The interview has been running for a few minutes when Ruth Lasters (43), award-winning ex-city poet from Antwerp, suddenly apologizes. A few years ago she wouldn’t have dared to step on the brakes so freely. Now it is. Has to do with getting older. And that is “positive” for her. The first few questions didn’t quite reach her. Behind a pink frame, her eyes were constantly drawn to the screen of her laptop. With half-consideration, she said she’d been caught in a storm. She barely slept for a week. And that she actually had to “do something”. From her bag she takes a device with which she can transfer money with a bank card. She mumbles a few numbers, types them in, and then looks up from her screen. “Life belongs to the self-control people,” she says with a laugh. Then she closes her laptop. She sighs, has rid herself of a burden. “So, that’s been refunded.” What did you pay back? “The money I received for the workshop from which the poem originated. If they don’t recognize the poem, I’d rather pay that money back.” We are in a branch of the lunch chain Le Pain Quotidien, surrounded by large windows, next to Antwerp Central Station. Classical music plays in the background. At a table further on, a group of somewhat older girlfriends is aware of no surroundings at the end of the afternoon over a cup of tea. At the beginning of September, Ruth Lasters was informed by e-mail via a communication officer of the city of Antwerp that her latest poem Losgeld had been refused by the city council, ie that it would not be recognized as a city poem. That was the first time. All the poems she has written since her appointment as city poet at the beginning of this year have been accepted and published. “It was like being punched in the stomach,” she says. “I’ve barely been able to eat for days.” Lasters wrote the poem together with students from the Spectrum School in Antwerp, where, in addition to her career as a poet and writer, she gives fourteen years of secondary education, following her mother, who was also a teacher. She needs teaching to be able to write, she says. “I can’t create in too large a comfort zone, I need a lot of incentives. In the summer holidays, my creativity also collapses like a soufflé.” Ransom is an indictment against the Flemish education system, which divides students in the first year of secondary school into the A or B stream. According to the website of the Flemish government, the so-called ASO students – which stands for General Secondary Education – receive “a solid foundation for following higher education”. Their share has increased to almost 43 percent in recent years. Children aged 12 who do not obtain the certificate ‘A’ because they ‘have not mastered certain skills or knowledge’, are stamped B and are usually prepared at another school for vocational education (BSO), art secondary education (KSO), or technical secondary education (TSO). Lasters: “The dropout rate is much higher among B-stromers, 14 percent for full-time students and 58 for part-time students, compared to 2 percent for ASO students. The consequences of this are monstrous. From psychological damage to radicalisation. And there is also the teacher shortage. That’s what you get when you incorporate school aversion in children aged 12.” According to Lasters, the division into A and B creates a stigma that some people carry with them all their lives. „I have been hearing comments from students for 21 years such as: ‘Madam, I am only a BSO’er. Ma’am, we are the garbage.” There is only one success label in Flemish education and that is ASO. The rest is seen as less.” She is currently teaching a group of KSO students. “Recently I asked my students about the stigma in the classroom. Almost everyone raised their hand.” In the Netherlands there is also primary, secondary and higher vocational education. “Someone emailed me saying that it is much worse in the Netherlands.” It is actually called ‘primary education.’ “What does that mean?” There are usually people who work with their hands. „ Wow! That is much worse!” But we all have a certain level of thinking and working, right? „I don’t like the word ‘level’, prefer to talk about domains. In a domain school, children would also be divided into classes, but outside of classes they do everything together socially. Also the trips. Together to Paris, the Rome trip.” Also read this opinion article: A student’s origin determines the school career At the beginning of this year, Ruth Lasters, together with five other poets, was appointed City Poet of Antwerp for two years. Big names preceded her; Tom Lanoye, Ramsey Nasr and Stijn Vranken, among others, have already been awarded this honor. Lasters’ work has been awarded several times in Flanders. She received the Flemish debut prize in 2006 for her first novel Poolijs and the debut prize Het Liegend Konijn in 2009 for her collection of poetry Folding plans. Earlier this year she won the prestigious Poetry Competition with her poem Apricots . As one of the five city poets, according to a jury that chose from more than 70 candidates, she would “use the creative power of language to capture the city” and “inspire the city dweller”. She initially thought it was “a great honor to be able to do that for my hometown.” In recent months, Lasters published a poem about the volunteers of the vaccination centers on behalf of the city of Antwerp and she wrote a tribute to the Flemish poet Herman de Coninck, who died 25 years ago. Those poems, according to Lasters ‘useful as marketing material’, were published by Antwerp with pleasure. But the poem Losgeld , also her own idea, shot the Antwerp alderman [alderman] for culture Nabilla Ait Daoud (N-VA) the wrong way. In conversation with the Gazet van Antwerpen , she called it “more of a political manifesto” and “that is not what a city poem is for”. Moreover, she felt that the poetry of the city poet should fulfill a ‘connecting role. Rather, this poem does the opposite.” What did you think of her saying that? “Very painful. This is actually a plea for more connection!” Ransom , which should have been published at the beginning of the new school year, begins like this: Oil, oil stupid state those students from the age of twelve still literally labeled with ‘A’ or ‘B’. Welcome to high school! A question to Flanders: when does society come to a standstill? Is that when the solicitors and the senators go on strike? Or as plumbers, the bakers and dock workers don’t show up? Have you experienced the consequences of that dichotomy yourself? “Yes, I was an A student and I was at a boarding school in Dendermonde. There I had two best friends, blood sisters. We shared everything. But they followed B education. So we had to go to another campus during the day.” Did your aversion to the system start there? “No, much earlier.” Can you explain that? “I’m going to say it in vague terms: in my youth I received a lot of love and fun from non-ASO’ers, from people for whom I now stand up in this poem. My parents worked very hard and hired someone to take care of the children. Ria took me to the tennis club, took care of me, I was allowed to stay there regularly. That attention and warmth was something fantastic for me. My father-in-law, a painter, gave me that too. How he took me into his family is still moving.” Tears well up in her eyes. „If the city of Antwerp refuses such a poem, then they actually refuse all those lovely people for me. That part of society. And that is horrible.” In addition to her career as a writer and poet, Lasters teaches at a school in Antwerp. Photo Wouter van Vooren The day after the e-mail from the city council, Lasters walks into IKEA with her husband when she realizes that she cannot stay on as city poet like this. In doing so, she would deny all the students she teaches and herself. “If the city even refuses an educational poem that addresses the discrimination of thousands of young people, it is crystal clear to me that the city poems only serve as a promotion for the city and not as an expression of culture or literature,” she writes in an email to alderman Ait Daoud . She hears nothing more from the city council. “I think it’s typical that you don’t enter into dialogue as aldermen for culture. Culture is communication, isn’t it? When Lasters announces that she will stop as Antwerp’s city poet, she is first afraid that people will find that an overreaction. But she has received support from all quarters, including from politics. Groen, PVDA and Vooruit denounce the fact that an artist is censored. Her story is widely shared online. And her mailbox soon overflows with “harrowing stories” from people who confess to feeling like a second-class citizen as B-streamer. A few stanzas later, the poem continues: And who is the smartest now, someone who knows where the Aconcagua is (question from The smartest person in the world) or who can draw the whole flowchart and perform for a school kitchen, the Sportpaleis, Wetstraat meeting rooms? […] Soon you, Flanders, will still demand ransom for the word ‘intelligent’ that thou hast held hostage for ages, reserved only for quizzers, for doctors, architects, scientists, for Mrs Michiels and lawyers Lasters believes that the word ‘intelligent’ is being ‘held hostage’ in Belgium by politicians and in game shows on TV. “When you’re called smart, it’s always about cognitive intelligence,” she says. “But there are so many forms of intelligence. Someone who is good at manual dexterity is also smart. That has nothing to do with degrees. In fact, I know people with many diplomas who believe they are superior. Those are the only unwise people.” Also read this story about continuing education in the Netherlands: From pre-vocational secondary education to three times cum laude in higher education The offending poem ends as follows: As long as you, Flanders, don’t also call the craftsman smart in newspapers, game shows and news, you are not worth the A’s in your name Flanders. For Ruth Lasters, Ransom was not just a poem. It was a heartbreak, the main project of her two-year city poetship. She had devised a complete campaign for it, a petition. “The intention was to publish a completed version of my poem in De Standaard and to collect as many testimonials as possible from people who have had bad experiences with this education system. I would then fold them up as ransom notes and offer them in a briefcase to, among others, the Flemish minister of education [Ben Weyts] during Poezieweek early next year.” Could it be that the city council thought that campaign, which was likely to cause a stir, was too committed for a city poet? “Of course that has to do with it. It is about the sacred word ‘Flanders’ that I place in a negative context with this poem. That is sensitive to a party that governs the city [the centre-right party N-VA with leader Bart De Wever, also mayor of Antwerp]. Sure, it’s written down firmly. But I always say: if you want to throw a plane through the classroom, you also have to make sure that the tip is sharp. Otherwise it will crash prematurely.” Is your urban poetship permanently passé? “Unless the city nevertheless wants to recognize the poem and also admits that it does indeed have a connecting character. Then I would come up with an ode to coming back to wrong decisions.” A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 12, 2022