education, existentialism, on looking, poetry, suburbia, teaching, words, writing

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.”

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education, India, philosophy, Teaching

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.

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Uncategorized

“What a piece of work is a man!”

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An effective tool to counteract the onset of tedium induced by the interminable routine of work is to think of oneself as being an actor on stage. Ultimately it is all entertainment that is short-lived; this relieves one of the burden of taking oneself too seriously. Like life, the nature of work is full of contradictions. It is while doing what we loathe that we understand what we enjoy and even as we pursue what we love we encounter moments of dreariness where we hate the activity. Wittgenstein suggests that when we think we are exploring ideas we are really only exploring the language that represents the ideas. Since language, as the construction material of understanding, hovers between the negative and positive poles of binary opposites, we should not be surprised that life mirrors this perpetual tension.
Perhaps we have become addicted to pleasure and chase the ‘happy’ fix as a by-product of particular action or thought. Pleasure is not happiness and expecting life or work to offer a consistent flow of happiness is a fantasy, like trying to attain the never-ending orgasm. We need to experience the tension between loving and hating to settle into contentment where acceptance of both generates balance. The workplace offers us this tension in abundance and becomes the testing ground of our personal philosophies and belief systems. As emotional beings it is no wonder that we seek pleasure over pain. However, we are also rational beings and this is the space where we process the needs of our work and deliver the goods.
The industrial revolution introduced the era of technology, of systems and production that threatens to transform humankind into units of labour and consumption. It mechanized war and initiated medical breakthroughs which have contributed to increased longevity. Despite increased health and leisure time we appear to be more depressed than ever before. We hate work and in a manner befitting the twenty first century, are consuming our way to happiness with fanatical frenzy. Edwin Brock’s poem “Five ways to kill a man” remains an apt reflection of the human condition. In the poem he concludes that the simplest way to kill a man is “to see that he is living somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and leave him there.” The dehumanizing effect of the modern world is a central feature of our art and literature. It is why we still need to come to terms with the notion of work and its impact in our theatre of being.
The prospect of a lifetime of a daily routine to and from work terrified me as a young man and it induced a crisis of being in my early 20’s. The anticipation of being bound to a lifetime of tedium seemed like suicide by slow ordeal. Overcome with hopelessness and growing despair I began searching for meaning within the perpetual slog of repetitive daily routine. I discovered Camus, Leonard Cohen and resilience. My work, engaging young minds in a classroom was fulfilling, but beyond the classroom the rigid regulation bound world of school systems was an internal corrosive. I felt little more than a bureaucratic cog in an immense sausage machine tasked with churning out productive, law abiding citizens who would in turn feed the system ad nauseam.
An event in my first year of teaching illustrates my growing sense of isolation in the school system. Walking along a corridor I came across a year 12 student standing and facing the red brick wall outside a classroom. His nose nearly touched the wall. I suspected he was the subject of Calvinist rehabilitation (corporal punishment was regarded an essential aspect of education then). I paused and shuffled up next to him to stare at the wall,
“OK, I’m looking but I don’t get it?” I said.
“I left my homework at home.” He replied.
“And you hope to find it here?”
He chuckled, “ma’am (female teachers were addressed as ma’am) told me to stand here like this.”
“I suppose it’s better than being inside” I said. We both laughed, too loud. The classroom door opened and the diminutive but steely tyrant stared me down, sneered, sniffed dismissively and shut the door. In that instant I was no longer a colleague but a bumbling school boy. Embarrassed and confused by the situation and my own response, or lack thereof, I slunk away like a child.
It was a seminal moment that began to shape my attitude to work. I felt like a failed court jester and knew I could never expect the system to nurture or support me beyond the meagre salary it provided. Fulfilment at work would depend less on the work being done and more on my frame of mind while doing it. “I work for myself” became my mantra rules became a rough guide secondary to creativity and fun. I wanted to generate enthusiasm and curiosity and have students look forward to getting to class, as much for myself as for them. I admitted ignorance to my students, I could be honest and debates were commonplace; students were learning and I was having fun at work. Later that year we first year teachers were being lectured by a teaching veteran, “work at discipline, work hard and work will be easy…”his voice droned on but all I could hear was Hamlet sigh “words, words, words …”.
By Mike Scallan

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So there I am with my unruly pack,  in the library,  to read. Yeah right!

A handful of serious readers are face-planted in their novels. The rest,  the other 22, form clutches sprawled around our awesome student friendly reading room. Here three boys each have a copy of Guinness World records and they share bizarre facts,  a competition to see who can find the grossest recorded fact. They’re engaged,  all good.

Over there two students are doing some strange yoga or getting comfortable, too early to tell. There five students are draped over the comfy floor cushions,  giant multi-coloured squashed marshmallows. They’re reading magazines and graphic novels. One student is going the extra mile and reading his book upside down, a copy of “Where’s Wally?”.

Two girls are cocooned in the reference section, almost asleep. Lucky them!  Then there are the boomerang gang. They keep coming back with new ways of testing my ingenuity and patience.
Fancy a game of poker with us?  Tom winks while dealing to Steve.
I’ll show you a trick sir,  then we’ll read,  ok?
I say okay like it’s my decision. The trick is good,  really good but I don’t say wow! Not yet.
One more? Tom says.
One more, and tell you what,  I’ll read to you. Deal? I ask.
Deal! They echo in unison.

True to their word they do the trick, make the queen of hearts reappear, drop the cards into the plastic box and lok at me expectantly.

Tom, you’re the musician, beat-box for me I say. I happen to have my poetry anthology open at an Emily Dickinson poem, should be interesting to say the least.

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Tom begins a rhythmic tapping of the table, sounds his tchook, tsk, pututt …

                                               Because I could not stop for Death –
                                               He kindly stopped for me –
                                               The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
                                               And Immortality

I’m more shocked at how well Dickinson lends herself to rap than the sudden attentiveness of students. We do another stanza and another and now i’ve created more noise than all of the students i’ve been shushing since we arrived. Somehow it seems ok. I page through my anthology screening lines for rhyme. Lord Byron …

                                                             And thou art dead, as young and fair
                             As aught of mortal birth;
                                                               And form so soft, and charms so rare,
                             Too soon return’d to Earth!
                                                              Though Earth receiv’d them in her bed,
                              And o’er the spot the crowd may tread
                                                                                      In carelessness or mirth,
                              There is an eye which could not brook
                                                                           A moment on that grave to look.

It’s a revelation, I think I get rap! It’s awesome! I feel like a kid discovering sherbet for the first time. I have a selfish thought, if they’ve learnt nothing, stuff it – that was amazing.

Soon it’s time to pack away and on their way out two girls are jiving to a line of Byron while Tom slaps Colin’s head in lieu of a table.
Thanks for the lesson sir, they shout after me…

Thank you all I reply.
On the way home I’m rapping the witches scene from Macbeth
fair is foul
and foul is fair
Hover through the fog
and the filthy air…

staccato beats on the steering wheel, foot tapping, in minutes my heart rate is up and and I’m smiling wide, this has got to be good for me. Does this mean I’m a bro in the hood? Too far?

poetry, rap, Teaching

The day Dickinson got rapped

Emily Dickinson lends herself very successfully to rap, it’s a revelation to me.

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Teaching

Stacking chairs: last lesson of the day via Hemingway and a bullfight

It’s 34 degrees Celsius, 27 students have just arrived from double maths, it’s the last period of the day. They are like prison inmates smelling freedom for the first time. Grown men have taken flight from less terrifying prospects than trying to teach English under these circumstances.

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… , then Devon starts throwing the pieces of an eraser he has been meticulously slicing into cubes at Jonathan on the opposite side of the classroom. Jonathan has been drawing a dragon, that’s really quite cool, and looks with bewilderment up at the ceiling which gets the trebuchet crew to begin buckling over in restrained laughter. Meanwhile Alice is deeply engaged in coversation with Molly who, having caught my stare, is feigning interest while under the desk her hand is trying to shush her friend or at least draw her attention to me. Jill, Skye and Candice, bless them, are disassociating from the class by focusing on me with such intent it’s quite unnerving. Jack and Ben are duelling light sabers that look just like pencils, their sound effects are fantastic!
I sense a disturbance in the force paduans, put aside your weapons, someone may get hurt. As I walk away I can hear the light sabers deactivating.

With faultering enthusiasm I explain how Hemingway’s writing is like an iceberg. Most of what’s important is not written, not seen, we have to fill in the gaps…
Like the gaps between Tony’s teeth? Josh shouts.
Tony, your teeth are fine, unlike the gap between Joshua’s ears. Josh leads the laughter, I smile, high five him. Ok, we’re on.
Hemingway loved bullfighting. One of his mates was gored, got a horn where you don’t want one. They’re sufficiently intrigued. A little blood goes a long way, and I am in blood stepped so far I must go on.

Sometimes, the bull wins. The bullfight is a metaphor for life,
Picasso was intrigued by the bullfight as well. The matador has ten minutes to make a clean kill. As the frothing, bleeding ton of muscle charges you, you must stand your ground and drive the sword behind the neck down into the heart.
I demonstrate the swirl and downward thrust with the board ruler, quite elegantly I believe.


Sir, if there was a bull here, I reckon you’d be dead.


Thanks Davo for that vote of confidence.
Undeterred I continue. You know, sometimes school or reading a novel for English can feel like being chased by a bull. What do you do?

You grab a white-board ruler and stab it sir? Josh says, he’s on a roll.

You do whatever you need to do, but you stand your ground and do it, I say.

Just “do it” Chris jabs Donovan in the ribs, raucous laughter ripples through the class.

Yep, that’s how you fight your bulls.

Then one day you wake up and realise that all this stuff you’ve been doing, is actually for yourself. That’s a great moment, one I hope you all have. It’s about looking at things differently. Changing your perspective …


The end of the day arrives and I ask the students to stack their chairs. A daily ritual to acknowledge the people coming in later to clean, a nod of thanks and a closure. They stack their chairs. Some of them show me they’ve listened to what I’ve said. They’re looking at things differently, and I’m the richer for it. Thanks guys, you make me smile from the inside out.
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poetry

A teacher’s sonnet

DSC_0178Let me not to the marking of scripts

Let me not to the marking of many scripts
admit ineptitude. Sanity is not sanity
which fails when it flaws finds
or bends with the writers who are deluded.
Oh no! It is an ever flowing cup
of coffee trudged through calloused catacombs to invigilate
in the long grey hours that are cold, lonely, never up.
Oh these hours on hours on days. These days I hate.
Sanity’s not for sissies, fool! It’s a fragile brew
within the double coiled loops of this lamentable distillery
where load shedded neurons along the grey folds are few
still hoping through hell for relief from this pillory.
And if it be shown that this is sanity
I’ll trade my next paycheck for a frontal lobotomy.

M scallan

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philosophy

What is progress?

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I contemplate progress through Ernest Hemingway’s maxim – “never confuse movement with action.”

As a teacher I ought to say that progress is quantifiable through rigorous assessment during 12 years of formal education. However, education often appears to resemble movement under duress. Much of our modern education is about compliance with set curriculum, testing to establish standards and allocating percentages to students to facilitate their swift processing through the system. It seems we are less interested in the individual’s progress than in their results that will justify the efficacy of the system.

Authentic progress is a series of internal shifts for which there is no accurate means of measurement. An individual’s progress is determined by the context of their lives. There is no universal standard for personal progress. Social or institutional criteria of progress are set and administered for the benefit of the organisation to which the individual belongs. An improvement in social standards and education does not equate to progress. History reflects that an educated society can be swayed by the demands of irrational and psychotic dictators.

Progress is not a state of being, a process or even an objective. It is an abstract social artefact, a dialect of power. Like truth, justice and equality it is a language that those in power speak to synchronise the social machine they control. It creates the illusion of concern for the individual.

After 25 years of teaching I have past students who have become doctors, CEO’s and leaders in their chosen field. They have advanced spectacularly. However, the student whose progress made the most lasting impression on me was the young man who, after spending 18 months in detention, whispered to me “I can’t read and I want to. Can you teach me?” Some students acquire knowledge because they can, some to satisfy parental ambitions and some because they know that this is what is expected of them. They move. A minority of students pursue knowledge to sate their curiosity of the world. They understand that knowledge is a personal quest for which reward is irrelevant. They progress. I have told fretful parents that their children are ‘making progress’ to assuage parental neurosis and relieve myself of lengthy philosophical diatribe. Most students get to where they need to go despite their parents and the education system that has formed them.

Young people will navigate their unique path through and beyond school. Their progress will depend on the quality of their humanity, not their qualifications. Progress in schools may reflect the student’s ability to comply more than their personal development. Education is like a waltz. Instead of assessing who has danced and how they danced we should be teaching the dancers to appreciate the music. Would Sisyphus be progressing each time he summited the mountain with his boulder? Perhaps mankind’s progress is an ongoing struggle with himself? We must assess progress alongside our brutality and our ability to be gentle. We are all born into the species Homo sapiens, not everyone progresses to become human.

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