“Sir, Sir! Feed your friend!”

For three years, from 2012 to 2015, I taught English at a secondary school in central London, in Somers Town, near King’s Cross Station. During my first year at the school -and my first year as a newly qualified teacher in the UK- my classroom sat across two tall, old plane trees and the entrance to one of the local council estates. It was a fairly small classroom, but it was also completely new, that part of the Victorian school building having just been renovated. I liked it, and being extra keen on doing my newly qualified best, I stayed in it a lot, planning and marking ’till late in the afternoon.

I think it was November, one of those dark grey London days that begin in the darkness and never seem to shake it off, not even to host a typical cloud-pale English sky. By 2 o’clock, I had finished my lessons for the day and could start doing all the other teaching stuff that is sometimes not mentioned, like picking up stray pens from the floor, tidying random pieces of paper or inputting data and replying to urgent emails. I leaned on the internal part of the window sill and took to looking at the sky and daydreaming. I lifted the window as much as possible, which was about 10 centimetres, the windows being child-proofed, bolted and locked at the top. To prevent students falling, we’d been told. I then heard the caw of a crow, and saw its black figure fly to a middle branch of the plane tree across the pebbled street. It cawed again, surveyed the street and its immediate surroundings, and flew up to one of the highest branches.

I followed its flight and so found its nest, its home across my workplace.

Bonhams : John Atkinson Grimshaw (British, 1836-1893) Autumn Afterglow
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn, 1883, oil on canvas

For the following weeks, when I wanted to focus on something other than work, student grades, behavioural problems, deadlines, etc., I would look out across the window and just watch for the crow. I paid attention to it, to its flights and caws and movements. One day I had an idea: I would put out some nuts on the window sill and try to get its attention. I got out my 5-minute-break-between-lessons sustenance from my drawer, placed 3 walnuts and 5 almonds on the window sill, put my mouth close to the 10-centimetre gap in the window and made various clicking sounds, the kind a shepherd or a dog trainer might make. I hoped none of my colleagues could hear them or identify where they were coming from.

I waited, but nothing happened. The crow didn’t come. I sat on my laptop and continued planning and answering emails. At some point, I left the room to see a colleague. Sure enough when I came back, the nuts were gone. I felt a strange relief and happiness.

Needless to say that I repeated the ‘feeding ritual’ regularly after that, every couple of days. Again I would wait, but the crow never appeared when I was in the classroom. I figured it could see me moving inside and it probably didn’t trust me enough yet. One day however, it being mid-December by now, it came on its own volition and very briefly alighted on the window sill before flying off again. I hadn’t put any nuts out for a few days.

For the whole of that winter I shared my food with the crow. Mostly, it happened in the afternoon, after lessons had finished. But one day, as was bound to happen, the crow made an appearance during a lesson. The kids in year 9 went nuts. One student cried out in astonishment “What’s that bruv?” and mutters of ‘Allah’ were heard all around (the student body being predominantly Muslim). I said quite calmly that it was a crow, and that it was fine and they shouldn’t be scared because it was my friend. I told the class that I gave it food and it came to visit. I still remember the looks on their faces; they said ‘you’re weird, Sir’.

Yet, something happened that day. Something happened in the students’ minds, not just in their image of their odd, kooky English teacher but in their understanding of the world around the school. Wildness had entered the classroom. Another world, which was this physical, embodied world, had interrupted the lesson.

Sometime in the next few days the students were working in groups on a project, I think on a literary text. In the middle of the lesson a student shouted: “Sir, Sir! Feed your friend!” We all started laughing. I took out some nuts and put them on the window sill. I told the students not to look outside and expect it to come, but to continue working. After about 10 minutes, the crow came and very quickly pecked at some of the nuts. The kids loved it, and carried on working and talking. I think that, some of them at least, might have felt that strange relief and happiness I had felt the first time the crow had come.

Why do I share this story? Well, because it serves as a good starting point, a gateway into the educational vision I want to present in this blog. Squirrel School’s ‘ethos’, if you like. It also lays down some of the major themes that I will be examining: re-wilding the classroom; materiality, the embodied experience of the local environment; curiosity, intrigue and the unexpected; shared emotional experience; teachers’ mental health and stress reduction techniques; curriculum opportunities for meaningful, implicit learning.

The last thing to say is that I also feel that one thing that happened that day was that the students got to know something about me as a person, to see something of my philosophy of life, my approach to the world around me. In effect, I was made into a person, I was humanised by my relationship with a wild animal. Is it not perhaps time to look at ourselves again in that way, to see that a big part of our humanity lies not only in the web of relationships we have with other humans and human-made constructs, but also through how we understand and experience our lives as linked to all the other, non-human lives on the planet? And is it not time we as adults re-learnt about that, together with the young?

Michael Pederson, Urban Weed Awards, 2019

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