Monday, January 19, 2009

All The Small Things

I've just been reading David Dean Bottrell's blog Parts and Labor, as well as watching his short film Available Men. Now here is a very talented writer, who presents some bizarre observations of life in L.A. - nothing out of the ordinary and yet extraordinary at the same time. It's all in the way it's written of course.

So, it got me motivated to write something too, not really knowing what I would write about. That's the difficulty with being a teacher - so many absurdly funny things happen in the course of a day in a high school, yet to write about them without crossing the boundaries of professionalism is a virtually impossible task.

Students remember teachers. They are usually one of our top five when asked to identify people who were most influential in our lives, not always for the right reasons. Nonetheless teachers have a remarkable impact on students. Conversely some students do not leave a lasting impression on teachers and for the most part when they do it is for absolutely the wrong reasons.

This is a passing observation of overheard conversations and reminiscences of others, because teaching for me has been about the students and there is so much of a sense of achievement to be had from their achievements that it is easy to forget the rare occasions when things don't go according to plan.

For example: a couple of years ago (indeed twice that) I was teaching a year 9 history class. Now, one could speculate, based on my request to not teach year 9 history the following year, resulting in me teaching two classes of it instead, that I am reasonably good at this. However, history was one of my worse subjects at school, added to which more than a decade of studying social science has turned me into an evidence snob who demands empiricism and shuns anecdotes from the trenches. Notwithstanding all of the above I did my best.

We were studying Native American culture and I came up with the idea of making tepees on the school field - a great plan which inspired the students, who got together right away and set to work on the designs for their teepee. It all looked great on paper. Alas, the following week, when they were all to bring sheets to make their tepees only one student actually arrived with an interesting circa 1974 floral nylon sheet. Now, we could all have crowded around our one beige and brown tent and even taken turns to sit inside, but for one other slight problem. I forgot to bring the sticks. Fortunately for me the rain saved me from confessing, but for the record I'm really sorry!

A year later I was clearing out the boot of my car and still I could not bring myself to dispose of the paper and skewer substitutions created in that lesson. I had enough miniature tepees to set up an entire Sioux model village, all adorned with various buffalo designs and whatnot. Later still, after I finally plucked up the courage to throw away their hard work, I found their World War I projects in a cupboard and once more, wracked with guilt, dutifully extracted the paper from each and placed it into the recycling bin. It was like taking the clothes of a deceased loved one to the charity shop.

I wonder if those students remember their tepees? Will they in years to come tell friends and children about them? Will I one day get an Friend Request on Facebook that asks "Have you still got my tepee Miss?".

It's fascinating to think that one can become immortalised simply by being a teacher. Mr. Wright was the one for me - he had a missing tooth and a dog called Brandy (I recall). He played the piano (Mr. Wright, not Brandy) and called me McGillyGoody. I showed promise in Maths and Music, both his specialisms, and may even have been his favourite student.

He was eccentric, a little erratic, ultimately one of those teachers who was either loved or hated. I loved him. He made me want to learn and he taught me many things. With Mr. Wright long multiplication was a breeze and I didn't even mind when he wrote my name in massive scrawl across the board as a means of drawing attention to my achievements.

Back then pupil work wasn't evidence, so I doubt he saved any of mine, or anyone else's for that matter. I wouldn't be hurt to find out that he didn't and, now as a teacher, I'd understand. But it would still be nice to think that I too had an impact on him, however small that might be.

Even as small as a miniature tepee.