Dear Nadhim Zahawi, teaching empathy is difficult while Tory scandals pile up

I was in a secondary school last week, asked in to talk about how books and writing help with developing a sense of empathy. Before the session, I went through my books looking for pieces that might suggest to the students how they were being invited to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

I started with something personal: when I was 11, I came across a photo of my mother with a baby on her lap. I asked my father whether this was me or my brother. He looked and said it wasn’t either of us, it was the baby who died, called Alan. As I explained in my poem “Going through the old photos”, this was the first time that I had ever heard about this baby brother. The piece ends with a question about my parents: though my father mentioned Alan several times down the years, my mother never did; I ask myself who was the more upset about it. I put that to the students.

From that personal story, I moved into other mysteries of childhood and teenage life, such as when my father referred mysteriously to two French uncles who were in France at the beginning of the war but not there at the end. I invited the students to think about what that may have felt like. Or how my father’s cousin had been put on a train by his parents when he was 17 and he never saw them again. What would that feel like?

I knew that in the audience there were students who were refugees, or whose parents were, and the experience of lost relatives may be only too familiar.

Then I told them how I found out what did happen to those uncles: they were put on lists. One was arrested with his wife in Nice, just as they thought they were going to sail to freedom in north Africa, and the other was rounded up at 2.30am and deported. I showed them the police report written the morning after my father’s Uncle Martin was arrested. I invited the students to think about what state of mind those police were in when they wrote down the details of what Martin was wearing – his cotton shirt and trousers (pyjamas?), flat shoes, a beret. They also wrote down his height (1m 62), mentioned the scar on his face, the shape of his nose and that he was of “Jewish race”. It was all “official” and “legal”, I said.

At one point in the session, the question of lists and deportations came up. One student talked about the difficulties of arriving in a new country. I suddenly thought of the people arriving in Britain who may face being deported by our own government to Rwanda. I found myself running forwards and backwards in my mind between events in my family’s story in 1943 and ’44 and what is happening now. What made it possible for those four gendarmes to arrest someone who had committed no offence? What makes it possible for a government right now to instruct its officials to do something similar … and what mindset would enable those officials to do the job of arresting people and putting them into buses and on planes? Would it help them to do this work if they thought the people they were guarding were of some “race” other than their own? There seems to be a different view being expressed towards the desperate people of Ukraine. Why is that?

I’m telling you this story because the words and actions of your government may sometimes seem to be in a sphere separate from education, schools and students and yet in this session, what the government says and does was very much of the moment.

On the way home, I wondered how the students see what goes on in Westminster while teachers and parents try to convey social ideas to them: things such as honesty, the rule of law, respect, economic fairness, and sexual equality. The scandals are piling up, aren’t they? Partygate, Tractorgate, PPE contracts, fuel bills … Sessions like the one I was involved in go on in schools all over the UK all the time, and parents are having the same discussions with their children. The last thing we teachers or parents want to sound like is hypocrites, advising young people to behave in ways that the country’s lawmakers cannot manage themselves.

This is where you come in, Mr Zahawi. I realise you’re not the archbishop of Canterbury and no one expects you to be some kind of moral arbiter, but I put it to you: don’t you think it’s any part of your job to indicate to teachers and parents that, at the very least, you realise how difficult our work has become recently, talking to young people about empathy and social values?

It’s a question of empathy, really.

Yours, Michael Rosen

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