Book of the week: Re-educated by Lucy Kellaway
A fascinating and moving memoir of former FT columnist Kellaway’s late career switch
Six years ago, Lucy Kellaway’s life seemed “a model of affluent, enviable stability”, said Lynn Barber in The Sunday Telegraph. A respected columnist for the FT, where she’d worked for 32 years, she lived in a large house in Highbury with her husband and four children. But in the space of two years, she writes, “I tore it all down. House, marriage, job, considerable income – I despatched the lot of them.” She separated from her husband, moved into a cool but rickety modern house of her own, and became a schoolteacher. She also co-founded Now Teach, a charity to encourage other middle-aged professionals to take up teaching.
Why? She felt stale as a journalist, and wanted to do something useful; her mother had been a highly regarded teacher, which gave her some idea of what it would involve. What she didn’t realise was how relentlessly demanding it would be. When friends suggested meeting for coffee or lunch, she laughed. “What coffee? What lunch?”
There are lots of reasons to read this book, which has “the fineness of detail, sharpness of humour and grace of a novel by Penelope Lively”, said Emma Brockes in The Observer. First and foremost, it’s about having one’s assumptions thoroughly dismantled: starting in a large comprehensive in Hackney, Kellaway comes to recognise that what her pupils need is not a progressive emphasis on creative thinking, but rigorous exam-training to help them out of poverty.
It’s rare to find a narrator who can confront her own limitations “without sneakily presenting them as adorable virtues”, but this one mercilessly exposes her initial arrogance and ineptitude. The result is thrilling, fascinating and moving: I was “on the brink of tears” for the final third.
Re-educated is written with “warmth, wit and honesty”, said Anna Soubry in the FT, and offers a frank discussion about the role of schools in children’s lives, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds: I hope it sparks a wider debate. I’m sure it will, said Rosie Kinchen in The Sunday Times, Kellaway is eloquent about challenges facing the education system – poor pay and matters of race among them – and she’s rightly proud of pushing herself so far outside her comfort zone.
At times she seems like a “wiser, smarter Bridget Jones” as she wrestles with PowerPoint and adjusts to singleton life. But while there is plenty of humour, this book is fundamentally a serious call to arms, trumpeting that it is perfectly possible – “enjoyable even” – to start a new chapter at any age.
Ebury Press 256pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99
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