Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
I left your school 4 years ago. I am now a final year English student and as my time at university draws to a close it has put me in a rather reminiscent mood – cliché I know. I look back at the past three years and I feel completely blessed for having had the utter privilege of studying what I love most in the world, literature. English degrees, well humanities degrees in general, are often given a bad rap. If I had a penny for each time I have been asked ‘well, what do you plan to do with that then?’, I would be able to pay off my student debt. But, every penny spent and every existential crisis evoked by this question, has been absolutely worth it.
Headteacher, I have a lot to thank you for; specifically, you employed some wonderful, passionate and inspirational English teachers who encouraged me to pursue my passion and not worry about the fear of undertaking a non-vocational degree. You funded a fantastic and varied library and, in my experience, humanities did not feel second best to STEM subjects. For that, I will be forever grateful.
However, while reminiscing I stumbled upon one memory that jars my thanks. Cast your mind back, if you’ll indulge me, to 2007. Specifically, to the day which happens every year, where impressionable, excited and often overwhelmed 10 year olds come to view the school and decide if they would fit in. In 2007 I was one of these prospective pupils. I sat down with my parents in what seemed like an enormous hall full of adults towering above me and surrounded by other girls my age, with faces displaying the full spectrum of expression: wonder, joy, anxiety and boredom. I know lots of children don’t feel the same, but I loved school from day one. I loved learning and, most importantly, I loved reading. I was enthralled from the moment I stepped foot in the building. Having just come to this conclusion, you, headteacher, stepped up to make your speech. The only thing I remember, the only thing that my young mind retained and took home, was your declaration: ‘If you’re still reading Jacqueline Wilson, this isn’t the school for you’. (I’m paraphrasing slightly I’m sure, I won’t deny the effect of 12 years on my memory, but I am certain this was the jist, and Jacqueline Wilson was your target.) Cue my excitement crashing down around me. Cue my feeling of inadequacy. I read Jacqueline Wilson and I loved it.
This letter is in part to thank you, the good outweighs the bad for sure, but it is also to give you some constructive criticism. Please do not make such sweeping assertions and judgements about literature. I read Jacqueline Wilson, I also read Jane Austen, Malorie Blackman, Harper Lee and Roald Dahl to name but a few. Before your throw away comment I had never even considered the idea that some literature has more ‘worth’ than others. I could write hundreds and hundreds of words defending Jacqueline Wilson and her literary excellence. But that is not really the point. I can assure you that I thrived at your school in every way that you would consider success (if you want some proof I’ll happily provide you with a copy of my grades). In fact, Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather was my first experience of fictional Victorian Britain, a period of literature that I am now writing my dissertation on. So I suppose my question is how exactly could someone know what books are going to form a person? I know so many intelligent people who have read as few books as they could possibly get away with or read exclusively non-canonical literature. How can a person’s artistic, mathematic, scientific or physical aptitude, all things that would thrive at your school but do not necessarily correlate with reading literature, be assumed based on what books they read? So to both you, and the little girl sat in the hall all those years ago, I want to say this: the literature that you read does not define or restrict you, enjoy it.