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The 29 Steps

by Jess Brown

‘But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how Except in the minds of those who will call it Now? The children. The children. And how does our garden grow? With waving hands – oh, rarely in a row – And flowering faces. And brambles that we can no longer allow.’

Public exams. In those heady, hormonal moments before you wobbled up to your desk, which in my case was apparently a half-price one-man picnic table, before you unzipped your transparent pencil case, jammed with more black ball-points than students sitting in the exam hall, before you wrote your name (and wondered whether you knew even that), before all this, did you think about a fragment of poetry that had been nowhere near any kind of syllabus for perhaps the last fifty years? I did.

‘Write now for the sky

Write for the arc of the sky

And may no black lead letter

Veil your literature.’

Let it be explained that my mother is a headmistress and has Firm Ideas about education. And by that I do not mean that she fed me pureed goji berries through a tube and tattooed my exam syllabi onto my arms. She largely left me to my own (often misled, always erratic) devices when it came to homework and revision. But that spring, when the world seemed awash with ‘revision hacks’ and grating Guardian articles about ‘whirlwind teaching’, my mother gave me a poem about learning, and continued to do so for the next three years with every exam I took – 29 so far, all bluetacked onto my bedroom wall. I’ll wager it taught me more about education than BBC Bitesize ever did or could.

‘I dwell in Possibility... spreading wide my narrow Hands.’

I think education is exciting because it is a byword for possibility. I’m always appalled to hear stories about people being forbidden to take certain combinations of subjects because they didn’t fit together. As someone who avoided most subjects like the plague as soon as I could, this may sound hypocritical, but it depresses me to know that so many people still narrow their prospects because they think it will aid them in some dusty inherited career path, rather than out of passion for the course. I couldn’t count the number of times my mother has told me of her students gritting their teeth to do medicine or law at university according to their parents’ wishes. Educational opportunity is so precious that it seems criminal to close off possibilities prematurely.

‘I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder

That you would neither cajole nor ignore.’

A quote from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Act of Union’, left on my bed before a biology exam. Consider the lines as spoken by personified Knowledge, and you have the looming monster we all face before the start of revision. One of the most terrifying things, I think, about the way students are taught to treat knowledge, is exactly this issue of ‘cajoling or ignoring’ – that’s what most of us try to do. A teacher named Thomas Rogers wrote recently in TES news about this: ‘we send the message that pupils’ aggregated effort over two years is more important than in the last two weeks...I sometimes worry that in our current system, exams are about the outcome rather than the learning. Funnily enough, this has ended up being to the detriment of both.’ Many of us spent traumatically long study leaves making elaborate multi-hued towers of notes. By the time that was done, the exam was the next morning and we didn’t know a sorry word of it – we’d been too busy highlighting and following our head of year’s advice to make sure we gave ourselves treats every twenty minutes (excessive). That was ignoring. Others of us would do countless ‘open-book’ practice papers or go over stuff we already knew in a final exertion to convince ourselves that this was revision and we didn’t need to, you know, memorise, anything really. That was cajoling, comforting but fruitless.

‘I remembered what I had forgotten

a little fragment of eternity.

... memory is the all of everything

and the zero of nothing.’

It’s easy to forget (ironically) that the reason we are taught and forced to memorise for exams isn’t just to pass them – it is because the knowledge we glean doing so is something we take with us through life. Yes, knowledge devoid of relevance, application and imagination is pretty dry, but who cares if you’re clever and know nothing? Chris Icarus’ idea of ‘a little fragment of eternity’ sums up, I think, the value of memorising. I don’t want a return to rote learning, nor the short-term grasping at swathes of vacant facts that exams so often seem to necessitate. My mum always taught me that my work – that is, academic study – was one of the few things that would always be all mine. Knowledge is something you can get hold of and hang onto, more so even than the grades it might earn for you, which fade into irrelevance with every passing year.

‘O help thou my weak wit, and sharpen my dull tong.

Behind many a botched exam is a parent who didn’t shut up about an A*. Part of what I delighted in, when I found each poem that my mum had left for me, was the fact that she plainly wasn’t thinking about results day, but about the poem. I could think about my coming exam without the weight of her worry, and be left afterwards with the poem as a marker and memento of my work, rather than a single letter. The poems meant that my learning never ended with the exam, but began when I got home and had time to mull over my mother’s offerings. Her captions too were sources of delight or hilarity. They range from rather desperate pseudo-scientific contributions: ‘on your chemistry exam, best of luck, Je (Je = Jess, a pure element, which reacts to exams to form pure gold!)’ To gutsy stabs at French before my oral: ‘tu es tres magnifique. Avoir du plaisir et Bon chance! Maman.’ Does it mean anything? Honestly I wouldn’t know, I gratefully scraped a B. But what did it matter when I’d read a hilarious poem called ‘Le Cancre’ (‘The Dunce’) that morning? My mother had shared her own ignorance to encourage me in my pursuit of knowledge. On our firmer ground (humanities) her notes to the poems become surer, more meaningful – sentences that still ring in my head when I feel overwhelmed or demotivated – ‘Enjoy your English A Level, poppet. This one really is fun. Love, Mummy.’ Or, ‘Shakespeare’s portrayal of the arch-Tudor to take you through your Tudor paper.’ I entered my History A Level with not just reams of dates running through my mind, but with those dates furnished by Henry VIII’s imagined words, reverberating in the silent, poised exam hall.

‘The gentleman is learn’d, and a most rare speaker,

To nature none more bound: his training such,

That he may furnish and instruct great teachers.

And never seek for aid out of himself ... this man so complete.’

There’s been a recent call for ‘functional skills’ in subjects like English at school. But English hasn’t got very much to do with functionality at all – it’s one of those subjects which encapsulates the idea of education for the sake of education, and to replace it with something entirely different is to remove the soul from learning. Why else does the mayor put Poems on the Underground? People often say they don’t like English, but have you ever heard someone whinge that they hate stories, or emotions? That’s all English is. I think people are put off English for life when tragically basic or absurdly complex texts are set on school syllabi in attempts to make literature courses ‘accessible’ or to cover the ‘seminal’ – more words that ignore how endlessly open and utterly personal literature is. Like the fragmented poems mum gave me, literature is what you make of it: random scraps of paper, or if you like, a guide to life.

‘We shall not cease from exploration

and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.’

To yap on about my mother a bit more, she sometimes sets an unorthodox punishment for her students. Rather than sitting in a numbing detention, contemplating the carnal sin of not handing in homework, she makes them write a poem. Lots of them absolutely hate it, but they probably learn something. Another of mum’s favourite poetry-prompts encapsulates, I think, the sense of exploration that she has never stopped encouraging – in her students, in her daughter, and in herself. As a young English teacher, she would ask her class to write poems to their future husbands and wives. The results were mesmerizing, and I remember sitting in pyjamas as a little girl, flipping through the exercise books as mum marked them. The intricacy, the effort, the little illustrations and rubbings-out, were fascinating and inspiring – they were fragments of self discovery. They certainly weren’t masterpieces, nor did they contribute to any sort of official grade, but I bet some of the students will – or did – show them to their husbands and wives.

‘But there is no competition – There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again ... but perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’

My education, my view on education, and my mother’s view on education, do not constitute a formula that should be forced down the nation’s throat. Nor do I hold up the successes I have had and pinpoint them on a sheaf of crumpled poems I was given. I don’t look down on my mishaps and blame them on the Department of Education. But what I have to credit, and advocate, is the creativity and the coolness with which I have been supported throughout my academic endeavors. My father has always asked one thing of me – that I try my best. After a physics exam, I came home and told him I’d cried at my desk and skipped a page: out came the mantra ‘as long as you’ve tried your best.’ The genius of this simple condition was twofold: it gave me a way out; it also shifted everything onto me – results, responsibility, and the truth – that only I would ever know if I’d tried my best. The only competition, therefore, that I was ever truly alive to, was one with myself, and I didn’t know what I was beating. There is something terrifying and liberating about having no idea what you’re striving for, no standard to uphold but your own. It has led me down paths that the syllabus alone never could have done.

‘I am the sum of the ages beginning before my mother, before my grandmother,

and before my grandmother’s mother

I am the product of their matriarchal choices, the quotidian of their actions, reflections, and self-images. I am the

difference of their generations.

And I bequeath the equation of this inheritance

to the matrices of my living legacies.’

Once, as a soul-destroyingly pretentious child, I wrote in my journal about a book my nana had read my mum, which had then been read to me – I think it was Winnie the Pooh – and I called this intellectual inheritance ‘a bracelet from God’. You wince, but thanks to my maternal forebears, I began to realize why I was being educated, and why I needed to be grateful for it. I was encouraged to see what I had learnt and knew as ‘fragments I have shored against my ruin’, and they imbue my life with meaning.

In the words of Wendy Cope –

‘I hope you make sense of the notes.’

JESS BROWN reads English, the backs of shampoo bottles and sometimes minds.


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