The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind

Emily Dickinson

Early in my Literature course with students newly come into Class 11, I have given them these lines of poetry to consider:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I ask what these lines mean to them, whether they think they constitute a poem and if so what its title might be. I find that after the initial bewilderment their responses get articulated in increasingly perceptive ways. They begin to visualize, hear and feel the texture of the objects placed so oddly together, and to perceive suggestive contrasts between them: an apparition and faces, petals and a bough; softness and hardness, or brightness and wet darkness; the transient and the fixed; the long, loose first line and the harder, more compact second one, but also the assonance that binds the two lines together. Eventually I like to reveal that it is indeed a complete poem, by Ezra Pound, and that its title is ‘In a station of the Metro’. This revelation can feel redundant: the poem has come alive by then, and its images strain against the title. Nevertheless, it does bring the poem more sharply into focus.

One purpose that this exercise serves is to experience how paying close attention to even this most cryptic piece of writing, can tease it into our consciousness. We still don’t know it completely, for that is in the nature of poetry. But it is warmly familiar now and can be regarded without trepidation. By the time the course has come to an end nearly two years later and the students are sitting for their final exams, Pound’s poem is a distant memory but I would hope that they have felt the value of patient attentiveness to a text, and learnt not to fret, be fearful or dismissive if it seems obscure or contrary. This is not an easy lesson and I find I have continually to re-learn it myself. Along the way I might have suggested that meeting a text for the first time is unique because, presumably, you have few prior impressions of it or none at all. Your first responses are relatively uncluttered—their freshness mirrors that of the text. Indeed it is like meeting a person for the first time.

But what about the second, the fifth or the hundredth time? Can subsequent meetings be pristine, as the first one nearly was? Apparently they cannot: the innocence of not-knowing does not survive the first encounter. Subsequent knowledge, of course, is often richer, more subtle and nuanced than first impressions. However, it also tends to settle into grooves, where it might become hard, schematic and tend to reduce the living complexity, the mystery, of its subject. A classic, Italo Calvino tells us, never finishes saying what it has to1. It leaps off the pages in its three-dimensionality each time one’s mind is receptive. But what keeps the mind receptive? What would prevent a text from becoming flattened by familiarity?

Analogous questions arise when we consider what it is to observe, to ‘read’, children. What keeps our reading fresh and engaged? What prevents it from hardening into formulaic certitudes? These are resonant questions for adults working with children. They lead us, however, to a still more basic one: why would we want to observe children?

‘Children’: who, or what, is it that teachers are concerned with? To answer this with a degree of authenticity is the first reason we have for learning how to ‘read’ children. The accumulated wisdom of experts helps us, but is no more a substitute for learning about the individual child in our care, than is expertise in poetics a substitute for looking closely at a poem. Learning how to read the individual (child, poem) is what brings us closer to the general (childhood, poetry). The primary route to this—in the case of poem or child—is close attention, simultaneous with our actions and integral to them; integral because the ‘medium’ we are working with is not static, and neither are we. Without this attention we would be lucky if our actions met the needs, optimally, of our children.

A second reason, then, to learn about looking at children, is to gauge how effective these actions are: to understand how children are responding to them and changing through them. Our work as teachers is only one factor influencing a child’s ‘development’; the web of processes that occur to varying extents outside of, not to say in spite of, our efforts. Nevertheless, we are interested in observing how they manifest in a child’s life. Nor are we alone in our interest; certainly the child’s parents would share it; and, though ‘interest’ doesn’t seem quite the right term, so would the child. Further, since we observe as individuals it becomes essential to share our ‘readings’ with one another. There is an institutional rationale for learning how to do this effectively.

All of this has to do with our multiple roles as educators. To increase our efficacy we feel impelled to learn about looking at children. We realize that we don’t know all about childhood merely by virtue of having traversed its territory ourselves2. There is some amnesia about what it is to be a child, and possibly an implicit assumption that children are unformed adults, delightful but incomplete, handicapped until they are formed in our image. They only need time and nurture to join the adult world as full citizens. If this sounds reductive it is worth remarking that adults tend, even with the best of intentions, to patronize children. There is so much for them to learn: mostly from us.

Valid though this assumption might be, we sometimes overlook the reverse: adults have much to learn, some of it plausibly from children. If our concern were primarily with ourselves rather than with the children in our care, it would still be worth our while to watch them.

One reason it would is that emotions, and other experiences of the ‘spirit’, are projected onto a large screen when we observe them in children. Since a child has developed fewer mechanisms to conceal or distort them, they are revealed more clearly and we perhaps view them more sympathetically. A child’s fears or longings, for instance, would seem legitimate, whereas we might expect adults (including ourselves) to be more ‘rational’ and to ‘outgrow’ or at least to mute them. Thoughtful teachers would generally encourage the expression of children’s feelings and might, surprisingly often, see their own reflected. To be reminded so nakedly that we haven’t outgrown fear, self-absorption, delight or wonder can be disconcerting or exhilarating, as the case may be, but either way their undisguised expression stirs us and is a catalyst to our self-understanding.

Furthermore, children have abilities that make them adept at handling situations where adults might be clumsier. Their adaptability and their relative lack of self-consciousness, their playfulness and their lack of cynicism or prejudice, their powers of observation and of thinking laterally; the imagined worlds that they experience as real: these are qualities that enable children to engage with the world more diversely and creatively than adults tend to do.

These are generalizations whose purpose is neither to idealize children nor to denigrate adults: there are things it would be good to outgrow; children are not always exemplary and adults sometimes are. Nor is it to posit impermeable barriers between childhood and adulthood; clear distinctions, yes, but also, and more to the point, continuities. Perhaps it is curious that the traits we label ‘childish’ persist more strongly in adults than those we term ‘childlike’. At any rate, we note that children often behave differently from adults, not simply because they are ‘immature’ but because they possess qualities that tend to be attenuated over time or displaced by others. To observe this can be rewarding, for what it indicates about our own ways and for the alternatives it might reveal. Adults can learn much by ‘reading children’, and as teachers we are ideally placed to do so.

Though ‘reading children’ might seem an odd way to put it, it revives the analogy with poetry. If we were to ask ourselves how best to read poetry, a possible if faintly tautological answer is: ‘poetically’. Poetry mystifies us when we forget that it inhabits a somewhat different world from prose. All too often we read poetry as if it were prose, expecting linearity in its narrative, a clear thread from problem to resolution. These expectations are natural: we are habituated to prose, which almost always relies on such organization. And yet they are usually belied by poetry, whose ‘logic’ is not primarily sequential but resonates as much through the simultaneities of image, rhythm and sound. To ‘read’ poetry is to be alert to the ways in which it works. This entails quiet attention, patience and, to a degree, a suspension of the expectations we have of prose.

The explication of poetry does rely on the qualities we ascribe to prose: we speak or write in prose about poetry. But before we do so we are called upon to respond to the poem, to experience its music and touch its mystery. We tend to rush this in our anxiety to ‘know’ the poem. To read a poem poetically is to remain for as long as possible in a state of sensory alertness, where conclusions are tentative or are suspended altogether: a state that replicates the quality of being, the responsiveness that produced the poem in the first place. This can be hard to do; harder still, perhaps, is to retain this quality even after we have explained the poem to the extent we are capable. The poem tends to be reduced by what we know for certain about it, because we are liable to ignore what we do not or to persuade ourselves that it does not matter. To come to a poem freshly even when we are already acquainted with it, requires a lightness in the way knowledge is held and even, if one can envisage it, a kind of forgetting.

Two further points about reading poetry, before we return to children: one is that to read poetically is to read imaginatively. A poem is a work of imagination; its weight is carried in image and metaphor, in connective leaps that help reveal its subject in unexpected ways ( ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ says Emily Dickinson in the poem quoted in the epigraph) and it does not spell these connections out. Pound’s Metro poem is richly suggestive but only if one’s imaginative understanding is awakened.

The second is that if there isn’t a quality of delight in reading poetry, the experience is diminished. This delight is aesthetic but also arises in the moments of recognition through which a poem emerges from obscurity into sense. Bridges are formed as we begin to discover ourselves in the poem. There is considerable pleasure when this happens (even, curiously enough, if what we discover is not pleasant). Not that it always does, however, and to persist out of a compulsive urge to ‘know’ the poem in an intelligible way, can be frustrating. A willingness to let things remain unknown for as long as it takes to grow into the poem, is likely to work better.

I would venture to say that these observations about the reading of poetry might be applied to the reading of children as well. If the best way to read poetry is poetically, a useful way to read children is with something of the mind and heart of a child. Children seem readily to engage with the world on its own terms and their curiosity is less directed than ours by theories or motives. Their fascination with the world enables them to learn both rapidly and continuously. To enjoy watching children, to be immersed in it for its own sake, is a prerequisite to reading children. (This is roughly analogous to suspending, at least initially, our need for paraphrasable content in a poem.) It would then become easier to read more purposively when we need to, out of the specific concerns we have as teachers. But until we are in it, until, that is, we have the patience and create the leisure to look at children without being driven to direct them or even to ‘understand’ them, what we see would mostly be determined by some agenda or the other. Agendas are necessary but if they come in too early or are importunate, they can stifle our response to what the senses perceive and the heart recognizes. There must be space for these to happen first and, indeed, continue to happen even after we are familiar with what we are looking at and have begun to analyze and label it. Another of Calvino’s aphorisms is that each re-reading of a classic is a voyage of discovery. To what extent is this true of our reading of children?

It is also worth asking whether imagination has a role to play, as it evidently does in the reading of poetry. It certainly would seem to, because the truth that dazzles gradually is not of a linear kind. Consider, for instance, when a child’s behaviour appears erratic and belies our expectations. We might be condemnatory of it, sometimes with good reason. However we might also intuit a child’s inner ‘workings’ from it; to do so requires both generosity and imagination, for we are called upon as adults to inhabit the child’s world. This is a three-dimensional world that cannot be entered through narrow pathways (rigid expectations, for instance) but can, at times, be experienced when our attention is on, or rather with, the child. If this happened without a loss of objectivity or of sympathy, we would read, as it were, from both the outside and the inside; and with, to borrow a vivid phrase, ‘an affection of the senses’3. Clearly this applies even where behaviour is ‘normal’ (and, one might add, where we read not children but adults like ourselves).

But children are not an open book (not even of poetry!) and can be adroit at concealing aspects of their lives from us. Sometimes this is revealed to us with the shock of betrayal. We wouldn’t feel betrayed, however, if we kept in mind that what we are reading is complex and dynamic, and that any understanding we have is partial. To read between the lines is necessary, and if it is done with generosity it does not undermine respect for a child’s right to a private life, or lives. Our knowledge of a child needs to be held gently.

This is not the foundation for a sentimental liberality that would find excuses for ugly or negligent behaviour. That would be a disservice to the child and abjure our responsibility as teachers. But if our work is to be founded on what we believe would be life enhancing rather than on institutional expediency, it entails care in our reading of children, a regard that the child senses even when we are firm.

It is worth asking, in fact, whether our role as educators comes in the way of a calm, non-judgmental looking. It might, to some extent, both because we tend to look through the prism of what is desirable (or, more commonly, of what is not) and because children are, from very early on, conscious that we are teachers. However close we believe we are to them, their behaviour does alter in our presence. The resultant distortions of the picture matter, however, only if we are under the impression that what we see is all there is. Indeed the ‘distortions’ are a part of the picture. Affection does not preclude assessment, with a shrewdness that is not given to suspicion and does not pry. It would be productive to see our role not as a barrier to seeing clearly but as an opportunity, and a unique one at that because, in the course of a normal day, we are so well positioned to watch children in a variety of contexts.

To read a child is to be attentive to minutiae but not to isolate them. One cannot know a poem without being alert, for instance, to each image and how it relates to other images or how it is ‘foregrounded’ by sound and rhythm. But one also ponders broader questions: What are the poet’s feelings? What is the poem saying, if anything? Why do I feel a certain way about the poem? And one might attempt to locate the poem in a hinterland of social circumstances, politics or ideas. It goes without saying that the broad picture and the narrow are intimately related: to concentrate on one is to clarify the other, if we are interested in it. We read children in their everyday actions, but to read them with understanding we have to see their hinterland too, the diverse forces, past and present, that act upon them. The hinterland would also include prior experience, our own or others’, with children and ‘foregrounded’ education. The more clearly we perceive each feature of the landscape, including our presence in it, the better we are equipped to understand how they are related. Part of our business is to educate ourselves about them. Not to do so is to emulate the blind men groping around their elephant, each complacent in his fragment of experience. To read a child is to read several things, not least ourselves.

Implicit in all of this, is the fact that reading children has a more informed and analytical, purposive and ‘prosaic’, component. This is central to our work and underlies what we say about children, orally and in writing, to each other, to parents and, indeed, to children themselves. Considerable effort goes into this in a school, and it is worth examining separately. The point, here, is that the more ‘poetic’ reading is equally essential, even if it isn’t always conscious or articulated. This is merely to bring into focus something we have known already in our engagement with children.

Some of the rich ambiguity in Pound’s poem is vested in its faces: how clearly are they seen, and for how long? Does each one stand out or do they remain undifferentiated? Children will remain no more than faces in the crowd if we are unable to read them with attention, affection and good humour; or to note, with pleasure and humility, the fragile individuality-in-sameness of each petal against the bough. If we do not blur this individuality, we might enhance it.


1. Italo Calvino: ‘Why Read the Classics?’ in The Literature Machine – Vintage 1997
2. For this observation, and much else concerning children and the act of looking, I am indebted to David MacDougall’s The Corporeal Image – Princeton University Press 2006