grants that she tirelessly raised.
One, in Arabic, with an English translation, is from a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, a boy with “messy handwriting and limited vocabulary” (but “a genius” all the same), according to the preface. Another has poems written in English by an 18-year-old Afghan girl who moved to the UK just four years ago. Others are by Somali, Jordanian, Bangladeshi and Polish children.
A larger anthology, England: Poems From a School, edited by Clanchy and written by children at Oxford Spires academy, a multi-cultural comprehensive where she taught English and creative writing for 10 years until this summer, was published by Picador last year.
Though the poems are sometimes about how migrant children see their new country, the most striking concern fragile memories of their homelands – “the sweet honey mangoes they tell me I used to love”, as a Bengali girl writes.
Clanchy, 54, is a successful poet in her own right. Although she didn’t write poetry until her mid-20s, her first collection, Slattern, published when she was 30, won several prizes. She has also won prizes for radio plays and short stories. She once said “I don’t want to write novels; I don’t even like novels”, but published one in 2013 (“it started as a short story that had a very long back story”, she explains) and won a Costa Book award. She also won prizes for Antigona and Me, an account of her relationship with her cleaner, a Kosovan refugee.
Now she has written a memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, published to rave reviews this year. It is as vivid and honest an account of classroom teaching – in a depressed Scottish mining town, in suburban Essex, in Oxford – as you are likely to read.
It is a series of sometimes moving, sometimes comic and always engaging stories, some about herself, but mostly about children. Like Callum, the smallest boy in his Scottish class, who, after learning about homosexuality and heterosexuality, announces that, when he grows up, “I’m no’ going to have either of them … Ah’ll just have a big dog”. Or Allen, an Essex boy with “hands the size of dinner plates” studying science A-levels, who was so “physically affected by poetry” that “an image made him flush to his eyebrows”. To his peers’ horror, he recited William Blake’s The Tyger in the local nightclub.
Or Shakila from Afghanistan, who remembers how she saw a man wearing too many clothes on a hot day in the market and how she ran away because “I had this feeling, he is wrong”. He exploded a bomb, and a head (perhaps his) appeared on the street. After much struggle, she composes a poem about this experience.
At Oxford Spires – which isn’t anywhere near the celebrated “dreaming spires” – it hits Clanchy with the force of revelation that migrant children’s dislocated lives and often horrific memories are not “disadvantages” to “compensate” for. On the contrary, having to pick up a new language gives them “extra sound awareness” and “the shock of dislocation … makes them listen to their inner voice”.
And so they did, winning prizes for poetry: Oxford Spires nurtures young poets as Eton nurtures classicists.
Kate Clanchy photographed at Oxford Spires academy with members of her poetry club, Mukahang Limbu, centre, and Halema Malak, right. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer
Clanchy has experience of not belonging, though nothing, she accepts, comparable to what refugee children undergo. She was born in Glasgow and, after her family moved to Edinburgh, went to the city’s George Watson’s College, a fee-charging school. She didn’t fit in, partly because the school was obsessed with sport and she was gawky, bookish and unsporty, partly because she had an English father and, as her peers heard it, an English voice.
She went on to read English at Oxford University despite, she claims, being an undiagnosed dyslexic who still can’t spell. There, she felt decidedly Scottish and was amazed by the sense of “entitlement” among London barristers’ sons and cabinet ministers’ daughters. That was why she kept entering her pupils for prizes. “I wanted a bit of entitlement for them and to bring it back to the school.”
But Clanchy, despite the school’s support, could help children write poetry only as an add-on to the mainstream curriculum. “You can’t be rewarded at any time in our exam system for writing a poem,” she says. English teaching, she argues, is being strangled by the demands for data on children’s progress.
“It’s quite easy to mark creative writing, but you can’t easily explain why you’ve done it. You take a delicate, complex creation and then you have to find reductive phrases to describe it. And this idea that different forms of writing require different skills is wrong. I can teach people all they need to know about writing a business letter by writing poetry with them. You need to write well. That’s all there is to it.”
In Some Kids, Clanchy intersperses her tales with the occasional rant (she prefers “riff”). She is particularly opinionated on church schools and, while choosing a comprehensive for the eldest of her three sons, visited a Catholic one where she questioned the chaplain about whether he would tell a gay pupil that homosexuality is a mortal sin. He would, he said, but “you don’t have to choose to send your child here”. She didn’t but, she writes, she has no choice about paying, through taxation, for other children to be taught there.
She sent her son instead to Oxford Spires where she was already teaching – “it only had poor children”. Middle-class parents avoided it but “I invested my child in it”, she says. “He went with his best friend, also from a middle-class family, and I couldn’t have done it without them. He was very bright, quite swotty, quite shy, played the French horn and the piano. There was a time when I couldn’t go out of the house without somebody asking if he was all right, as though he’d gone green or something. He visibly flourished – he didn’t just get by, he felt he was loved there – and now he’s at St John’s College, Oxford.”
The school was so diverse, she explains, that “middle-class white” was just another odd minority. Others followed and the school is now heavily oversubscribed.
Choosing a school, Clanchy says, “is the most political choice we will ever make, far beyond voting”. You could also say that teaching is the most political profession you could enter. In Some Kids, she asks a hijab-wearing Bengali girl and her cousin why they write only about white people and not people like themselves. “Miss,” the girl replies. “We are not in books.” Thanks to Clanchy, they are now.
Poems by Oxford Spires’ pupils
Shukria Rezaei was mentored by Clanchy and is now a published poet studying at University College London. Photograph: Jessica Lindgren-Wu/UNHCR
A Glass of Tea
(after Rumi) by Shukria Rezaei, then aged 15
Last year, I held a glass of tea to the light. This year,
I swirl like a tea leaf in the streets of Oxford.
Last year, I stared into navy blue sky. This year,
I am roaming under colourless clouds.
Last year, I watched the dazzling sun dance gracefully. This year,
The faint sun moves futurelessly.
Migration drove me down this bumpy road,
Where I fell and smelt the soil, where I arose and sensed the cloud.
Now I am a bird, flying in the breeze,
Lost over the alien earth.
Don’t stop and ask me questions.
Look into my eyes and feel my heart.
It is bruised, aching and sore.
My eyes are veiled with onion skin.
I sit helplessly in an injured nest,
Not knowing how to fix it.
And my heart, I’d say
Struggling to find its place.
The Doves of Damascus
by Ftoun Abou Kerech, then aged 14
I lost my country and everything I, had before.
I cannot remember for sure
the soft snow in my country
I cannot remember
the feel of damp air in summer.
Sometimes I think I remember
the smell of jasmine
as I walked down the street.
And sometimes autumn
with its orange and scarlet leaves
flying in the high Damascus sky
And I am sure I remember
my grandmother’s roof-garden,
its vines, its sweet red grapes,
the mint she grew in crates for tea.
I remember the birds, the doves
of Damascus. I remember
how they scattered.
trying to catch them.