06 February 2006

Another lesson in humility

I have to meet a group of teenagers with whom I’ve been working for a while. This is the latest phase in a project over several years to support young people who are determined to make up ground which has, for one reason or another, been lost during school. Today it’s mathematics, and we are meeting in a city centre café to learn some geometry, trigonometry and Pythagoras through investigation of a nearby square.

I arrive at the café forty minutes early, intending to read and relax for a while, but no sooner have I settled at a table than two of my clients arrive. Both are set on careers in public services, preferably out of doors (Outward Bound training, mountain rescue, or the army) and need to improve their math to get through the selection tests; they are dressed in cagoules and hiking boots, ideal for an outdoor class on a winter afternoon. Only one of them has a voice in this anecdote; I’ll call her Vee.

They sit down with me at the table and chat for a while, telling me what they’ve been doing. After a while, though, it flags. These young youngsters like me well enough, but there's a limit to how much middle aged conversation sixteen year olds can absorb without wilting. Taking advantage of a moment when they are arguing over something between themselves, I retire tactfully behind my novel and leave them to it.

Some time goes by, then Vee asks, in a puzzled tone: “What are you doing?”

I am puzzled in my turn, at a loss as to what she means. “Sorry?” I ask.

“You’ve been looking at that book for ten minutes solid, now, and turning every page.” she says: “Can’t you find what you’re looking for?”

“I’m just reading” I say.

She looks alarmed: “What – all of it?”

It’s a moment of insight for me. I know perfectly well, of course, that most of this group never do read a novel, or any other whole book; a book, to them, is a place to look up information and leave again. But it has never occurred to me before that the very idea of reading a book from cover to cover is as alien to them as breathing underwater. I realise now that it’s something I should have understood and held in mind.

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