Extreme Reading

One of the unwritten rules of headship is that you don’t win competitions in your own school.  Heads need to be above competitions; they give out prizes but do not win them.  I thus never submit an entry for the summer Extreme Reading challenge run by the Perse Library where students and teachers take photographs of themselves reading books in unusual locations.  However, I do unofficially participate, as one of the joys of the summer holiday is the opportunity to read.  I remind students every summer that a seven or eight week holiday is a wonderful opportunity for reading and independent learning.  In the adult world eight week holidays are virtually unheard of, and students must not squander such a privileged block of time.

Last summer we holidayed in the Aude, a department of South West France.  My ‘extreme reading’ involved me working my way through various histories of the Cathar Crusades whilst perched on rocky outcrops in the Pyrenean foothills.  Reading history where it happened is a very powerful experience.  You can see, sense and smell what those hundreds of year ago experienced and you can empathise with their lives and struggles.  Such tangible history also fills the chronological and knowledge gaps left by exam board specifications and school curriculums.  Before summer 2011, I knew about Crusades to the Holy Land but I didn’t know about the Crusades within France and the brutal loss of life involved.  The bloody campaign waged by Catholic France against Cathar Languedoc is a medieval example of ethnic cleansing which ended with the effective eradication of the Cathar movement.

This summer the Elliotts are heading to the tropics.  Along with my insect repellent and mosquito net I will be packing Andrew Spielman and Michael D’Antonio’s marvellous book ‘Mosquito’.  It begins with a familiar holiday situation:

“You are on vacation.  Perhaps you are strolling at dusk along Fifth Avenue in New York.  Maybe you are taking pictures in the Kenyan bush, or getting off a ferry in Hong Kong.  In a quiet moment you feel the itch behind your knee.  You reach down and touch a hot, raised, welt, a mosquito bite and you wonder

– Do mosquitos in this place carry disease?

– Is an outbreak underway?

– What are the odds that the particular mosquito that drained my blood left something deadly behind?”

The fact that we ask such questions demonstrates the power of the mosquito.  No living creature on earth has touched so directly and profoundly the lives of so many human beings.  For all of history and all over the globe, the mosquito has been a nuisance, a pain and an angel of death.  Mosquitos have killed great leaders, decimated armies, and decided the fate of nations.  All this, from an insect roughly the size and weight of a grape seed.

I shall enjoy reading about mosquitos in the tropical twilight and to the sound of buzzing insects.  I fear I will return knowing a little too much about Filariasis, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Dengue, Encephalitis, and West Nile Virus.  My new found biological knowledge may come at the expense of my sleep.  My children meanwhile will quickly grow bored of my ‘interesting’ mosquito facts which no doubt will find their way into a September school assembly….

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