Oxford sixth-former Auriol Williamson is taking pictures of people and their books
Most of us can look back and credit a teacher as the source of inspiration that helped us do whatever we’ve done. Sometimes it’s an oblique influence, or just enthusiasm and interest rather than any hands-on encouragement in a particular field; but dig deep enough and there’s almost inevitably a story somewhere of sympathetic teaching. Auriol Williamson, though she’s only 16 (turning 17 this week), already knows she’s lucky to have Matt Gray (or Mr. Gray, as she calls him) as her English teacher at the Cherwell School in Oxford, where Auriol is in the sixth form doing her first year of A-level work in English, maths, physics, music and general studies. She’ll leave school next summer, but right now in Mr. Gray’s class she’s studying Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. “Mr. Gray’s always really interested in young people, whatever they’re up to,” she says.
Auriol Williamson with her favourite book, Ingo, the first of the Ingo Chronicles, a fantasy series about merpeople by the British Orange Prize-winning novelist Helen Dunmore. “I loved the mermaid thing when I was a little girl,” says Williamson.
Recently, Auriol—with two school friends, Minesh Patel and Tom Walton—launched an side project outside school designing T-shirts under a label they call Ciel Bleu Apparel. Mr. Gray, who happened to be there when the three of them were watching a promotional video they’d put together, was impressed and asked if they’d be interested in making a small documentary for him to promote reading at Cherwell. So Auriol invited keen readers from school to come and have their picture taken with their favourite books. So far she’s shot 24 readers from her year. “It was interesting that many people’s favourite books are from childhood,” she says. People at school seem to stop reading at around 12 or 13, they’ve noticed, so she and her friends are determined to try and alter that. “Everyone is really encouraged to read at primary school, but when you get secondary school people seem to forget, and that’s really sad.”
Interestingly, Auriol’s photographs are all taken on a film camera—that’s right, film, not digital. “Film puts all the excitement back into photography,” she says. It’s the anticipation, the waiting to see her pictures that she enjoys. “I love not knowing what exactly is on my film!” (Her father also takes pictures, although he uses a digital camera: he’s the trustee of a school in India that helps Dalit children and has taken many wonderful pictures of the children and the work at the school.)
Minesh Patel holds J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. “Minesh is great at the tech stuff, as well as very creative,” says Auriol.
Tom Walton with Michael Morpurgo’s novel The Butterfly Lion. “Tom messaged me the other day telling me that he couldn’t stop reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in the bath and it was infringing on his exam revision,” says Williamson. “I felt proud and I laughed a lot.”
“Mr. Gray’s young and has an inspiring attitude,” Auriol says. “He’s always referencing popular culture and showing us things we should know about—books we should read, films we should see, music we should listen to. He’s always ahead of us.” He’s also good with technology, which Auriol says has changed the way the students work and can get involved. “He’s got a blog and he’s started an Evernote system,” she adds—though she confesses she’s not entirely sure how it works—“and he’s always whipping out his camera and scanners.” The blog—where students can send him questions (“Hi Sir, I have a question about structuring…”) that he answers (“Good question. I would go with option a) in the first paragraph and option b) in the second”)—is clearly a lively and vital part of Mr. Gray’s teaching; he sets out clear bullet points about books the class is studying as well as videos, timelines, essay samples and quizzes. All of which kills the “I forgot the book, Sir” excuses from my day.
The Story Hoard section of Mr. Gray’s blog, devoted to reading in particular.
Auriol hopes that Mr. Gray will incorporate her photographs into the Story Hoard section of his blog, where students write reviews of their favourite books; the three friends also plan to use some of the literary references they’ve been thinking about as imagery on their T-shirts. He will also put the video up, and says that after the kids finish their exams they’ll start a four-week project aimed at promoting reading. Ciel Bleu Apparel’s message, Auriol says, is “to promote knowledge and get people to really see the wonder of learning and enjoy books” (the video is on hold for a bit as they’re waiting for permission to use a particular song in it). She admits that she’s going to have to listen harder to her own message, though! “I read more when I was younger,” she confesses, “but this project has encouraged me to read more. My parents are really big readers and that’s encouraging.”