Wherever the children go, I'll follow them...

by Paula Radice

I know it's getting far too late to say it now, but Happy New Year anyway, to all the Freewheelers.

Thank you, too, for all the kind welcomes to the ranks - I feel well and truly welcomed!

Family man

2002 is already shaping up to be an interesting Dylan year, even after the landmarks of last year.  It's nice to start the year looking forward to European shows, and particularly kind of Bob to schedule his British shows specially so that I can attend as many as possible (thanks, Bob). Brighton on a Saturday (only an hour's drive from Hastings, and where I managed in 1995 to get some photos of Bob leaving his hotel - and acquire some more good memories of Monica and I behaving in a rather silly manner), then Bournemouth on a Sunday, and the two London shows on the next weekend.  If things work out, I may even manage Brussels, since that's a weekend one too.

The hardest thing to bear about teaching is not being able to take time off when I want to. I know teachers are always being taunted about our long holidays (which we most definitely need, by the way) - but we have no flexibility over when we can take them. Travelling is always at its most expensive in the school holidays, and we never get a chance to take holidays when there aren't hoards of children everywhere! I would trade two weeks of my Summer break for the chance to take 3 or 4 days off during the year when I wanted to - for quiet Christmas shopping, or for Dylan shows. I shall feel a few pangs the night of the Newcastle show - I'd love to go and meet up with everyone, but it's midweek...

One small advantage of teaching is that I can occasionally sneak Bob into the curriculum. Actually, he is officially there already.  The National Literacy Strategy, which has laid down our daily "Literacy Hour", says that children in Year 5 (9-10 year-olds) should study examples of "choral poetry" and there are model Schemes of Work that suggest basing that module of work on Dylan lyrics. So as far as I know, there could be innumerable primary schools in England and Wales already teaching Dylan songs in the Literacy Hour. Unfortunately, my school isn't one of them: it most certainly would be if I were teaching Year 5.

I think I can state with some confidence that ours is the only school in the country that celebrates Bob Dylan's birthday every year with cakes in the Staff Room. It's the practice to bring cakes in when it's your birthday, but because mine is always in Half Term (four days after Bob's) we have them on the 24th May instead, much to everyone's amusement. In fact, I have become renowned for it. More than once I have been approached on teaching courses around East Sussex with "Oh, All Saints, that's the school that has cakes on Bob Dylan's birthday"! Oh well, I suppose eccentricity isn't that bad a vice.

So how else do I amuse myself by getting Bob into school? I did once manage to have all the display boards in the classroom labelled with the titles of Dylan songs or albums. One displaying children's newspaper reports about a tornado hitting the school was labelled "Blowing in the Wind" (groan), another of children's pictures in the style of Monet was titled "In the Garden". There was also a display of their drawings of themselves (yes, you've got it, "Self Portrait"). The school secretary, another Dylan fan, was the only one who cottoned on to what I was doing. Yes, I admit it was all rather childish, but I haven't always been very happy at work, and it was just a small gesture to cheer myself up.

Recently, I had to take a whole-school Assembly on the theme of "Celebrating Difference". I chose to do it on the glory of the differences between human voices and played songs by both Dylan and Eric Bibb. The children all giggled hugely, mostly (I hope) just because of the novelty of not having to listen to their usual daily dose of classical music, but I suspect that Bob's voice took them somewhat by surprise too. The song I played, by the way, was "Masters of War". The children did much prefer the Eric Bibb song ("I Heard the Angels Singing", from his most recent CD, Painting Signs), and many ended up swaying and clapping along, which you can't really blame them for, if you know the song, one of the Rev. Gary Davis'.

A year or two back, I gave another Assembly on "Tolerance" by telling them the story of Hezekiah Jones, as if it were a true story. I actually don't know, but would like to, whether it was a Lord Buckley-invented story or one which had as its basis a real incident. I strongly suspect the latter. Anyway, even if it isn't a true story there are sufficient thousands of similar incidents both in the past and nowadays to allow it to be used as an illustration of the intolerance that can masquerade as religious belief.

I was a bit unsure about telling the story, actually, as we are a Church of England school and the "Christians" (very firmly in inverted commas) in the story are so clearly the bad guys. But religious intolerance is religious intolerance, and I decided that it was not important which religion the bigots belonged to: the point was the evil that narrow-minded intolerance can lead to. And it isn't really a story about religion, is it? It's racial intolerance, dressed up as religious virtue. Hezekiah Jones is lynched not because he's areligious but because he has the audacity to hold a differing opinion to his racial and therefore social "betters", people who are terrified of independent thought in any form but especially in the form of an "ignorant nigger".

The children sat very quietly while I told the story. There's generally quite a bit of shuffling and mumbling in Assembly. After all, if you put nearly 250 seven-to-eleven year-olds in one room, including a dozen or so children with behavioural problems and the attention span of gnats, you can't expect twenty minutes of respectful silence. But that morning they listened very quietly, even when I played Bob's version of "Black Cross" at the end. And later on, individual children came up to me throughout the day to tell me how much the story had affected them. They had picked up from me how much Dylan's performance of the story means to me - and they responded very sensitively.

Some years back, there was a piece in "Look Back", the precursor of "On the Tracks", from an American teacher about the reaction of his elementary class to some Dylan songs. I am very tempted to try a similar experiment with my Year 3s. Their response to things is often startlingly original, and I'm sure would throw up some interesting ideas and perceptions. They have not yet acquired the dead weight of our adult cultural filters, which leaves us unable to meet new art without overlaying it with all of our accumulated preconceptions and prejudices.

For example, a few years ago, I looked with my class at Renoir's painting "Les Parapluies", and asked them to think about the people in the picture, with their blue clothes and umbrellas. What was each of them doing there? How were they feeling? What were their relationships to one another? I was sure that most of them would focus on the little girl in the right foreground of the picture, one of only two figures  looking out of the picture at the viewer, but instead they came to the conclusion that the man and woman on the left were getting married and had asked everyone at the wedding to wear blue as it was their favourite colour. The clusters of blue umbrellas in the background were an arch made for the happy couple to walk through as they left the wedding!

I can't look at the picture in the same light now - the children's interpretation was so much fresher and more original, and ultimately more optimistic, than anything I would ever have come up with. Of course it doesn't fit the context or the details of the painting. It makes much more (adult) sense to say that the people are all in the park on a rainy day, and that most are strangers to each other, except that the man fancies the central female figure and is trying, unsuccessfully, to make a connection with her. That doesn't matter. I like the seven-year olds' interpretation better. And so, probably, would have Renoir, who said, "Why shouldn't art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world."

Children speak as they find, and I'm sure they would provide us with new things to think about in Dylan's lyrics and delivery.  Perhaps at the end of the year, when we've got through all the National Curriculum requirements and the tests, I'll give it a go.  I'll keep you posted.