On Friday 27th February in my upper sixth year my friends and I had just settled into our usual places in the U6th form common room. We were hugging mugs of coffee and complaining about the cold – in Hong Kong, where average winter temperatures hover around 15°C, the temperature that morning was 8°.
When the Senior Master came and stood in the doorway nearest where we were sitting (the U6th common room extended across the entire level of the building, and there was a second door, at the far end) we noticed him, but carried on talking, while telegraphing the usual ‘Teacher in the room”, “What’s he doing here?’ ‘Dunno’ facial expressions to each other. We were pretty relaxed: the U6th common room was our space, and in spite of his job title Mr O’Neill was one of the more human teachers – most likely he was just looking for his daughter who was in our year. Someone might even have said, ‘Sir, Fran’s down there – ’ and pointed across the room to where she was sitting with her friends out of his eyeline. But Mr O’Neill wasn’t looking for his daughter. He said ‘Is everyone here?’ which was an odd question, because there were about 150 of us who came and went from the U6th common room, and at break, with limited time to visit the tuck shop and do all the other important things that had to be done between period 3 and period 4, everyone wasn’t going to be there. But we didn’t say that to him. Something about the way he was standing half inside the doorway alerted us to the fact there was something he needed to tell us, that was something he didn’t want to tell us.
The room was already falling silent when Mr O’Neill asked for quiet. When he had everyone’s attention, he told us he had something to tell us that was very upsetting and that we would all have to be strong and help each other; he said if we knew anyone who wasn’t here just now we should be sure to help them especially. Then he told us he was very sorry to tell us that Simon Hall died that morning. Simon was taking his morning shower and his family heard the noise of him collapsing so his father broke down the bathroom door and found him unconscious on the bathroom floor. They called an ambulance and rushed him to hospital but he was already dead. They thought it was carbon monoxide poisoning from the gas water heater in the bathroom. Because of the cold that morning, Simon hadn’t opened the window as usual, and the gas water heater and the unopened window probably led to a fatal build-up of carbon monoxide in the bathroom when he was taking his shower.
Anyone who’s been in a school which has suffered the sudden death of a pupil will have an idea how the news was received in the U6th form common room. I remember thinking that on Thursday at break I’d been sitting in the exact same place as I was sitting at that moment, across from Simon and laughing along as he cleaned his rugby boots and comically bemoaned his slim chances of making the starting line-up for the coming Saturday’s game.
Simon’s funeral was held in Union Church in the afternoon on the following Wednesday, 4th March. The school sent us all a letter telling us anyone who wished to attend could do so; many of us had never been to a funeral before and the letter also advised us that the most suitable things to wear were ‘dark, formal clothes’ – not a staple of the average Hong Kong teenager’s wardrobe; in 6th form we didn’t even have school uniform to fall back on and I borrowed a dark blouse from my mother to wear. 300 of us went, teachers as well as students. Simon’s parents, devastated as they must have been, took pains to comfort his school friends and involve them in the arrangements; six boys from school, Simon’s closest friends who’d known him since primary school, were pall bearers. On 5th March, the front page of Hong Kong’s English language broadsheet the South China Morning Post featured a photograph of them accompanying Simon’s coffin, headlined ‘300 mourn gas victims’. The story also featured details of that week’s second victim: 12 year old Frances Bucher of Kowloon. Frances attended the German Swiss school and was not personally known to us but she was named with Simon because she died the day after him, in similar circumstances, and her funeral took place that same afternoon at a church across the Harbour before her grieving parents flew the coffin back to Lucerne for burial. In fact, there was also a third victim of the cold snap: a 15 year old boy named Lui-See Kin died on the same day as Simon, but I only discovered his name in another SCMP article from that week about the ‘gas-related deaths’ findings in the cases of ‘two boys and a girl’. That story ran on p.13.
I hope that Lui-See’s name and the details of his funeral were recorded in the Chinese language press with the same degree of detail and pathos as the South China Morning Post covered Simon’s. Perhaps – perhaps not: the deaths of two teenage boys and a twelve year old girl in the last week of February were only the latest sad episode in a running story about poorly regulated gas heaters and a steadily climbing, if sporadic, tally of carbon monoxide fatalities that had been exercising local news outlets since they’d first noticed a pattern in the mid 1970’s. The low priority of reporting the ongoing situation in English language papers reflected Hong Kong’s demographic and political reality: the population breakdown was approximately 95% Chinese and 0.5% white European and the vast majority of carbon monoxide fatalities were inevitably from among the Chinese population, but the power to effect change in legislative systems to institute better regulations lay in the hands of the 0.5%. If more of Hong Kong’s colonial legislators had read Chinese language newspapers it wouldn’t necessarily have led to an earlier enactment of Code of Practice GU03 for the Safe Installation of Domestic Gas Water heaters but it’s a reasonable hypothesis that increased awareness of the scale of the problem would have helped push things in the right direction sooner.
It’s decades since I was in U6th form, oblivious to the concept of ‘systems of privilege’ – I didn’t even have much clue about what I was going to do after my A levels – but in recent months, as I’ve gotten more au fait with ‘inclusion’ issues in schools, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. That’s not only because of the bubble of Privilege with a capital P that I currently teach in, but because a lot of educational debate seems to take place in a bubble every bit as impervious to wider realities as the late colonial bubble of my own school days. In both cases a small number of people perpetuate a historical notion that in any given situation a particular experience and knowledge set is, or ought to be, the only valid experience and knowledge by which to judge the situation. This authoritative minority tend to ignore or silence other voices that suggest there might be more than one way to skin the given pedagogical cat. In both cases, assumptions and/or ignorance cause harm: Twitter, for instance, is a wonderful source of diverse voices, but sometimes scrolling through my timeline I wonder how many opportunities for (teacher) engagement and learning are lost because people are too worried about the prospect of someone with lots of followers responding to any ideas they might suggest with a public assertion that they are wrong, bad, or at the very least irrelevant. Even if the feared Twitter-storm of ridicule doesn’t follow putting one’s head above the parapet, there’s always the possibility it might.
With the teacher recruitment/retention crisis double heading with pupil disengagement and distress in 2017’s news cycles, I wonder too how many teachers feel like giving up on education because they can’t, or don’t want to, aspire to macho (if not necessarily male) models of the ‘super-teacher’ who doesn’t smile until Christmas, or because they’re scared that if they share alternative ideas they’ll be shouted down by someone who speaks with all the confidence of never having been questioned about their credentials. Social media is routinely typified as an echo-chamber, but experience of edu-Twitter suggests that the echo-chamber just amplifies and accelerates some old and universal methods of social control – dominant voices that set the parameter of knowledge/authority and delegitimise dissenting voices that raise ideas it doesn’t suit them to think about. To be fair to Edu-Twitter ‘authorities’, anyone who’s passably research informed on the Mere Exposure Effect can make the charitable assumption that resistance to ‘alternative’ ideas is probably for no more sinister reason than that they haven’t spent much time thinking about them before, because they haven’t had to. It’s what people do when they start to think about the alternatives that matters.
Meanwhile, the Twitter echo-chamber remains a bit of a worry for British edu-diversity, but it also offers hope in some unprecedented and wonderful opportunities to engage with dynamic grassroots peer support movements like #WomenEd and #BAMEEd (with #LGBTed coming down the pipe). Even more encouraging is being able to follow transatlantic institutions such as the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning and ready4rigor.com , whose mind and brain education ‘programs’ are based on the vigorous and growing body of Social and Emotional education research studies that grew out of the US education system’s need to address its historically endemic and acutely divisive race issues.
As cognitive biases go, the mere exposure effect seems relatively easy to deal with: we can become more open to the unfamiliar by entertaining it. But knowing all those GCSE pupils who spend most of their revision time on their ‘best’ subjects, and colleagues who never intentionally cross the boundaries of anything that’s ‘not my period’ then if we really believe that diversity is not just a minority/pastoral issue, we need to act on that belief, even (especially) when it means challenging colleagues on Twitter or ‘IRL’. A significant body of research suggests that social and emotional education and school systems based on inclusivity and diversity are not only not inimical to traditional ‘core’ interests of subject expertise, curriculum design and classroom management, but that it can actually enhance them. I look forward to more edu-debate that both reflects and reflects on those research findings.
The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. (Marcel Proust)
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