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The Long Littleness of Life

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Today, one of the year 7s at the school I work at asked me if I would rather be a gay man or a lesbian. Which, faced with having to explain my decision to a group of earnest eleven-year-olds, is a pretty hefty question.

See, having walked the twin lines of genderfluidity and bisexuality for a number of years, I am in a perfect position to answer. However, I found myself caught a little unawares.

These children are, of course, “magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life”. How the hell do I explain the hideous Venn diagram of homophobia and misogyny faced by both groups?

In the end, after a moment’s consideration, I said I’d rather be a gay man. Which is true.

Neither is a walk in the park. Neither is a choice many would make willingly. But, having seen both sides of the coin, I know what I’d pick.

I’ve been harassed in the street for being in a gay male couple and for being in a gay female couple. I know what made me feel more intimidated.

The year 7 in question kind of hit the nail on the head when he asked, “but how do lesbians even have sex?”

I replied, “I think there’s something you all need to know. I know we teach you about sex in school, so you think it’s the most important thing, but it’s not. There’s so much more to meeting a person, falling in love with them and enjoying your time with them.”

“But none of us would be here without sex!”

True, small child, true. But if the continuation of the species is the meaning of life, then all of human endeavour is ultimately pointless and we may as well build a rocket that will fire us all into the sun to save global warming the bother of killing us all off.

That’s why I felt frightened being perceived as a lesbian. Because queer people don’t love, they fuck. Type “lesbian” into a search engine, and the chances are you’ll be offered “porn” as your next word. Doubly true for the word “bisexual”.

If perceived as a lesbian, you’re inherently a sex object, there for the male gaze. It’s frightening.

When harassed as part of a gay male couple, the story is a little different.

The lone hetero Neanderthal male spots you. He frowns. He approaches your friend: are those two gay? Your friend replies in the affirmative. The Neanderthal frowns again before retreating.

It’s less darkly confrontational, less exposing. That’s not to say that horrors don’t befall gay male couples, because they do. Just- less often.

Again, you’re treated as a sexual being. But because the Neanderthal male sees himself as the object of your desires (the arrogant fuck), he’s actually afraid of you.

Not to mention the fact that he definitely couldn’t take both of you in a fight.

I couldn’t explain all of this to the kids. I explained that gay women, or women perceived as queer, are more likely to be denied jobs.

This definitely surprised them, and I wonder if any of them will think on it a little longer- why is it exactly that women get less than men when in an apparently similar position?

This is why I love working with children. They’re exposed to so much about the world, and just don’t have the experience to comprehend it. Consequently, they’re full of questions.

Questions like, “How do lesbians have sex?” are tricky, because there’s absolutely no way I’m explaining the clitoris to an eleven-year-old. I think it’s important to consider instead why these questions arise- overwhelmingly, I feel it is because relationship education in schools starts at sex and works backwards.

I know why. Because sex is easy, and love is complicated. That doesn’t mean it’s right.

I am frightened for every single child that walks through our education system, and that’s why I work in it.

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Teaching the Unteachable

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An article on the Guardian website yesterday claimed that, in the United Kingdom, children are being taught creative writing skills in a detrimental manner. Classrooms up and down the country echo the mantra, “Don’t say said!”, and helpful posters list “banned words” like badgoodbig and and.

The net result, argue critics, is that students are being rewarded for producing flowery, unreadable wordvomit, and penalised for actually writing in a reasonable fashion.

From the ages of four to fourteen, pupils are discouraged from using short words where a longer one would do the job, and this is actively reflected in the grades their teachers are constrained into giving them. Mark schemes are absolute; if a piece isn’t riddled with synonyms, it won’t make the grade.

Most worryingly of all, from my perspective, is that the system was already very much in place when I was in school. Which means we have an entire generation of people who were conditioned into favouring purple prose.

Purple prose, for those who have not come across the term before, is the catch-all for writing which is so obtrusively ornate that it effectively hinders reading. Therefore, we have on our hands a generation of writers who will, by habit, be unreadable.

A targets-based educational system has ushered in a Dark Age in British literature.

Personally, I fear for my own writing. I have always thought of myself as “good”, but now I see that I was looking at myself through the lens of a system which valued the atrocious. I could be atrocious.

Then again, from a young age, I despised the “said is bad” dogma, because I knew flat out that it just wasn’t true. Plenty of the books I read used the word “said” in spades, and it never once got dull. The word “got” was also exiled from the classroom for no good reason, and it riled me beyond belief. I would spend minutes trying to replace this bit of fluff, this insignificant filler word. It destroyed the flow of my writing. And for what?

It never once became dull. It never once grew dull. It never once developed the property of being dull.

That’s what happens. Very quickly, one runs out of synonyms for these perfectly adequate words and has to resort to a feat of violent contortion. The word “got”, like “said” is essentially invisible to a reader. It very deliberately adds nothing at all to a sentence, because quite often there is nothing more to be said. In real life, people do not whisper or bellow or mumble or exclaim half as much as they say, say, say and say.

To really put all this hideousness into perspective, I’m going to include an excerpt from My Immortal, a piece of Harry Potter fanfiction widely touted as the worst thing ever written:

‘”Why did you do such a thing, you mediocre dunces?” asked Professor McGonagall.

“How dare you?” demanded Professor Snape.

And then Draco shrieked. “BECAUSE I LOVE HER!”‘

Apart from everything else, what is utterly jarring about these lines is the way the writer has inflicted significance on the manner in which every line is said.

Yet, according to the syllabus, this is not obnoxious, cloying, violently unreadable tripe, but 10 out of 10, full marks, top of the class.

So- what’s the solution? I think the trouble with trying to grade creative writing is that reading is personal. Charles Dickens is widely regarded to be one of the greatest writers ever to have lived, and yet I would rather spend four hours proofreading My Immortal-calibre fanfiction than endure Great Expectations again. If I was a primary school teacher, and Dickens was in my charge, I’d have him writing lines every break and lunchtime: “I will not use twenty words where one would suffice.”

The mark scheme, then, is a necessary evil. But I challenge you to tell me what should be on it.

I have another solution. Why did I, as a child, know that “said” was good, and “good” was fine, and “and” could actually be quite a pleasant device if I used it properly? It’s because I read.

I didn’t read, as the curriculum instructs, to derive meaning about the intentions of characters. I didn’t read in a way that was assessable or useful to my teachers. I read for the sheer pleasure of it.

Reward children for reading. Give them a wide selection of books (and audiobooks!) to choose from. Encourage them to share what they enjoyed about books. Make them write less. And when they do, don’t grade them. Show them to their peers. Ask what they liked about them.

I don’t know if it would work. But surely it’s better?

What are your thoughts? How should we teach children to write?

Days off are Good

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View in Sackville Gardens

My view from a bench in Sackville Gardens, where I spent my day off

Although all work and no play makes for finishing my first draft sooner, I am not one to ignore the full richness of life for the sake of my word count. Despite that, it now stands at a noble 5800, a whole 3800 ahead of schedule. This is me, patting myself on the back.

Hooray for me. However, this is a long post, so strap yourselves in or get lost.

Anyway, in order to stop myself becoming a dull boy (/man/woman/whatever), I have scheduled a day off a week, which I may or may not take. So, this week, I have been eating a thoroughly excellent bean casserole I prepared with the last of my food every day rather than doing any shopping, so that I could afford to attend Sparkle.

For people who don’t know, Sparkle is the main UK transgender pride event, and runs in Manchester for a whole weekend. I am so glad I did, because it reaffirmed to me what I am trying to do in my writing.

It was incredible. I have never seen so many trans people gathered in one place, which although unsurprising, was generally the comment I heard most from first-time attendees.

On Friday evening, I wandered down to Sackville Gardens and spent a cool evening writing. Even though the majority of events didn’t start until Saturday afternoon, there were still a fair few trans people milling about, as well as an amusingly large number of people who couldn’t work out where all the transwomen were coming from.

I did, unfortunately, get stared at, but there are worse things. The kids who spotted me said, “There’s a person sitting on that bench,” which is all I caught and all I cared to hear- I am a person, and I was indeed sitting on a bench.

Saturday was where the real fun began. Loitering early, I met a transwoman who promised to give me her t-shirt after she changed into her “regalia”, but unfortunately I couldn’t find her. I was corralled into helping with the family area, and I am so glad that I was.

In doing so, I managed to make contact with Manchester’s trans youth group, which, as I’m moving to Manchester in September, I wanted to do anyway. In them I found a truly astonishing group of people.

Not astonishing in that they were particularly inspirational, or heroic, or any of these terms that get attached to teenage cancer patients/disability poster-children/orphans. They were normal kids, enjoying a normal day out in the park.

When we see transgender children in the media, it’s horrifying. We get this picture of isolated freaks, being screamed at from the Daily Mail Online comments section. Not kids, playing on a bouncy castle, lounging around drinking pop, going swimming. Transgenderism is seen all too often as a life-ruining aberration, when it should be nothing more than a minor adjustment.

Some of the kids I spoke to had been forced to leave school- not by the actions of their peers, but because of the school itself. The very institution that was supposed to be acting in loco parentis neglected their duty of care, in some cases enabling and perpetuating discrimination on a daily basis.

Although I am young enough to join the group, I want to act more in a voluntary role, to help with their education campaigns. When I was at school, not long ago, our sex education was crap. In year 9 (when we were 14), a nurse came in and rolled a condom onto a plastic dick. The rest of our information on contraception, we got mainly from RE classes.

Despite Section 28 (which forbade mentioning homosexuality in government spaces), being abolished the year I started secondary school, the closest I got to LGBT inclusive education was, aside again from RE, in the comments made by my peers. Not towards me- I have a tendency to keep my head down- but I did hear other, braver members of my peer group actively despised simply for being LGB.

When it came to growing up trans, I had no idea what I was. Other children occasionally saw that I was different too, and the stories I have of those instances are sad indeed.

This, I think, is why I want to write a novel featuring a transgender character. Because, although I believe I am a good writer, capable of excellent fact-checking and writing a generic novel that some, if not many, people would be happy to read, I feel that the state of transgender education in this country (I cannot speak for anywhere else) is literally destroying lives.

The attempted suicide rate for living trans people in the UK is 35%. 1 in 12 trans women worldwide will be murdered.

I don’t care what people think about trans people inside their own heads, but when they start killing people, or passively leading a transperson to kill themselves, it’s wrong. I don’t care how immoral you think it is for someone to wear a dress- it does not give you the right to hurt them.

You know what I saw on Saturday? Normal kids. Kids who have as much right to an education, to family, to a day out at the park, as anyone else. And it makes me sick that by pretending these people don’t exist, we perpetuate the misery of children, who cannot comprehend what they have done to deserve so much anger.

I’m sorry it’s been a long one. But this is why I have to become a teacher, even if my gender identity means I can’t do it for long. This is why, although my gender identity is a footnote to my day-to-day life, it features so heavily in my writing. Because there are young people out there who don’t know why they feel the way they do, and they don’t deserve to be hurt any more.