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LAST lesson, Saturday morning, the week between exams and break-up in July: the academic equivalent of bullying a labour force into snow shovelling in a Siberian gulag.
A marking-jaded teacher should know that there are limited content choices for a lesson like this. Even the brightest-eyed swots depict full capacity in sunken stares and dull faces. The less intellectually competitive have smelt the stables. Their minds have escaped these lofty red-brick walls and are already snuggling at home with family or friends. The dormitories of this school will house soulless bodies between now and three days hence until the bus grinds out of the car park, loaded with dreams of mid-winter romance or home-cooked food.
Too late I realise my mistake. My ambitious task today is to introduce the holiday read — Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye. Their indifference to stream-of-consciousness writing is infectious. They sense I am almost past caring as I assign an exercise. Boredom slides down each face. Like D. H. Lawrence’s scholars, my pack and I yearn for the bell.
My classroom is South-Facing-Midlands-Dry-Cold. There is an illogical little side door to my classroom, a relic of this school’s historic architecture. It leads to a forbidden patch of red-tiled roof covered in flaky lichen. The pitch of this roof faces north and I am told that at this time of year, if you climb to the apex and face the sun, you catch crystalline glimpses of snow on the Berg.
In desperation I glance at the sunny roof. Like the girls I teach, I yearn to lie with my eyes closed, my face to the sun, dreaming of holiday smells. An idea. I scratch for a key in my drawer. I find something that looks like it may open my quirky side door. It stutters open. My class sense my thoughts. The flaccid energy that blankets the room lifts a little. We cautiously venture onto the tiles. They sit, dickie birds, precarious in a row on the roof apex awaiting instruction. The exciting prospect of being discovered in this off-limits area fuels my purpose: They are giggly and shivery in the winter sun.
I challenge them to look out to the Berg and to write unchecked. The rules of this exercise are to simply keep writing from when I say “go” until I say “stop”. Pen may not leave paper, no matter how illogical the content. “Write thoughtlessly” is my instruction. They learn that this is how stream-of-consciousness writing is formed, they seem keen.
I set them off. Kelly is first out of the starting cage — she writes frantically, empowered by permission to do something with few and simple rules. Julia is more cautious — her tentative creativity dammed by anxiety. Zandi is stop-start fidgety — what does one do in a creative world of no rights or wrongs?
I watch my group of fresh-faced 17-year-old girls, some of whom truly see the Berg for the first time, as they wrestle words. One or two will seek affirmation when they read back their work to the class — forever looking for that figurative pat on the head. Some will grind through the process and leave the lesson disinterested in Holden Caulfield or his genius creator Salinger — viewing this novel as yet another outdated setwork prescribed by a misguided teacher who “can’t”. Others simply seek coaching in pursuit of that elusive university admission into medicine or engineering. They are mystified as to how this helps in achieving this goal. All are diligent, high achievers.
As I watch them, I am overwhelmed by my responsibilities as a teacher. Not for the first time, I am aware that they look to me for answers I can’t give. A soft wind flaps at the girls’ papers and their hair as they write and write, now inspired and reluctant to stop. They occasionally glance at me, wondering if the rules will change, willing me to give them more time. My idea seems to be working, something no teacher can guarantee. It’s one of so many lessons they have and will experience here. Like so many schools in these parts, this school idealistically hopes to engender curiosity which will outlast academic results.
As I state “stop” I want these girls to see what I realise. I hold no magic key to unlock fuzzy notions. I’m no more than an old janitor holding a bunch of seldom-used duplicate spares. The original keys lie in the grasp of my students. Occasionally, if the original is mislaid, I hope to help. I’m not sure a teacher can do much more than that. Today, this was enough.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Nichola Roy (right) is part teacher, part student, part mother, part wife. She hopes that one day all these parts will turn her into a whole writer. In the meantime, the world seems to come closest to making sense to her when she is reading a great book.
• The winners of the True Stories competition have been announced. Over the next few months we will be publishing the remainder of the semi-finalists’ stories.