‘Back of the Class’ by Julia Bell

I wanted to include an essay. This piece by the writer and personal friend Julia Bell covers so much ground so affectingly. I’ve brought it into my students at Imperial College to study. Most of them have interviewed for Oxford and Cambridge and have not got in. If I had a £1 for every student that I teach who’d interviewed for these colleges I’d be a lot richer! Bell’s writing is evocative and represents the time well but also, unfortunately, it feels as if it could have been written today. The themes of class, position, power, old boy network, bullying tactics, the small town Bronglais, the Welsh language, the red-faced boy. And of course, Keats’ Truth and Beauty. I love the input of the research on the freeze response and the acknowledgement of thought control and cognitive, neural pathways. ‘Back of the Class’ is masterly in concept and was re-tweeted over 200 times. The character is instantly recognisable – the blushing seventeen year old in the Dorothy Perkins dress who’s “a bit queer” – waiting for her rite of passage. I’ve re-visited this essay many times (I’m working on a short film adaptation at the moment with the director, Lois Norman) so it has a particular resonance for me. Let’s hope initiatives like Stormzy’s can place black students, POC students and working-class students in the heart of these institutions. There’s a simple refrain in Bell’s writing that leaps off the page and casts a shadow across the landscape: “I want to be taught. I am ready.” Education for all. Everywhere.

First published in the Times Literary Supplement, November, 2018