Introduction

Nobody has ever asked me for advice about how to teach and I don’t think they ever will. But if they do, I’ll say this: If you’ve got a good text to share and some good questions to ask, everything might be fine.

As well as being good and well-written and worthy in their own right I think that these stories are all broadly appropriate for study with 11-18 year olds.  In my experience they ‘work’, either as something fun to read aloud, or as something thought-provoking to discuss.

If you are a teacher and you would like PDFs of the stories, do get in touch.

‘A Table is A Table’ by Peter Bichsel, translated by Michael Hamburger

‘I want to tell the story of an old man, of a man who has given up talking, who has a tired face, too tired for smiling and too tired for frowning’

An old man decides that something has to change, and invents his own language. As he pursues this idea, keeping track in blue exercise books, what was at first odd becomes funny, then suddenly sad.

With very little prompting (“is this just a weird story about an old man, or does it have a deeper meaning?”) even tough-guy teenage boys will discuss loneliness, dementia, immigration, and the importance of friendship.

First published in German 1973. Available on The White Review website, newly translated by Lydia Davis, here

‘The Linesman’ by Janet Frame

 I looked from my window and saw him already working, twisting, arranging wires, screwing, unscrewing, leaning back from the pole, dependent upon his safety belt, trusting in it, seeming in a position of comfort and security.

Not even a whole page! There are lots of things by Janet Frame that I Iike, but I’ve never worked out how to teach any of them. This nicely worked little story perfectly captures the feeling of being young in summer, and is so neat it near enough teaches itself. Nothing happens, everything seems achingly slow, and the last line is a killer.

A nice thing to do is to ask the kids “what happens next” and have them write their own continuations.

Published in The Reservoir, George Brazillier, 1993

‘Hermit Wanted’ by Mick Jackson

‘[Giles and Ginny] created a deer park and commissioned a couple of follies and a croquet lawn with peacocks strutting around it, and employed plenty of staff to do all the cooking and cleaning and to treat [them] with the kids of respect they felt their considerable wealth deserved.’

It’s hard to choose just one story from Mick Jackson’s ‘Ten Sorry Tales’, which was left in my pigeon hole by a much better, kinder teacher a few years ago. The whole collection is worth a look, and it is the book most often stolen from my classroom – high praise indeed.

This story is about a well-heeled couple who decide that the one thing their estate lacks is a hermit. Despite attracting few applicants they eventually fill the position, providing food and shelter with the simple request that their hermit must remain ‘as quiet as the grave’. All goes well until Giles and Ginny find ‘a new distraction’ in the form of ‘an heir to the throne’.

in ‘Ten Sorry Tales’, Faber, 2005

‘Job’ by Roger Robinson

What the hell happened to your eyes, Frank? Don’t tell me you’ve started wearing tinted contact lenses.

When a friend dragged me to some trendy literary event in East London, Roger Robinson towered above the other contributors. I picked up a copy of ‘Adventures in 3D’ for the princely sum of five pounds, and read ‘Job’ to my Year 11 class the next day. Two black men, friends from University, stay in touch as they enter the world of adulthood. With the pressures of work one of the men, Frank, starts to change.

Some of the most interesting conversations I have had have started as a result of this story. Is the author black? Would it make you feel differently if the author were white? How might different readers understand this story differently? How might white readers interpret this story differently from readers of colour?

From the collection ‘Adventures in 3D’, Lubin & Kleyner, 2002

The Vertical Ladder by William Sansom

This is one of the many stories I would never have come across without A Personal Anthology. It was Roland Bates‘ first pick and he introduced it with this:
in 1981 my English teacher read to the class a story about a boy pressed into climbing the ladder on the side of a gasometer. He climbs, his friends kick away the first bit of the ladder, he climbs, they wander off, and he climbs… towards a truly oppressive ending. You could have heard a pin drop.
 What teacher wouldn’t be tempted to give it a go on a rainy Friday afternoon? I can’t say my pupils were quite as rapt as Bates’ mates in 1981, but they did listen, and they occasionally mention the story even months later. Why does Flegg agree to climb? Why does he keep climbing? Is this just a story about a gasholder, or might it have a deeper message?
1944; now in The Stories of William Sansom, Faber. Online here