It started with a lollipop

‘All that I have, all that I have
I will give Jesus all that I have’

A whole school of children sat crossed-legged on the floor, singing the songs that punctuated assembly. By force of habit, some knew the words by heart and could allow their glances to frolic around the congregation; to Miss Adams banging out the melody on the piano at the front, or to the grazed knees of the children placed strategically to the front and to the back of the congregation, perched upon chairs and holding up the words on heavy white cards. These scratchy-kneed prompters might be lucky enough not to have to chirp along, but how their aching shoulders let them pay for it afterwards. And who could tell, in fact, if you were really singing as long as your mouth opened and closed in all the right places? Children love to sing so why not build upon their natural talents? Those sitting at the end of the rows, flanked by teachers who did not have to sit cross-legged but quite comfortably on their chairs, were more or less obliged to deliver the daily proof of this axiom, whilst those snuggled in the middle could content themselves with going through the motions. Unless of course, they really did enjoy singing. About Jesus, fish, and loaves of bread, instead of ‘One potato two potato three potato four’, or even ‘Not last night but the night before’… Many children couldn’t even read the words anyway. Complicated words like ‘I have promised to love Thee till the End’ or ‘My Saviour and my Friend’, written nicely by our teachers, each verse a new colour. We would pick it up, they said. If it is around you for long enough, you’ll just pick it up.

We must look like Hundreds n Fousands, I thought. All these colourful children. If you look at em from way up, like a bird, we must look like Hundreds n Fousands; like when they’re stuck on a marshmallow or somefing. Or these chocolate buttons.

I was glad that all the children were assembled because today was Monday and on Mondays, performance was rewarded. I was going to get a reward and I wanted everyone to see it. Mrs Hill, our schoolmistress, a pale, soft, smiling woman that made me think of candy floss, got to her feet to face everyone assembled. In her hand she held a little bag. The bag of our dreams. We shushed and waited. She talked about matters too insignificant to be retained by the minds of five-year-olds. Talked far too long, as it seemed to us. And particularly to me, whose knees were beginning to hurt, until she got as far as

‘And now, it is time for the rewards.’

I sat upright, grinned at my best friends around me as I waited for my name to be called. As everyone clapped – as everyone had to – I got to my feet and walked to Mrs Hill. She dipped into her bag – lovely, lovely fingers you got, Mrs Hill – produced a lollipop, a hard, round one that you could suck for ages, and then pinned a gold star to my chest. I’d been getting nothing but gold stars all last week in my exercise book.

‘For wonderful, clear, joined-up writing like the big children. Well done!’

For the rest of assembly I was allowed to sit at the front, facing the congregated school; all those eyes of all those Hundreds n Fousands fixed on my gold star and lollipop.

When I grow up, I’m gonna be a writer and a teacher. I love words, writing … and I love teachers.

For the rest of that morning, I forgot my secret envy of Babita and Rajinder, my best friends who could speak other languages (though they hated speaking them in front of us), and whose shop-fronts were jewelled with curly writing that looked like some kind of music. When they went home, disappeared behind the folds of their own melodies, Gods, odours and tongues, I thought that they were living in Fairyland, in a magical-mystery place so far removed from my own. From school. They could be two people instead of one. I envied them. At home my sister and I would play at being someone else. Invent a language. Put our ponchos on our head to emulate Babita’s wondrous black mane tamed into a thick rope of a plait that dangled beyond the seat of her chair. Rajinder wore his hair in a bun under a handkerchief with an elastic around it and when I asked him once to take it off so I could have a look he said he wasn’t allowed to. Right now, I didn’t mind if they could be two people instead of one. For the rest of that morning, I would be the source of envy.

I’ll let you ave a lick a my lolly at playtime cos we’re friends, innit? I smiled over to them.

And they smiled back.

My cultural background as a sensitizer for educational research

It is, I think, permissible, to introduce the ‘story’ of my research with this tale of a key episode in my childhood; a tale revealing my own deep-seated, genuine interest in the written word, along with multiculturalism, multilingualism, home and school and childhoods. These issues have accompanied me throughout my life, and have surfaced in different guises in the past thirty years. They have been ever present in my work as an English language teacher and are now the driving force behind my research into the writing practices of one of my own daughters, Pia.

Keen as I was to emulate the cultural richness I erroneously regarded my friends as surpassing me in, I resolved to learn foreign languages once I got to secondary school. I took French and German. By the time I sat my A-levels, everyone was convinced that I came from a French-speaking Caribbean background. I did not. At home, we only spoke English. I am going to marry a Frenchman so that my children will be bilingual, I used to say. They can be two people instead of one. And their languages will be chic. As it turned out, I married a German and now live in France. Three instead of one… sehr gut… et très chic. What I failed to realise for a long time, however, was the richness of my own cultural background. I, too, returned to Fairyland once the school bell had been rung, disappearing behind the folds of our own music, odours and yes, tongues. So caught up was I in the web of dominant British values that I marginalised my own Caribbean-based Fairyland, apparently already having picked up that some types of identities and cultural practice were accepted whilst others, if not barely tolerated, were openly frowned upon. My first lesson in politics had thus been had by the age of five. As my teachers said: if it is around you for long enough, you’ll just pick it up.

‘Everything belongs to a group. You can group things according to size or shape, colour, feel, smell, age, anything. We group a lot in maths, but you can group anywhere. You can even be in more than one group at the same time; ten and twenty, for example, belong both in the group multiples of two and multiples of five. Everything, absolutely everything belongs to at least one group, and that’s good cos it must be a terrible thing to be all alone. If you listened to my parents, then my most important group was the black group. I never think about it much, but they’re on about it all the time. They make it sound like war to me. Them and us. (…)

Weekends we normally have something special. But it’s always the same. Sunday breakfast is baked beans, bacon and eggs, sometimes fried plantain, or fried bread. (…) Sunday dinner is always rice and peas and chicken. Not green peas, but kidney beans cooked in the rice with coconut cream so the rice goes dark red. Or sometimes black eyed peas. Gungu peas, we call them. We haven’t got our own language, but we sort of half ’ave. When my parents speak Jamaican, white people can’t understand them and when Mr Harry speaks, I don’t always know what he’s on about. It’s more or less English, but it’s often wrong, like when my dad says “it eat good” or “it drink good” when he really means it tastes nice, things like that. Our Sunday dinner always tastes nice, but it’s always the same. Then we have a fizzy drink on a Sunday which we’re not allowed to touch until we’ve eaten everything. There’s no point asking. I always save the meat for last. I don’t like the Jamaican bits we have to eat sometimes; yam, cassava, breadfruit. They eat it every day but we don’t have to. Thank goodness.’
(From Long Time Walk on Water, Joan Barbara Simon, 2009)

I thought my parents only spoke ‘bad’ English. I yearned to speak recognised, admired tongues. In many respects, however, my linguistic history is as colourful as that of my childhood friends, Babita and Rajinder, or indeed that of my own multilingual children.

My parents, having found work as unskilled labourers, emigrated to the UK in the late 1950s. Whilst my father remained an unskilled labourer all his life, at home in the closed social network of fellow West Indian labourers, my mother’s social network expanded as she later began working – as opposed to socialising – with middle class colleagues at the bank where she upgraded after gaining British qualifications at night school. This transition manifested itself in my mother’s speech as Creole was gradually displaced by standard English rather than by Cockney, our local dialect no more prestigious than her own variety, both of which were discouraged at home. I, naturally, grew up speaking Cockney anyway and although I have no recollection of it, logic tells me that I must have spoken some Creole as a young child. That my ability to speak Creole eroded with time and was finally lost seems attributable to two main reasons. Firstly, to my limited contact with my father, and secondly, to the fact that my mother now spoke standard English at home.

A second shift in my language patterns predates my entry to secondary school, by which time I apparently no longer spoke Cockney exclusively. Whilst adult West Indians admired the way I spoke, my peers were highly suspicious: not only did I not speak Creole, but I didn’t even speak Cockney properly, either. My segregation from the Black community was, thus, programmed. At secondary school I learnt French and German and took both as A-levels, convinced that I would study languages at university, get me a Frenchman and live abroad.

By the time I left university, the social-linguistic transition was complete. I remember the embarrassment I felt at times if I let a trickle of Cockney slip out: like poopsing in public… After university I worked as a language teacher in Portugal where I learnt Portuguese with some difficulty and lost it with astounding ease upon leaving the country. I moved to Germany after Portugal, learnt German ‘properly’ and got married. My husband and I took advantage of our proximity to France to move there before starting a family. If our children were going to be bilingual, they might as well be trilingual. I do not subscribe to the view that multilingualism leaves children mixed up and stuttering as an astonishing number of friends and family feared. Living in France revived my interest in, and need for French. With my husband and his family I speak German. To our children I speak standard English which I consciously, if somewhat fraudulently, spice with Jamaican to enable my children to understand their great-grandparents. Our home is a linguistic Spaghetti Junction, where the standard and vernacular of each code circulate freely, reflecting the different requirements of the people in and around me in my syncretic Fairyland. And yes, I have to admit, I find myself walking in my mother’s shoes when I pick my children up on sloppy grammar or pronunciation; on too much slang, drooling vowels or gobbled consonants.

Today I view the matter of cultural environments with greater subtlety than in my childhood, my appreciation being sharpened by a better understanding of sociolinguistics as of the individual in general as a composite socio-political mutant entity, negotiating and reacting to the necessities of context in a constant flux of foregrounding and marginalising. As such, I see today that all social activity is equally, and inherently, political activity. This is true for adults and children alike, in varying degrees of transparency and consciousness. A context-sensitive, shifting and inherently political view of social activity is less in keeping with the liberal humanist paradigm of free choice, I believe, but better accommodated by a poststructuralist and critical view of the individual in society. Reflecting upon my personal history and motivation to research children’s domestic writing, I am forced to take note of the fact that children start off with a legacy; their development is a history of continuation but also of change, of adaptation to the demands of new environments and personal needs. Socially and cognitively, children, as learners who grow to become practitioners, are active meaning makers-takers-shapers. Children are indeed making choices (here, my concession to liberal humanism), yet these choices are mediated by the provisions, and values, of their environment (here, the post-structuralist and critical schools of thought): a child cannot choose a yellow pen if only red, green or blue pens are at hand. Similarly, if the message is transmitted that blue pens are not good, this child is unlikely to choose it although apparently free to do so. Provisions and values transmitted by social actors within specific contexts, as this example makes clear, have physical characteristics (the pens put at the child’s disposal) as well as emotional and social ones (blue pens are ‘not good’), which channel the child’s learning in a specific direction. This observation is central to understanding how adults or other helpers, acting within their environments, help young learners to become competent members of their social worlds.

It is within this context – the role of the environment in shaping a child’s development as a writer – that my research has been conducted.


(taken from my doctoral thesis.  Not exactly children’s reading! It’s a rather long post to start with but don’t let this put you off. Future posts will be far shorter. Promise!)


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