Daniel Pennac, who is a well-known writer in France, was a total failure at school up to the age of fourteen. In the first part of this book he describes his despair, both in vivid anecdotes and general comment. “My God,” he says at one point, “the loneliness of the dunce, ashamed of never being able to do what you are supposed to be doing.” He became an insolent class clown, a vandal and a thief.
His insolence was to some extent justified by the mockery of some of his teachers, but it was teachers who saved him – first the French teacher who told him to write a novel instead of doing his homework, and then one maths teacher, one history teacher and one philosophy teacher. He passed the necessary exams and became a teacher himself.
Most of his pupils were children and teenagers with varying degrees of learning difficulty, who presented similar symptoms to his own – no self-confidence, no motivation, a predilection for lying, involvement with gangs, drugs and alcohol. He helped them through by taking them seriously, relating to them as individuals and having high expectations.
After leaving teaching in order to write, he was still invited to visit schools to talk about his work and have discussions with the students. Violence in the French industrial suburbs had led to the condemnation of all teenagers from that sort of area as an evil threat, yet when he went into their schools he was amazed by “their liveliness, their laughter, their earnestness, their thoughts and, more than anything else, their vital energy.”
Pennac remembers that when you are failing at school “you feel as if you are being tortured, and you want to make somebody pay for this, it doesn’t matter who, as long as somebody does.” A great deal of violence stems from failure at school, and failure at school can be avoided or even overcome if children and young people are treated with the respect they deserve, listened to seriously and, as Pennac eventually dares to put into the mouth of his juvenile self, loved.
Even this juvenile self, who criticises the book from time to time as it progresses, cannot use the word “love” without huge embarrassment.
If you use the word when talking about education, he says, you will be lynched. As Camila Batmanghelidjh has shown in this country, it is often the only hope.
David Gribble is the author of PN’s most recent title Children Don’t Start Wars, available from the office, price £9: 020 7278 3344.