Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Lesson From an English Teacher

By Liam Heneghan

A Lesson From an English Teacher

A painfully memorable moment from high school was when, in response to my rather feeble answer to an interrogation about a plot detail from Jane Austin’s Persuasion, my English teacher, Mr —, walked the length of the classroom and placed his head in a waste paper basket. The symbolism of his gesture eluded me. Was it merely that my response was rubbish, or did the waste-paper basket represent, in microcosmic form, his assessment of the mediocrity of the world of second-level students at that moment in time? Or was he preforming a type of grim self-evaluation: if a student’s knowledge was that remedial surely the fault lay, somewhat at least, with the instructor? Whatever the correct interpretation was, he held his head there for a stunningly long-time, removing it only when the bell rang and he righted himself and, with great dignity, left the room. In retrospect I learned a great deal from Mr — about the power of literature, although his best lessons were admittedly outside the classroom rather than in it.

Mr — is a legendary teacher, and I see that he is named as an inspiration by at least one Dublin-born novelist. His was a deeply corrugated face, and he wore his longish gray hair in pageboy style. He possessed a remarkably sonorous voice which he used to impressive effect in the dramatic readings that formed the core of each class. He smoked Hamlet cigars—cheap Dutch smokes—and regularly sent schoolboys out to the local shop to resupply him. When in my last year of school, during a break from competitive state exams for placement in government service—a solid career, to which I then aspired—I incautiously smoked a Hamlet cigar to calm my nerves, I then spent the second half of the exam dealing with nausea in its aqueous phase. As a consequence, instead of a career in government service I went to college. Teachers take note: your influence is often both more and less than you suspect.

Mr. — admirably professed a disdain for exhaustively picking over the literature we read for deeper meanings. But an aptitude for micro-scrutiny was regarded as essential for success in the Leaving Certificate, the exam that determined a student’s post-high school career, so, therefore, with reluctance, Mr — taught us to parse with the best of them. What does the possession of conch symbolize in Golding’s Lord of the Flies? What is symbolized by the elevated platform of rock upon which those increasingly more savage boys assembled? Even weaker students—I’d count myself in their number—could mine a story for hefty meanings, few of which, perhaps, an author had ever intended. The genesis of my own small skills in literary criticism stems from arduous practice in Mr —’s class.

Cheap cigars and literary dissection are fine things in their own ways, but Mr. —’s greatest influence on me was quite oblique. Here’s how that lesson came about.

After the waste-paper incident I admittedly harbored some resentment for Mr —. No doubt he quickly forgot about it, after all such hi-jinx were routine with him: once he reclined for half a period on a student’s lap when he noticed him slip into inattention during one of his readings. Now that I thought was funny! Since ours was a relatively small community and our teachers were our neighbors I would see teachers out and about in Templeogue Village all the time. Once I ran into my Irish teacher the day after he had witheringly offered me a “gold star” for my drawing efforts after he examined the marginal sketches in my Irish dictionary. To his credit he nodded in my direction. But the whole business with the waste-paper basket had confirmed my crippling self-assessment as a dim-wit, one that I didn’t shake for several years. So, I kept a wary eye out for Mr —, avoiding him as best I could. Perhaps I did not want to have him be nonchalantly pleasant to me, and then feel obliged to forgive him.

The incident I have in mind with Mr — occurred on a Saturday afternoon. I was on a bus coming home from Dublin city center and spotted him on a seat across the way. He was reading.  I’m not sure what the title of his book was, but it was a Penguin paperback—in those days Penguins had distinctive orange dust jackets—thus it was a novel. Over the period of thirty minutes or so that I spied on him, Mr — barely moved.  He was leaning over the page, and as the bus jostled, his hair would sweep forward and form partial curtains along the edges of the book. Every few minutes with moistened finger he would turn the page. Mr — was thus a model of rapt attention. As the bus whisked by Bushy Park, which was about half a mile from Templeogue Village, I prepared to ring the bell and get off the bus.  Mr. — should also have been gathering up his shopping bags to alight the bus, for we shared a bus stop. But he was not budging, and so I left him to his book. This was not, I recall, to avoid having to approach him, nor even, in the tiniest of ways, to avenge myself on him. He may have had business further along the route. Primarily, I just sensed the importance of not disturbing him from that world he was now inhabiting; one that was more compelling, even if just for a half an hour or so, than the external world with mediocre students, bottomless stacks of essays to mark, and all of a person's quotidian tasks.

After getting off the bus and crossing the road, I paused and stared after the bus as it belched through the village. Just when it seemed like it would continue on to Rathfarnham, the next town after ours, it jolted to a halt and Mr — jumped off, newly restored to our world. It seems a tiny matter, I suppose, but as I perceived it then, and as I still do, it provided me with the perfect symbol of literature’s gravitational pull. Books can  do this, books  can really do this. It was something that I never learned in a classroom.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Note on Rereading John Betjeman's Poems

For my twenty-first birthday, my youngest brother Paul gave me a collected volume of John Betjeman’s poetry. Betjeman remains one of the most popular of the English poets and if every so often in the late summer I describe an acquaintance who looks especially sun kissed as “furnish’d and burnish’d” it is Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song that I am quoting.

There is undeniably a lovely specificity to Betjeman’s observations of people, and a rootedness in the distinctive English countryside. In describing Betjeman’s world and work the poet W H Auden coined the term topophilia. The word has its etymologically roots in the Greek philia meaning love and topos meaning place. We all, I suppose, find places to love, but Betjeman had a peculiarly acute visual imagination that Auden felt he had not. Auden felt himself to be too much of a “thinking type.” The value of reading Betjeman may be that his poems draw attention to something that we don’t notice missing in ourselves until we see it written down.  But a Betjeman poem does not, I think, merely alert us to our deficiency—for that would be sad—rather, it can coach us to be alert to the possibilities of place.