A journey into the world of teaching in Edinburgh’s private schools
Is there a Pigeon in the Room? By Cameron Wyllie, Birlinn £12.99
So, cards on the table: I don’t read autobiographies. I have made the odd exception – Vladimir Nabokov and Jackie Kay more than earned it – but, generally speaking, it is not a form in which I have much interest, because ultimately I don’t really care about famous or semi-famous people (or ghost writers employed by famous or semi-famous people) and their stories. I also don’t write book reviews because, well, who really cares what a critic thinks anyway?
But I have now broken both of these rules and am glad I was asked, and agreed, to do so, because otherwise I may have never read Is There a Pigeon in the Room?, Cameron Wyllie’s excellent autobiographical account of his ‘life in schools’.
Wyllie has recently retired after a teaching career spanning nearly four full decades, and has set out not just to recount his extensive experiences, but to revel in them. This isn’t a plodding, year-by-year account of lesson plans but rather a celebration of a working life well lived.
The tale is told thematically rather than chronologically, with a wonderful array of anecdotes and insights broadly organised in chapters focusing on his early career, his later years in teaching, and his various reflections on pupils, classrooms and parents. It is also impressively honest – perhaps in a way that is only possible after retirement.
Many of the stories will be familiar to teachers. I particularly enjoyed the one about the student who, when confronted with clear evidence that they had plagiarised an entire assignment, described it as an “extraordinary coincidence”; I laughed out loud as he described that moment when a child has been sick and your colleagues (ruthlessly) pretend to be asleep as you head off to deal with it; and I empathised, as every teacher will do, with him as he recounted the story of a young man whose problems a school could not solve, because there are times when, no matter how hard we try, we have all “just felt so useless” in the face of the terrible burdens that some young people are forced to carry.
But this certainly isn’t a book that only educators can appreciate. It is far too well-written, and far too human, for that. The narrative continually reaches back and forth through time, piecing together the story as it goes, just as our deepest and most precious memories always do when we, long after the fact, allow ourselves to become immersed in them.
At these times, our minds do not conjure up neat-and-tidy timelines, but rather a rush of interactions, realisations, experiences and emotions, which all come together like an impressionist painting on canvas and create something that is so much more than simply the sum of its individual parts. Cameron Wyllie has taken this approach, combined it with his decades of memories, and offered us an engaging, entertaining, and genuinely moving insight into how his ‘life in schools’ shaped him as a person.
Being an autobiography, the book is focused on exploring Wyllie’s own experiences as a teacher rather than interrogating the socio-economic forces behind them, which is fair enough really, but there’s no escaping the fact that he spent his career in the extraordinarily privileged world of private education (a world which, for the record, I believe should be dismantled).
It certainly is not the case that the author seems unaware of this point – indeed, he clearly acknowledges it on a number of occasions, at one point even considering whether he would have lasted so long in the profession had he taught in schools that didn’t charge thousands of pounds a year in admission fees at the nexus of the network of Edinburgh’s private schools. Even so, there are still times when it feels like a little more reflection on this particular aspect of his career may have made his story even more engaging.
Then again, this is not a book setting out to interrogate the social, educational or ethical realities of private schooling – the sort of book I might write – and it feels somewhat unfair to insist on judging it against a standard that it was never intended to achieve. This is a memoir, not a textbook, and on that measure it is, without doubt, a great success.
If anything, it feels like it should be longer. There are certainly more stories for Wyllie to tell, and I very much hope that he does indeed, at some point in the not-too-distant future, explore in much greater depth his experience as a “practising gay man” and teacher through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and into the new millennium.
Is There a Pigeon in the Room is an excellent book and one that I am happy to recommend. It is also, I hope, just the beginning rather the end.