Last week, on 26th November, my school - Lister Community School, a multi-ethnic comprehensive in Newham, east London - played host to a 42-year-old American woman called Martina Correia. Of all things, she was telling an audience of 100 13-15-year-olds about how her brother Troy Davis is on death row in the US state of Georgia and how for 18 years she’s been campaigning for him to be released.
I teach English, so why should I be arranging talks like this? Because teaching students to be responsive and articulate is not something to be confined to four hours a week in a classroom. For several years my proudest achievement has been to help our students bring out a unique independent student magazine called CARBOLIC, which has unearthed priceless nuggets of subterranean literary and journalistic talent. This little publication, a work of real pride for our students, has earned plaudits from the likes of the Times Educational Supplement, and writers and poets including Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and John Agard.
Last week's Troy Davis meeting belongs to a proud and unparalleled tradition. Previous events organised by CARBOLIC have included meetings with the former Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg, campaigners for justice for Zahid Mubarek, the Asian teenager murdered in his prison cell, and a protest rally against the invasion of Gaza, where both Muslim and Jewish speakers spoke in solidarity with the Palestinians. Up to 200 students have stayed after hours to crowd into these meetings.
Martina is an electrifying speaker who held her audience totally rapt. People who imagine typical modern schoolkids to be always sullen or de-motivated ought to have been there as these bright-eyed students were inspired by Martina’s account of her fight for justice for her brother - wrongly-convicted, she maintains, for a crime he didn’t commit. Not only that, but they also heard from De’Jaun, Martina’s 15-year-old son, an inspiring and funny speaker in his own right, who immediately struck up an amazing rapport with his peers in east London. Amnesty speakers talked about the global campaign to abolish capital punishment and Richard Hughes, the drummer from rock band Keane, added his own insights after visiting Troy Davis this autumn.
For me the meeting had a special poignancy. It’s 44 years since Britain had the death penalty on its statute book. I know, because it was my father Sydney Silverman who, following a lifelong campaign, finally brought the private member’s bill through parliament which abolished capital punishment. The son of a penniless refugee, as a young socialist war resister during the First World War he had refused conscription and been jailed twice for mutiny and desertion. In prison he had gone on hunger strike and witnessed fellow prisoners beaten to death and carted off for execution. He went on to become Britain’s first pro bono lawyer, earning the plaudit “our biggest enemy” by the Liverpool police for his defence of evicted tenants and victimised trade unionists. For 35 years he was a Labour MP, at a time when that still meant anything.
So, in a way, this special event at our school formed a sort of historical “loop”. Recent British history and a modern US debate over capital punishment came together in a dynamic session that textbooks could only hint at.
A full hour after the close of last week’s event, it was still impossible to drag our students out of the hall, as they exchanged stories and jokes with De’Jaun and the other speakers, queued up for stickers, and eagerly collected start-up packs for the new youth branch of Amnesty they’d decided on the spot to set up.
This is no small thing. As a former full-time socialist activist, I know that mass education was only won after bitter struggle, and as a current teacher of English I have never been able to separate education from the fight for a better society.
Who says young people today have a short attention span? Who says they are non-political? Give them something worth listening to, and something worth fighting for, and they'll soon surprise us all.
Roger Silverman is a teacher at the Lister Community School, in Newham, east London