Diamond in the Rough

This week started just about the same way as every week begins, with me waking up to the sound of my seven o’clock alarm, with the morning’s first class just an hour and a quarter away, and finding myself struck with the weekly conundrum that is ‘now, what am I going to teach today?’.

For the first three weeks I had some stellar lesson plans, but we’re filing into my fifth working week here now (I told you before, my observation week became my first teaching week) and my tried-and-true classes have come and gone. Four down, twenty-seven to go. Since in school I teach across the age-groups, from six to twenty-two, I have to split my material in half depending on their ability, which requires two new lesson plans each week. Not exactly a challenge, per se, especially when several of those are shared between groups, meaning it’s possible (and highly recommended) to recycle material; but it’s a weekly problem, after a weekend spent traveling, partying or what have you, that on Sunday night the question is always there on the tip of my tongue as I bed down for the night. What am I going to teach them today?

Today I thought I’d brave it and try literature on the kids. Foolhardy, I know, especially after my last attempt at sparking some creativity amongst the would-be dullards, but I’m not about to give up on them yet. To spark their interest – and since I’ve just spent most of the weekend reading the tale – I kicked things off by drawing a blackboard-sized Moby Dick on the board, complete with scars, harpoons and rigging. Most of them had heard of it, but understandably, none of them had actually read it.

Well, not quite. One of them had.

I did a little double-take at this and made him explain the plot to the class. The way he put it, in English, a language that is not his own, told the tale better than Herman Manville (personally, I found the text hard-going, turgid even, though the story itself was impeccable). Better yet, he beat me to it and cited Manville as the author. I thought I’d let him sit on his laurels for a while and ask the others for any books they’d read recently, but they just stared blankly at me, as though I’d asked them if they’d like to spend the rest of the day doing quadratics. Moby – the pseudonym I shall forthwith use for this very literate kid – had his hand up the whole time and went on to tell me about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. That he had read them in translation is beside the point. This is a boy of fifteen who’s busy working his way through the classics.

As I was struggling to elicit some kind of interest from the rest of the class – who, as you might expect, were getting visibly bothered by Moby’s contributions – my colleague spent the hour taking notes of other writers that he might enjoy, amongst them Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. One of Moby’s companions lost it and complained loudly that it was unfair that only Moby was talking. My colleague and I soundly brought him down a size by repeating that all I was asking for was a story any of them had read, and that as Moby was the only one who was willing to talk, they only had themselves to blame for their silence. I opened the floodgates a little by allowing them to tell me about a film or television series they might have seen, but on that inch they took a mile and missed the point completely; three accounts down the line I had to remind them that match reports, game shows and reality TV are not stories, and consequently didn’t count.

Pushed into a corner, one kid looked very chuffed to say he thought his favourite TV show, a Spanish version of Match of the Day, was far better entertainment than any book he’d ever read. Granted, he probably hasn’t read very widely – I hadn’t at his age – but for good measure I told him that a show where two obnoxious early retirees discuss what happened, what might have happened, what should have happened and what might happen next time in a football match for an entire hour could hardly be as entertaining as a decent read. I could have done worse, of course, but I held back. Most of it went over his head anyway, as it was supposed to. I’m not foolhardy enough to let my personal prejudices against the tedium that is the world of football discussion ruin my relationship with my students, who already know I’m none too keen on it.

As you might have guessed, I was getting pretty frustrated by this point. I’ve learned to mask it after a month of teaching these kids, but it’s still pretty galling when you ask a simple question and all you get in return is twenty-three gormless expressions. But Moby came back with the goods, stating that he hadn’t read any books in English yet, but that over Christmas he was going to try with Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. You’ve got to hand it to the kid; starting to read in a foreign language with Tolkein…? That takes guts. My parents are prolific readers and they can’t stand his writing, and sadly they’re not alone (though I, for one, can’t get enough of the stuff).

In the other establishment I work at there are several kids like Moby in every class; students who are well-read, well-cultured and whose English is streets ahead of their companions. It’s the norm in a private school. And teaching in both private and state has its merits. But kids like Moby make the state school experience so much more worthwhile, for all the challenges. Here is a boy who, despite everything, is working his way through the literary greats for the pure pleasure of it, with his mind bent on attending university in Toronto of all places. It’s kids like Moby who remind me just why it is that I love teaching. Because for all the sour looks, disinterest and gossipping that goes on, when there’s at least one kid who’s shining with promise there’s a reason to go on. Obviously you can’t cater to that one child alone – if it were that simple, everyone would want to be a teacher, I think – but as long as you know that what you’re dealing is going towards somebody’s personal development, that’s reward enough for all your travails.

As for me, I’ve got a fair amount of catching up to do. Moby Dick was this weekend’s read; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe await, along with Allan Quatermain (after a two-month hiatus). Maybe I’ll recommend King Solomon’s Mines to Moby when I next get the chance. It’s certainly one of my favourites. BB x

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