As readers we want to share our love of reading, learning and critical thinking. Some even make a career of it. But what if your job leaves you feeling like you’re trapped in a dystopia? Author Hannah Glickstein explains how she took her negative experience of teaching and used it to fire her fiction in Eyeball Computer.
Why decide to write a dystopia as my first novel? Why venture into a genre overshadowed by giants like Margaret Atwood, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Ray Bradbury and Orwell? I couldn’t help it. My impetus was less a decision, more involuntary outrage.
Dystopia is a necessary genre, like protest song. Dystopia is a reaction to living in society: a response to walking down the street in the shadow of the dictator; noticing that it is no longer possible to disappear; understanding that you can no longer say out loud what is in your mind; realising that the thoughts in your own mind are dictated by what you are allowed to say.
I worked for eight years as an English teacher in various secondary schools and sixth form colleges, both state and independent. A school is a little society, controlled by managers who are beholden to their source of funding. In state schools, I felt the power of the state in each lesson plan driven by assessment, in every frenzied week spent scouring data and polishing exercise books in preparation for Ofsted.
I had to quit because I no longer felt it was possible to communicate with my students, unless it had something to do with passing a test. Tests provide figures for the Government and measure what a student has learnt, to a certain degree. But English assessments certainly do not measure whether a young person can think for themselves, or whether they enjoy reading.
When I was a younger teacher, I was so enthusiastic about introducing students to the thoughts and stories of great writers. As Ray Bradbury has said, “any book smells of dust, the dust of time, Egyptian dust…the dust of all the parts of the world that blew in the wind.” Books are a portal to other minds, other worlds and to thought. But books were not the point of my job at all; assessment was what counted. The most conscientious A-level and GCSE students are not content to read and reflect on Macbeth, to struggle in their own minds with the complexity of his character, because they know that struggling to express their natural response won’t meet assessment objectives. Students ask for copious notes and explanations, because they know the teacher’s notes will tell them what the assessment objectives require and will thus steer them towards an ‘A’. They are right. But that is not teaching.
A friend of mine, who moderates exam papers for one of the boards, told me that he brought to the attention of the examiner how one school had clearly given an essay pattern to students and a selection of things they might say – all the students from that school wrote very similar essays and scored highly. The examiner suggested my friend highlight this in his report, but did not seem deeply troubled. That is how the system works.
Teaching has helped me to imagine my characters: the bosses use the evasive language of managers – managers who could kill you. Of course, no head of English is required to execute errant members of staff with a fondness for Dead Poet’s Society, or reading the whole poem with a class in secret when only an extract is required. But, the type of personality who becomes head of English is always, in my experience, the type of personality who accepts orders from above instead of thinking for themselves: who prefers efficiency to reading. In one job of mine, English teachers were told by our head of department in the run up to Ofsted that we should all, ideally, be ‘delivering the same content’ in the same order. In that school I felt like an automatic supermarket till, not a human.
My heroines have the frustrated powerlessness of children caught in a system. Though, of course, children grow up to perpetuate the system, because that is what they have been taught to do.
Eyeball Computer describes one alienated woman’s search for her own humanity within an oppressive society facing extinction. Our protagonist is rattled by her love for an eccentric older man; unconventional behaviour then causes her to lose her job. Alone and away from the city, she meets — and cares for — a child refugee. Her relationship with this little girl eventually causes her to lose all faith in the bosses she once revered.
Hannah Glickstein was an English teacher for nine years working in a wide variety of
contexts, including an inner-city sixth form, rural academy and independent boarding school.
Teaching allowed her to observe people closely, read and – occasionally – share great books with teenagers. Deep frustration with limitations imposed by constant assessment and the will of Ofsted eventually forced her to resign. Alongside studying and teaching she always wrote.
She has self-published graphic short stories about a skeleton named Skinny Bill; written
articles for The Camden New Journal and Catholic Herald; been shortlisted in competitions – Young Poet of the Year 2001 and the Fish Poetry Contest 2016. Since leaving teaching, she has written about the problems she noticed in education for Huffington Post, The Round and The Spectator. Eyeball Computer is her first novel and she is working on a second.