Jermaine collecting his Reading Hero award from Prime Minister’s wife Sarah Brown at 10 Downing Street.

Bringing The Printed Page Alive

24th April 2009

Projects like the National Year of Reading (2008) come and go in a blaze of glory – but, if they’re to make any real difference, then the activity they generate needs to carry on at grassroots level. Jill Glenn meets Northwood man Jermaine Daley – a Reading Hero who’s constantly challenging his pupils.

As a teacher of English and Religious Studies, and an enthusiastic reader, Jermaine Daley was aware of last year’s Year of Reading campaign… but he hadn’t expected it to affect him personally. As a result, when the call came to tell him that he’d been identified as a Reading Hero, and that he should present himself at Number 10 Downing Street to receive his award, he thought it was a joke. “I made them email me,” he recalls, shaking his head and laughing at himself. “I didn’t believe them at all…”. It transpired that Jermaine’s Head of Faculty at Harefield Academy had put his name forward, in recognition of his commitment to encouraging his pupils to read for pleasure. “It’s good to be acknowledged,” admits Jermaine, still surprised that the work he does with pupils should be thought out of the ordinary.

Jermaine Daley is not your average reader; in fact, he confounds more than one stereotype. Young (just 31), black, he has a degree in Theology from Westminster College, Oxford, coaches football at the academy and plays countless other sports including Eton Fives. In the face of all the surveys and statistics that tell us that black boys don’t achieve, and that teachers constantly set the bar too low, Jermaine Daley stands up to be counted. Twice. He’s a black man who clearly has achieved, and who, as a teacher, sets the bar at a height that makes a difference.

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, observed a couple of years ago, that “a black boy who does not see a black person like himself in a position of authority in the classroom doesn't know how to be a man.” If that’s true – and it seems perfectly reasonable – then it is vital that the work of men like Jermaine Daley is publicly recognised. A generation of pupils – black boys and others – at Harefield have what it is to be a man demonstrated to them on a daily basis. And what they see, I venture, is what Jermaine is, completely unadulterated. This award may have resulted from the Year of Reading, but he would have deserved it anyway.

He reads constantly, both for personal pleasure (he’s just finished Conn Iggulden’s Wolf of the Plains, which he rates highly; he loves historical fiction in general, and Graeco-Roman history in particular) and to approve books for the school library. He has great faith in the ability of young adults to cope with a wide range of reading material that reflects and challenges their life experiences. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses – “every teenager should read it” – wins his approval. So does Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light.

He doesn’t … sssh, quiet now… rate JK Rowling. “I’m not a fan,” he says, almost apologetically. He proposes Ursula le Guin as an alternative; le Guin’s Earthsea books were the first that ‘spoke’ to Daley when he was a teenager. A teacher whom he respected pointed him towards A Wizard of Earthsea… and his life changed. “I had a rapport with the lead character,” he explains, with zealous light in his eyes, “I ‘got’ him, I understood him.” After that Jermaine became, almost overnight, a voracious reader, looking for more books in which he could recognise himself, and find ways to understand his life. He needed, he thinks, something other than football and cricket – although he kept the two strands of his life separate. No reading on the team coach.

It’s his own experience of leading a non-reading life as a young teenager that makes him sensitive to the experiences of his own pupils today. Girls, he believes, do read, but secretly. Boys, on the whole, don’t – although he’s changing that.

He’s keen on capitalising on their existing enthusiasms. If they’re into football, and reading Match, Jermaine encourages them to move up to FourFourTwo; if sport isn’t their thing, but they’re looking at tabloid newpapers or basic men’s magazines, he suggests GQ or Esquire – “and reading the articles fully…”. He wants them to read complex sentences, and to expand their vocabulary. And they know that’s what he’s after, even coming to him with something they’ve just finished, saying, “Look at this, sir, this has got complex sentences in it.” They stop him in the corridors to report “I’ve finished that book already, sir.” Quite something from children who often join Harefield with unformed tastes, or, in Jermaine’s view, inferior reading experiences.

I sense he’s trying hard to be even-handed, here, not wanting to criticise the primary schools that turn out youngsters whose reading material extends no further than Horrible Histories and Tracey Beaker. He loves coaxing pupils beyond that, though. “I want them to read books because they’re good, to find personal pleasure in them, not just because they’re well-known, or a film tie-in.”

Despite his ambition for his pupils, he’s quite realistic about what’s possible. “You have to love the classics to want to read the classics”, he acknowledges, and he doesn’t force anyone. He’s not pretentious, and I suspect that’s what helps him get through to reluctant youngsters. He’s instigated a ‘two-and-a-half week rule’; if they can’t get into something by then, they’re allowed to abandon – and try something else.

His younger cousins read now, as a result of his enthusiasm, but his older brothers remain unconverted. “They say, ‘don’t give me another book’,” he laughs. I suspect he takes no notice of them, though. Books, I imagine, are at the top of Jermaine’s list of Christmas gifts to get and to give. And he loves discovering that his cousins have already read a book he’s trying to recommend to them. “It’s great to have someone at home to talk to about reading.”

He’s shyly proud of his Number Ten experience. “I was trying to be casual about it, and then I realised… this is quite special.” What did he love the most? “Walking up the stairs, past all those portraits… Pitt the Elder, and so on. Thinking ‘I remember you from school’.” And of course he got talking to the other Reading Heroes… finding out what they were doing, why they were there. “It was good to meet others, getting more ideas on how to read… how to encourage reading.”

Talking about reading clearly rocks his world, and the energy of the man is exhausting. He speaks rapidly, laughs easily. I can hardly take notes fast enough.

The only time he’s stumped – and even then it’s only for a moment – is when I ask him to name his five favourite books. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird comes to his mind first, although he stresses that his list is in no particular order. Then there’s A Wizard of Earthsea, of course, plus Tolkien; he wants “all of Tolkien” on his list, but when I point out that that’s not quite in the spirit of five faves, he narrows it down to The Silmarillion. He nominates The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean, too – “a beautiful book” – and I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton De Trevino, about the slave to the painter Velasquez.

Whatever it is that’s running through Jermaine Daley’s veins, they should bottle it, and give it to small boys intravenously. It would make the world a much better place.

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