The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

My Best Teacher 2 John

John was just that to us sixth formers: John. Never Mr H, never Sir, never a master. Just John. We were giddy with power.

He took great care to catch us doing something right, and to quietly let us know about it. My first, terrified essay gained a D, but the introductory paragraph was the best he'd seen - did I mind if the upper year studied it?

Flattery worked for John. It generally does with seventeen year olds. In the face of a tantrum on my part, or an agitated tirade about the state of the world, or Marxism, or how the other fools in the class just didn't understand seventeenth century religious cults in the same way I did, or any of those other things that couldn't possibly wait, becalmed, or hold a civil tongue about, he would preface his words carefully, inclining his head rather donnishly for such a liberal: "of course, you are more intelligent than I will ever be ... " [pause to allow seventeen year old head to swell to gigantic proportions] "... but have you considered this interpretation?"
It worked (and continues to work) infallibly.

Then he moved in for the kill, metaphorically speaking, by appearing to give us power. John wrote his own life into the lessons. He managed to appear to be following every trial and conceptual tribulation in each text with a similar dilemma in his own life. Could we assist him? Could we help him along this journey to find the truth?
Never explicitly saying that his marriage was in trouble (and as an adult, I doubt now that it was more than a matrix to draw us out of our self regard and into an adult world) nevertheless every lesson began to feel like a marriage guidance session. Generously admitting that our own seventeen years of experience was limited, we desperately searched for the meaning of life in the texts we were set, so we could bring it to him, help him out. To teach him.

Teachers of sixteen to eighteen year olds tend to assume restricted roles - the expert, the encourager, the dispenser of knowledge, the worldly adviser, the fellow explorer on the quest. John adopted the style of the patient questioner, and I've never been able to even hope to match his skill in doing so.