Mr Montefiore was my 6th form English teacher and probably the coolest person I’d ever met. There were rumours that he’d been in a semi-famous punk band in the mid-‘80s and briefly dated supermodel Elle McPherson, but all I knew was he kept feeding me amazing novels, films and plays, encouraging me to splurge my ideas so I could write freely and openly, as if Jack Kerouac had never existed. He told us to call him ‘Monty.’
Where I went to school, Monty was an anomaly. The vast majority of what we term ‘the arts’, from literacy to languages, music and art, were taught by women. You were more likely to find men running P.E classes, or teaching maths and business studies. It seems like a preposterously sexist gender binary today, but the idea of ‘soft’ versus ‘hard’ disciplines was baked into the culture, and you’ll still find it informally instituted across many schools.
By the time Monty walked in and started making us question the construction of language and dream big, outrageous ideas, most of us were already talking about university. English, which was mandatory for our final exams, wasn’t considered particularly important; it wouldn’t get you into law or medicine. Moreover, without any men running those classes, it became increasingly difficult to visualise as a career path. Becoming a writer wasn’t on the cards for me, primarily as I didn’t know any.
When you’re still finding your place in the world, what you see forms the bulk of what you know. Monty, who wore leather jackets and recommended us Wes Anderson movies, wasn’t like anyone I’d ever met before. He’d been a playwright before becoming a teacher, had worked in magazines and newspapers, travelled the world. Writing words had kept Monty gainfully employed for as long as I’d been alive at that point. It blew my mind.
Those taking advanced English courses completed a major story project and soon Monty was assigned as my mentor. We’d sit on the benches of the playground after school and discuss dialogue, ways to reinvent narrative structures and different classic texts I could use for inspiration. The story I would end up writing pushed me to the limits of my own capabilities and forced me to think differently about why and how I write.
Monty was an important figure in not only my life, but a number of those around me. The proof is in the pudding; almost all of us ended up becoming writers in some way or another. Up until I had Monty as a teacher and mentor, my role models were exactly who you would expect; rock stars, pro-tennis players, self-made millionaires. Though I still have a soft spot for Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and Foo Fighters), he didn’t have as much impact on me as Monty.
As young men, we can find role models anywhere in life. They can be our fathers, uncles, older brothers and cousins. Maybe they’re our football coach or church leader. Wherever they hail from and whatever they do, you can measure their affect by the after-effects. It’s been nearly 15 years since I was in Monty’s class and I still remember that feeling, the electricity of being in his presence and the confidence I gained from his tutelage. It’s something that I think is very important to pass on.
When I first moved to London and began working with schoolchildren, I was told that the boys were the most difficult to crack. ‘They all want to be football players or rappers,’ my friend said. The simple fact is that you don’t know where your drive is going to come from. Many of the skills Young Pirates learn, from perseverance to confidence, go a long way in any discipline. You can’t be a star striker if you’re always giving up. The best grime artists bristle with loquacious attitude and style. You don’t see them shying away from presenting their work.
Statistically, men are less likely to volunteer than women, which I think is a real shame. That means we’re missing out on the chance to become Montys for the next generation, encouraging them to foster a passion for reading and writing that can take them anywhere they can dream of. It’s incredible how many basic societal functions require a decent sense of literacy and how many better opportunities remain locked away from those that haven’t mastered it.
Showing young boys that we can progress into well-rounded young men is important. Teachers often lament that it’s so difficult to make it exciting or interesting for kids to read, especially in the age of the iPhone. In my experience at Literacy Pirates, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Boys in particular need someone to look up to, to show them that it’s OK to get excited about English. Our after-school groups are incredibly lucky they have had such enthusiastic and invigorating captains like Adam, Anthony and Aaron. They are exactly the type of teachers that would have changed my mind in school about writing a poem or story. But that’s also something we need from volunteers.
The boys that become pirates as part of our programme are mostly primary school age. It’s an incredibly dynamic time to be alive, but it’s also one in which they are the most impressionable. Some of them might not make it all the way to meet their own Monty at the end of their school tenure. The good news is we can step up now and potentially make an even greater difference. Working with young boys and passing on the influence and knowledge that I’ve attained has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life.
Come and find out what the fuss is all about. We could always use more Crewmates.
Literacy Pirates volunteer.