If I was to trace the roots of my love of language it wouldn’t be an image of me sitting under a tree, scratching my chin and reading Thomas Hardy I’d find. It wouldn’t be a book at all, probably. More than likely, it would be me sitting in front of the TV watching black and white movies; mesmerised by Humphrey Bogart in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ or mouthing along Karaokae-style to Laurel and Hardy shorts early on a summer holiday morning. When I hit my teenage years it was ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ which held me transfixed at the verbal dexterity of Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy trying to beat a system he, unknowingly, had no chance of defeating.
At that point, I’m not sure I even knew it was a book originally. At University a close friend gave me his copy and, more or less, forced me to read it in a weekend. I found it astonishing. It affected me in a way very few books have done since. It is one of those books which make you want to stop strangers in the street and tell them about. Told from the point of view of the Chief, mostly mute in the movie, it is a crushing indictment of America’s treatment of the Native American.
In the movie the Chief says nothing until McMurphy’s spirit and willingness to fight the system brings him back to life. The book reflects a character who has been so downtrodden by authority, so defeated by a powerful hierarchy that refuses to listen, that he opts out, welcoming the drugs that send him into his own world. McMurphy arrives and provides the life, energy and hope which has been missing from his miserable existence; helps him rediscover his voice. Just because I don’t speak, it doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.
How many pupils do we see in our classes to whom that statement would fit? Kids who have been in the system so long that we have forgotten what they have to say. They say nothing because they don’t believe what they say is valued; or have ben so downtrodden by a system that overwhelms them they merely give up trying. If, like me, you teach 150 kids a day, how possibly can you listen to them all? We have kids who are crying out to be listened to and we fail them. Just because they don’t speak, it doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.
Or how many mute teachers do you know? How many great teachers who no longer fight the system, no longer offer contributions to the educational debate or curricular change or professional development? Not because they are lazy or indifferent or too busy but because they feel downtrodden by management edicts or ridiculous working conditions and workloads. We dismiss them too easily. Perhaps being a McMurphy, to an extent, is what is required to relight the fires, to allow others to find their voice. I’m a talker who loves talking and listening to talk. But there are too many who are left out of the conversation. Just because they don’t speak…