In her latest blog post for Writers & Artists about the experience of her debut novel being published, Nicola Garrard looks back at how 29 Locks, her debut novel, became a teacher’s love letter to London teenagers.
Twenty-one years ago I was researching London’s city livery companies’ funding of Early Modern theatre for my doctorate, looking in particular at how colonialism, slavery and aggressive trade policies were enabled by increasingly dehumanised representations of ‘the other’ in art. I was thrilled, once, to discover a dead fly in a Thomas Middleton letter in the Bodleian; my contribution to early sixteenth-century scholarship was to discover a comma was, in fact, a full-stop.
That was more or less when I decided to leave academia and become a school teacher. 29 Locks is my love letter to the young people I taught at Highbury Grove in Islington from 2002 to 2017 and a response to their worsening experience of violence and poverty. I fell in love with Highbury Grove in North London at first sight. In 2001, not long after it had failed an OfSTED inspection, the school advertised for new staff. In teaching job interviews, candidates can expect an interview with the headteacher, to deliver a sample lesson and to be given a tour by hand-picked sixth formers. On my interview day at Highbury Grove three teenage boys came up to me after my sample lesson, barely in uniform, and asked me, ‘Are you going to be our teacher next year?’
I said I might be.
‘We’ll take you round,’ they said. And off we went.
The tour was unconventional. They took me to the stairwell where boys urinated because the toilets were often filthy and frightening. We walked past the sixth form common room, which smelled of cannabis, to an aerial walkway connecting two buildings where a sign said: STRICTLY NO STUDENTS.
‘Don’t worry,’ they said. ‘We’ve got the key.’
We stood on the walkway with a sweeping view of central London and shared a few quiet moments of reflection and wonder. One of my guides opened his packet of beef McCoys, offered it to me, and said, ‘I don’t get why you want to work in this fucking dump.’
I recognised that the school had taken a huge risk in choosing these scruffy, sweary and disaffected guides to communicate the scale of the challenges the school was facing. They were cheeky and irreverent, but they had been trusted to show me their school as they saw it. The school seemed to be saying, bravely, ‘This is us. These are our young people. We have problems, but do you want to be a part of the team that will make a difference?
I decided I would.
After a while, we returned to the English department and my guides ran off without saying goodbye. The Deputy Head found me and asked me where I’d been; I was late for my interview with the Headteacher. When I told him I’d been on the school tour, he looked shocked and said, ‘WHAT TOUR?’
I accepted the job because of those boys. The sheer audacity and brilliance of truanting lessons with an interview candidate thrilled the child in me who’d followed every rule at my own sleepy rural comprehensive.
The job was tough, sometimes dangerous, but mostly joyous and always creative. Imagine teaching Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet to kids who have first-hand experience of gang violence. Imagine reading To Kill a Mockingbird to kids who experience daily racism and Never Let Me Go to kids who feel they are disposable cogs in a social machine. Imagine teaching a child so intelligent that, in less than two years, he progresses from analphabetic to Grade D in GCSE English having been granted asylum from a war zone. Imagine being paid to have fun capsizing canoes in a lake and getting lost in the Welsh mountains.
One of Jenny Offhill’s characters, an outdoors instructor, puts it perfectly in Weather. He says city kids do best in emergency survival scenarios. ‘Suburban kids do the worst,’ he explains. ‘They have no predators.’
Disturbing predations soon reared their heads. I taught many victims and perpetrators of gang violence, knife crime and murder. There were boys, groomed into county lines drug dealing from the age of twelve, who believed they were unlikely to live beyond twenty. May and June were especially anxious months for teachers. Sometimes boys failed their GCSEs because, on the very day of their exams, they were taken into custody for hiding a perpetrator or procuring a moped or a weapon. When they got an instruction from a gang ‘older’ the fear of repercussions in their postcode was stronger than any teacher’s influence and certainly stronger than vague promises of a future career.
They were all – victims and perpetrators alike – vulnerable children who’d been let down by a collective failure in education, policing and social care, a belief I’ve smuggled into the pages of a fast-paced YA adventure. I hope my novel offers young readers a space to reflect on the power structures that shape their lives.
I will never forget my interview tour, standing on the forbidden walkway with London at our feet and the smell of beef flavoured crisps in the air. The affection I felt for my guides was instant. For me, 29 Locks is more than a novel. It is my love letter to those teenagers, bearing witness to their deep stores of courage and resilience; their essential goodness.
Nicola Garrard’s debut novel, 29 Locks, was shortlisted in both the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. She has taught English in secondary schools for twenty-three years, including fifteen years at an inner-city London comprehensive. She was a runner up in the Poetry Book Society poetry competition, judged by one of her heroes, Carol Ann Duffy. Her words have been published in Mslexia Magazine, the IRON Book of Trees and the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. She lives in Sussex with her family and a Jack Russell terrier called Little Bear. Her favourite things about being a teacher are not found in classrooms but on school trips to wild places: capsizing canoes in icy lakes and getting lost in the mountains. Young people always find the way home. nicola-garrard.co.uk/