Category: education

Last lesson of the day: welcome to the real world.

Image: The Burghers of Calais, August Rodin

It’s the last lesson of the day. My students file slowly in, like Rodin’s Burghers. I decide to shelve the lesson I’d planned (a Southern Gothic sojourn through To kill a Mocking Bird via Childish Gambino’s brilliant This is America and Rammstein’s Amerika. I was going to start with a question. Where is America outside of text? It’s not happening today. I was really looking forward to it. But, this could be more important. Something tells me things are about to get real!

They’re unusually quiet, too quiet. They’re not even trying to look interested. I don’t blame them. They’ve just written a test, the third in as many days. They write another one tomorrow and exams begin next week. Days like this I feel more like a production line manager than a teacher. It’s a lesson in time management, at least that’s what I try to tell myself. But, I can’t say that to them and that makes me wonder whether it’s the truth. What exactly are we doing here? Them, me, all of us? My career as a teacher has brought me to this class on this day and it doesn’t feel right. ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. 

I know the standard response to this scenario. I’ve heard it all my life: “They’ll survive, they’ll have to in the real world. We’re preparing them for the real world.” 

The “real world.” I’ve always wondered where that is exactly? I know what is implied by the term. It’s a reference to the working life, you know the one. The five day week of 7–12 hour workdays to pay off the mortgage that has us strapped to banks until we retire, or die, or retire to die. The world of interminable responsibility, diminishing energy, flagging passion and expensive annual holidays where we travel far to bicker and fight with the people we bicker and fight with at home, that world.

I thought we only had one world?

Why do we lie to our kids? Why do we tell them we’re educating them to think for themselves, and when they do we punish them. We tell them to follow their dreams but by the time they reach their final school year they’ve forgotten what that was because we’ve only taught them how to write examinations, not how to turn their passions into a livelihood. We tell them they can be whoever they want to be but at school we train them to be just like us, focused on what needs to be done to get the money to get through the next week, month, year. We’ve trained them to chase the carrot. First it’s year 6, then it’s year 12 and the school leaving certificate after which it’s either University or an apprenticeship of some kind to get the car, then the house, then, … then it’s holding on for dear life until they have kids, while holding on tighter, getting them educated while dealing with career crises, mid-life crises, deaths, relationship collapses and while we’re losing grip they’re bursting into full bloom and they’re wide eyed and eager to live and you, after just barely getting through the same bad day you’ve been having everyday for the last 10 years, you catch them by the scruff and say “wait until you get into the real world!”

You don’t see the light fade from their eyes straight away, that takes time. But, if you’re lucky, and you’re a teacher, one day you look at them, and you see the light flickering in their eyes and you put aside the curriculum and tell them you’re taking them outside to sit or lie in the sun while you read Walt Whitman or Shakespeare sonnets to them. If you’re lucky enough to do that you grab the chance because you can feel the light flicker inside yourself too, and, sometimes you just have to sit in the sun and read poetry to get it back. At least for a while longer. It’ll fade in time. After all, the world out there is real, it sucks up light like a black hole. I guess that’s how Shakespeare imagined Denmark was for Hamlet.

*One of my favourite authors on the subject is Sir Ken Robinson. Check out his TED talk here . His book Creative Schools is a must read for anyone who cares about learning and education. 

How to watch a sunrise: morning

I was going to title this piece something minimalist like “morning” but I’ve found that adding ‘How to‘, to anything seems to gain readership. It’s one of the things a writer does, write and then find readers. So, firstly, thank you for taking the time to read this and to those of you who regularly read what I put out, thank you. I do not take your continued support lightly. I am currently exploring another writing site that hosts some worthwhile content, it’s called Medium and you can click on the name to take you there, after you’ve read this. It’s well worth exploring since it caters to a variety of genres.

Morning

It’s 6:30 am. I’ve been up since 4:30 grading English papers. My students appear to be struggling more than I realised. Now I am. Self doubt rises. After the 10th paper it has convinced me I might better serve the community in some other way. I start an internet search for local jobs, anything … postman! That sounds appealing from where I sit. Bukowski did it.

But, I know I won’t. The same way I secretly know I’ll probably not do so many of the things I said I would: like skydive (why did I even say that?), like ride to Key West on a Harley or travel the world in an old panel van or climb Mt Kilimanjaro, swim with dolphins, smoke a cohiba in Havana, talk books ‘n stuff with Stephen Fry, or … the bucket list disappears beneath an endless pile of essays. No. I won’t become a postman. I would stroll rather than walk, forget to post the letters, talk for too long to lonely people waiting for news from someone, anyone. I’d be a rubbish postman. I owe the bank too much. I am locked in for life.

Soon I am approaching the shadow world I know only too well. The bull that lives there shudders, ready to charge. Its front hooves rake the ground, it snorts. I make a cup of coffee. Sit outside, knees propping up my elbows, the coffee has little appeal. I get Macbeth,

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;

I breathe in too deep, cough. I look up.

It is immense. How did the sky stretch so wide? Has it always been so? So high (it seems daft to state the obvious. It feels I am noticing it unfold from space for the first time) and so low it feels that if I held up my arms I could stir the colours like I was Monet and God. Something within, that unidentifiable aspect of ourselves that is lost in the day to day doingness of things alerts my senses. I want to find words and the voice from that inner region grabs me by the scruff of my nightgown and says: “just look. Just feel. That’s all you need to do.”

So I do. I lose the need for words. I soak in the glorious warmth of burning pastel light. As the light grows brighter and the sky shifts to blue I take out my phone again and start finding the words. I can’t help myself. It is an impulse too ingrained. If I have not squeezed words onto the page, it never happened.

But, soon the moment will strain under the weight of the day. Pressed cold, olive like, the essence of it anoints me. Not as king, my kingdom is overrun by barbarians who have taken my crown and placed a number to live by in its stead. No, I am anointed as something better than a king. The sun anoints me renegade, maverick on walkabout in a world gone mad. I grade the papers with my old eyes. The ones that prompt the tongue to say

“here are your grades, but what is more important, I saw you loved the book and that will stay with you longer. Trash the paper, let’s read. Let’s read about sunrises and mushrooms and walls and old men on blasted heaths and then you may stand a chance.”

“A chance for what they will say”.

To which I shall reply: “If you can hold onto a poem longer than your mortgage contract then you might just survive this life. Then, scattered randomly through the interminable days of drudgery ahead of you, there will be sunrises that will take your breath away and remind you that in the light of that, nothing else really matters.”

The philosophy of lawn

I water the lawn (initially I wrote grass but realised it is socially ambiguous) twice a week on the days allocated to me by the city council. Restrictions on use were implemented to save water. ‘Watering days’ are determined by property numbers. I have a number 4 type house, even numbered houses may water for 15 minutes on Tuesdays and Saturdays. I’ve set my reticulation system to water for 20 minutes. Only one station works. (It’s a long story). Sometimes on odd evenings I water manually using a hose-pipe. We are subversive here in suburbia.

If elected officialdom had been using some of my tax dollars to respond seriously to climate change I would be more supportive of their minor representatives. They spend millions, probably billions (it’s only money) on fear. Buying submarines, detaining refugees, translating xenophobia into policy, incarcerating young people they could be educating and funding wealthy private schools to prepare the next wave of party leadership. A few years back one beige politician took a lump of coal into parliament and waved it around to endorse his future commitment to the mineral. He is now prime minister, still beige, still imprisoning instead of supporting. So, I’m not against saving water. I’m against laws that contribute to the illusion of a progressive society. Democracy is in crisis, the social contract between government and it’s people has lost all moral integrity. I won’t be told what to do by unthinking bureaucrats. This is the frontline in the struggle against the looming Bureaucratic Dictatorship. It’s a war zone. If we cannot stand here, where will we ever make a stand? The forces of banality are massed against us. I will support life on the few square meters of earth that was forcefully taken by a corrupt government some 200 years ago and then sold to me by a banking system (recently investigated by a Royal Commission and found to be lacking) that seeks to keep me in debt as long as I’m alive. No, this is not idle insubordination, it’s satyagraha.

The sprinklers on the pavement have broken so the grass there is dying. There is always something breaking or broken. I focus on the lawn in front of the house. It’s starting to turn deep green and thicken. The plants are doing well because I feed them regularly with trace elements and, when I am brave, with a vile smelling concoction derived in part from fish (clearly very dead). When my oldest goldfish died last week, I buried her and felt I was honoring her and doing the apple tree a favour at the same time. The soil here is poor. It’s not soil, it’s sea sand. Last summer I planted a Jacaranda tree. I water it and my Frangipanis every other day. Usually odd days. To get one’s lawn green requires dedication. Photosynthesis alone is not enough. Where I don’t want grass, it grows weedlike. In the flowerbeds it is invasive. It strangles flowers. It feels personal, an act of defiance. To remove the serpentine growth I must gouge the soil and feel for the sinuous threads then pull and hope to hear the roots tearing. It brings out the beast in me. The white root snakes the air like wire as I yank it from its grip on the soil. The act of gardening is a therapy, maybe an act of vengeance against all the systems forever stacked against us.

I acknowledge it as an outward sign for an internal process, a clearing. I do not wish to say cleansing. Cleansing suggests trendy Instagram focused egoism whilst trying to cultivate inner peace with one eye on your audience and sipping green tea in the shade of a jasmine creeper. No. This is war. Habitual watering is a symbolic gesture. There is the idea that this action, this repeated action, this ritual is a foreshadowing of a similar, internal process. Perhaps this way of thinking is more the result of my Catholic upbringing than experience. What the things are that will be cleared I do not know. Perhaps they will present themselves to me and then I will understand. In the meantime I take comfort from Beckett. These interminable and, of themselves meaningless, habits become the rythm of our lives. To spend thirty years of one’s life nurturing lawn, watching it die, reviving it, cutting it, letting it grow then die and reviving it over and over again is absurd. All of this on sea sand. I have become Sisyphus and swapped my boulder for a hose-pipe. I can only sustain this habit (it has become habit) if I find a good reason to continue. That is where I am. The reason is not apparent, not overtly logical. I will need to dig deep. In the meantime plants begin to die. This is annoying. Is there none of the resilience in them that weeds have? Can they do nothing for themselves? For hundreds of kilometers along the coast wild flowers grow unaided in abundance. A week without pampering in my garden and they begin to die. Well, everything dies eventually.

Entropy is the way of the world. The slow and steady dismantling of the particles that make up matter is relentless. The particles will in time be beaten back into their original, chaotic and randomly dispersed form. So it is with us. We are pulled apart piece by piece, bit by bit. Our deaths are just the gradual elimination of our parts until, too tired to fight back, we surrender the last thing we have, our breath. Even that is not ours but borrowed. We simple cease our habit of borrowing. And in the face of this we still seek meaning? We look for beauty, create it and share it. We’re either foolhardy or incredibly brave. Because of the people I know and have loved and lost I must conclude that this is an admirable quality. It is the defining feature of humanity. Giving in to the inevitable demise is an option. I get that option. There’s a blunt bravery there too. Perhaps carrying on is something that we do, not for ourselves but for those who could not, and we don’t know everyones story and are in no position to judge. Also, it is for those who must still face that choice. Either way, it is an offering of hope. It is an act of defiance. It is open rebellion and I am determined to go down fighting. I will resume my ritual of watering. I will be the root that must be pulled out of the earth with force. I will embrace absurdity. I shall wait by the tree with Vladimir and Estragon.

I learn, therefore I doubt.

Until I spoke to Ganesh, I thought I understood what learning was. I met Ganesh in 2003 in Mumbai. He was a blind in one eye street kid. He spoke some English, we talked a bit about his life, where we came from, the weather, the usual stuff. He showed us around for a while and we came to a local supermarket somewhere off the Colaba Causeway. To thank him for his help I bought him rice that came in a white linen bag with carry handles. He was grateful, so were we.

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He had attended school but now needed to help his mother care for his siblings. He said he could read so I told him to read as much as he could, more, as much as possible. In the Cafe Leopold I sensed the absurdity of such contrived advice to an 11 year old boy whose priority was survival. How uselessly abstract in this world of poverty, and I called myself a teacher? For days after, for years beyond that I felt I had ridiculed my own faith in literature. I began to doubt the power of books to change anything. Change is either loose coins in your pocket or an ideology. Reading had expanded my world, made it bigger. I had the luxury of imagining possibilities beyond my circumstances. Later studies in literature affirmed my devotion to writing but taught me to respect words the way you respect the sea for fear of it drowning you.
My time in Mumbai reminded me that Art, like God, is a personal thing. One’s own journey through either is not a template for humanity. Ganesh shone a light on my doubt. It has remained illuminated. I’ve learned to live with my ignorance. Maybe I don’t really teach. Sometimes it feels more like I’m assembling data as determined by policy makers who are in turn determined by elected officials whose priorities are in turn determined by elections. I feed a gargantuan social mechanism whose primary function is consuming basically functional, highly maleable cogs. I myself am also a cog.

So I don’t know much about learning. Twenty five years of teaching doesn’t build a skill set, it elevates ignorance to a more sophisticated level. It has enabled me to recognise the academic pretence of “experts” and see the greatest obstacle to learning is that their rhetoric has become the language of education. Teaching has become the craft of bureacratic window dressing, of marching young minds painstakingly through the ever narrowing arch of the final examinations. Years of ‘rigorous’ assessment press fresh minds into stale social moulds.

The term education is derived from the Latin word ‘educere‘ which means ‘to draw out’ or ‘to bring from’. Learning should not be about placing knowledge into people, that is what propaganda and politicians try to do. Besides, what is knowledge? Something to talk about another time perhaps? Education, in the real sense of the word, works from the inside out. Teachers ought to ignite within students the desire to know more about themselves and their world in order that they might extract from within themselves the means for living a meaningful life. In this respect I believe that teaching is a noble profession for what it professes to do-draw out of young people the best they have. Teaching, therefore, doesn’t pass knowledge on, it shows us where to look and where we start is where we end, with ourselves.

I believe schools are inherently places where learning is desired. I suspect it happens despite teachers or curriculum. It is possible that what we learn is simply what we need to know to survive life. And survival is what all of us do. Some do it in style in expensive mansions, some in surburbia and others in shanty towns or on the streets. I believe wisdom is what we learn about being alive and education is the commodity we purchase to make living comfortable. In the interim, between the wisdom and the knowledge, there is something far more important, love. Despite the trudgery and sadness of this flash of existence, we have to keep an open heart.

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I photographed this lady as we passed a beach close to a small community near the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai.

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I never saw her face and would not have photographed her if she were facing me. She walked to the edge of the beach with graceful dignity as waves crashed into shacks lodged precariously on the side of an embankment. She fixed her gaze on the horizon and did not look back for a long while.

Featured image: A washer takes a break in Dhobi Ghat, a huge open air landrey where the linen from the best hotels in the city are sent for cleaning and pressing.