“School is the best days o’ yer life” was a phrase that rankled with me as a young man. For those of an academic or attentive disposition this may undoubtedly have been true. Sadly, my report cards conveyed a different story – one of a young man with a propensity for being “easily distracted”. Having orbited the margins of school life, education was an experience to be endured rather than about which to be enthused. As such, I left school with few qualifications and convinced I was stupid.
Last week, I encountered one of my former English teachers from Harris Academy in Dundee’s Seagate. Standing alone in the ashes of a preoccupied youth, he and two of his departmental colleagues captured my attention with their childlike awe for ideas, literature and narrative. Although I did not acknowledge, appreciate nor even comprehend it at the time, these men infused in me a humble appreciation for reflective authors who, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “play gracefully with ideas”.
As I addressed him, to my surprise, he knew my name. I shared how his introduction to William Shakespeare was responsible for a copy of his complete works sitting on my bookshelf. I told of his colleague who introduced me to social commentary via columns in The Scotsman, which was then a respected publication under the editorial governance of Iain Martin. And yet another introduced me to Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Somewhat startled, he responded: “I had no idea.”
The late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire lamented over teacher-pupil engagement as acts of depositing narrated content into lifeless receptacles. In his seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he wrote: “Knowledge emerges … through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, and with each other.” He perceived of genuine and meaningful understanding as something we draw from the life-giving realm of both natural exploration and interactive engagement.
When I applied, under advisement from two close friends, to a Master’s course at Lancaster University Management School without possessing the required entry criterion, I was shocked first by their acceptance of me and thereafter by their acclamation when my first assignment returned the highest mark in our cohort. It was only then I realised I was not stupid. I just learn differently. Or as my dad astutely observed, “you were never stupid, Ewan, you’ve just found your thing.”
After my appearance on a BBC documentary in 2015, I was invited as a former pupil to speak to Harris pupils over five assemblies when they were at Rockwell. I asked for a show of hands from any who had ever received a report card about which they were ashamed. 80% of hands shot up. To the chagrin of observing teachers, I held aloft an old report of my own from which I had read and said: “The contents of these need not define our futures. You have intrinsic worth and value. Let no one say otherwise.”
Rather than viewing these margins as somewhere to vacate for the comfort of the mainstream, I think of Yevgeny Zamyatin, who said: “Progress is achieved, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and sceptics.” The challenge of writing here weekly is that requirement to be constantly observing our landscape for objects which pique our interest, to carefully excavate and explore said artifacts and file our report at the behest of a deadline.
Therefore, the ability to just sit under the stillness of an idea until that revelatory moment causes me, on occasion, to play ruthlessly with ideas, rather than gracefully. When I have done so in these columns, I apologise dear reader. I’m still learning.