Hidden Lessons: Growing Up on the Frontline of Teaching by Mehreen Baig
This is the most unreadable book I have ever read. Not only is it poorly written on a sentence-by-sentence level, but it is also intellectually incoherent and, at times, of questionable veracity. For those who have never heard of her, Mehreen Baig is (according to the publisher’s blurb) a “trailblazing broadcaster and writer”. Among the documentaries she has presented are Inside Chelsea: Britain’s Wealthiest Borough and The Truth about Cosmetic Treatments.
This book is a description of her life as a teacher, before she became daytime television’s Ken Loach. It follows a pattern familiar to those of us who regularly read books about teaching: the narrator signs up to the profession, discovers to their surprise that it is exhausting but hugely rewarding, thinks the kids are difficult but — without exception — inspiring, blames the Tory government for the system’s failings, learns to love the job but, regrettably, decides to leave it to do something truer to themselves (and better paid).
In itself such a pattern is not innately flawed, but the baffling desire by publishers to keep churning out such books should at least come with a commitment to apply some editorial rigour before the manuscript is sent to the printers. Books such as Hidden Lessons are filled with clichéd phrasing and, even worse, tired and predictable thinking. Baig’s book was probably pitched to a commissioning editor as a modern day bildungsroman (or, more likely, a “journey”): a young British Pakistani woman goes to teach in a tough secondary school in Tottenham. Watch her grow up! Be moved by her many encounters with “challenging” kids! Marvel at the difficulties she overcomes! Stick a title on it which roughly alludes to teaching, get a quote from David Lammy for the cover, and you can see how it was approved by Hodder in the time it takes to make a Chai Latte. But Baig is a slow learner: it’s not until page 210 that she realises that “teachers are people, too”. Hardly a moment of Maupassantian crystallization.
Added to this lack of narrative momentum is the regrettable fact that many of the stories described are of little interest to anyone outside those who may have been involved. I say “may” because in the very first sentence of the foreword, Baig admits that this book “is not a true story”. She confesses that she wanted to “stay true to my authentic experiences” which means that the “names, dates, titles and stories are not real”. Writing a non-fiction novel worked for Truman Capote, but Baig does not quite have his literary talent. What we’re left with are second-rate anecdotes that do not even have the appeal of being either true or interesting, and all written with the imagination and technical flair of a failed piece of English Language GCSE coursework.
Why should we care about stuff she makes up?
Early on in the book Baig tells the story of her returning (as a TV presenter) to the school she used to work in. She goes into a classroom where there is some disruptive behaviour and starts shouting at the pupils to behave: “they could smell I wasn’t a novice and wasn’t to be messed with, in the way teenagers always can,” she writes. She goes on to describe herself (in approving terms) as an “unstable bitch”, and as a superhero who “swished” in and out of the classroom, bringing order where there was once chaos. Before leaving the (now silent) class she makes eye contact with the cowering teacher whose lesson she has interrupted “and we smile at each other”. How moving, and how wonderful, you might think, that Baig was there at the right moment.
Did this really happen? It seems unlikely. Firstly, no visitor to a school would be able to wander around without a member of staff accompanying them (safeguarding rules in schools are, understandably, pretty strict). Secondly, no teacher would welcome a total stranger barging into their lesson and shouting at their class to be quiet, let alone quietly thank them for doing so (they’re more likely to call Security). Thirdly, she leaves out until a little later on that during the whole episode she is accompanied by a film crew.
The problems with not knowing whether a story is true or not means that we quickly lack any real interest in the writer’s experiences. Why should we care about stuff she makes up? Perhaps we’d be tempted to read on if it was well written, but it resoundingly is not. The fact that Baig was an English teacher for ten years should not, for a moment, make us assume that she can write. Perhaps the publisher felt it added some authenticity to Baig’s “voice” if she retained the vulgarities of everyday conversation, but on the page it quickly becomes tedious. Within a few pages we learn about her “colossal fuck-up” of her A level results, of the “lucky bastards” who were given £9,000 to do PGCEs; we hear of the pupil who was “shitting himself”, and of the plans that go “tits up”; she describes herself as a “deluded arsehole”. Throwaway phrases such as “I shit you not”, and “I was utterly fucked”, are used repeatedly, adding nothing to the authenticity of the experience but, rather, simply illustrating her limitation as a writer.
For Baig this teacher has sold ‘her soul to the devil’
The intellectual incoherence is no less grating than the language used to describe (possibly fictitious) events. Baig, who describes herself as “both pretty and clever” has a crush on the Hot Maths Teacher (her description). To attract his attention, she goes into his classroom to do “a little slut drop” as she picks up some letters; she decorates her room in “fifty shades of pink” and “it looked just like the inside of my brain”. But a few pages later she laments the “hyper-sexualisation of women in the media”. On and on these self-contradictions go: she describes terrible behaviour but never blames the pupils themselves, or their parents (all of whom are “working tirelessly, all hours of the day and night…trying their best for their children”). So who is responsible? Yes, you’ve guessed it, those dastardly Tories with their education cuts. We learn that Baig opposes education being “a huge political football” that results in schools “ricocheting” from policy to policy. With political insights of such power it’s no wonder David Lammy loved the book so much.
No less predictable, but even more confusingly described, is Baig’s view of independent schools. A friend’s decision to leave a comprehensive and join a fee-paying school is “an unspeakable crime, only slightly less taboo than joining Only Fans”. For Baig this teacher has sold “her soul to the devil”. She then goes on to tell another anecdote of debatable provenance about a boy in such a school (predictably called Oliver) discussing An Inspector Calls and taking a political position so extreme that he makes Mr Birling sound like Jeremy Corbyn, leading us (hopefully, for Baig) to conclude that all pupils in such schools must be equally bigoted, a lazy assumption that Baig would have rejected if it had been made about the pupils in her school. Such a view of the Etons and Harrows of the education system doesn’t stop Baig celebrating when pupils from her comprehensive get full scholarships to attend such schools.
Baig eventually decides to leave teaching (“shit happens…and I was ready to fly”). I doubt whether it cost the school much to lose an English teacher who thinks that the ability to spell words correctly is something only “psychopaths” would be able to do, but perhaps I am being too judgemental. Either way, teaching’s loss is a gain for the brave new world of Influencers and daytime television where cliché, incoherence and dishonesty, far from being barriers to success, can be distinct advantages. No doubt a publisher is already drawing up a contract for Baig’s next journey.
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