“I have to write a letter,” Kirin said.
“Did your teacher tell you how to write a letter?”
I turned to Mummy.
“How can he do it, then?”
“That’s how they teach these days. They don’t go through everything.”
“Good teachers do.”
The letter was addressed to an astronaut, a real one, a woman. It was breaking down barriers in gender, if not in learning. There were other barriers.
“You could ask her if it’s nice in space.”
“Nice is a banned word,” said Kirin.
The literacy lady had banned words like nice, big and little. And happy – that’s a good one. (Good was banned too.) She meant well. She wanted to improve the children’s writing. She’d been banning words for the whole of Year 3. Now, she was banning them in space.
“OK,” I said. “Ask about the space jellyfish.”
We talked about floating in space; if a jellyfish would move the same way in space as it did in water; and, if you didn’t make it back to your spacecraft, how you might feel if you had to float forever.
“I can see you in a space suit,” I said, “your little face at the window, but I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”
When Kirin falls silent, and he’s not writing, he’s either sad or asleep. I can’t always tell. The letter was finished. He put his pencil down.
“That’s a nice, big paragraph,” I said.
Time for comprehension. A beggar knocked on an old woman’s door. Did she have some water? For nail soup. He had the nail already. He showed it to her. He only needed water. She couldn’t refuse such a small request, so she boiled some water, and he added the nail. He let it cook for a while, then tried a spoonful. It could do with some seasoning, he said. Well, she could spare a little seasoning. She added salt. It went on cooking. He tasted it again. Some vegetables wouldn’t hurt. A little meat. Tasting each time. In the end, a delicious bowl of soup was ready. The beggar shared it with her.
Kirin had to write about the old lady. We agreed that she was stupid. We also agreed that he couldn’t write that in his book. His teacher mightn’t like it. Dumb, foolish, and idiotic didn’t sound so good either. In the end, he just wrote that she wasn’t very clever, and played with a couple of toy cars. It wasn’t very clever either. Mummy was still banning them. We discussed whether he could trick her the way the beggar had tricked the old lady. Kirin thought not. We also discussed where he could hide the cars if she came in unexpectedly. Then he talked about them.
“This one’s an automatic.”
“A naughtymatic,” I said.
“You’re not the only bad boy in the world.”
“Me not bad.”
“Me not stupid.”
I told him about a trick I’d played at school, on a girl called Precious. It was Year 6, ICT. I was standing in front of the class. I asked her what the opposite of shut down was. She thought for a moment.
“Log on?” But she knew it wasn’t right. I pushed my hand down in the air: “If this is shut down,” and lifted it again: “this is –”
“Shut up!” Precious cried.
“Tut, tut, tut.” I shook my head. “Precious told me to shut up. I’m telling Miss.”
Kirin chuckled. Then he asked, quite seriously, “Did you tell Miss?”
I shook my head again. You can’t always tell on a child. Kirin was still thinking.
“What did Precious do?”
“She groaned, ‘Oh, sir!’ in a very deep voice. But she knew I was joking.”
After the lesson, the one with Precious, we all walked off to lunch. At the end of the corridor, one of the boys went: “What’s the opposite of shut down?” to the first adult he saw.