If we see life as one vast, wonderfully-bound, Chaucerian poem, all curlicued script, colourful cast of characters and illuminated letters, The Teacher’s Tale is bound to come cantering up on lively palfrey at some point in the narrative, all eager ellipsis, mordant metaphor, sizzling simile and high-faluting hyperbole!
Ah! The tales teachers could tell – and, in some cases, do*! But, I pray your indulgence as I unravel a scroll containing one particular gold-limned article of faith amongst all educators: The Tough Question!
Over my lengthy travel along the byroads and highroads of education, I was regularly stopped by small (and large) adolescent imps, each holding its grenade of embarrassing query, pin pulled out, deadly pineapple ready to throw!
These questions often revolved around bodies (and the various human uses to which they could be put) – and were, it has to be said, a snare and a gashing trap to the maiden lady (and a bit of a bugger even to those of us who had been round the block a few times!).
Insatiable curiosity, combined with the diplomatic skills of a warthog, tend to make for some dashed awkward conversations – as one battles a desire to educate with honesty and the fear of being hurled out on one’s ear if mention of private parts comes into the mix!
The little darlings are, of course (and as we all were) perennially fascinated by the private lives of the chalk-begrimed fossils who teach them – and, often-convinced that we actually LIVE in the Staffroom, evince genuine surprise to see us driving/cycling/running home at the end of a day.
They also have their rumour mill grinding out the wheat of passion twenty-four seven, and teachers have but to smile at one another to be asked, with point-blank frankness, ‘Miss? Are you having an affair with Mr Jones/Miss Smith/The School Cat?’
But the most fruitful cache of squirm-worthy questions come, without a doubt, from the subject matter one is trying to force into their reluctant heads. I wasn’t a Biology teacher (thank Goddess!) – but the lurid nature of queries lobbed in the labs caused many a sympathetic glance at those poor sods who were, bananas and prophylactics and how to combine them being the very least of the horror!
However, being an English teacher came a very close second, particularly when faced with, for example, decoding the Drunken Porter’s speech in ‘Macbeth‘ to a class full of fifteen year olds, their eagerness for precision in the matter of what drink caused evidenced by the veritable Birnam Wood of hands waving manically in the air!
I came to dread that blush-inducing rider, ‘Yes, but what does it actually MEAN, Miss?’
Perhaps even worse, in many ways, were the questions which went to the heart of the moral uncertainty so much literature brings to the fore. I often taught ‘Lord of the Flies’ at GCSE level – and a frequent question was, ‘But why did they kill Simon? Was it deliberate?’ Negotiating that minefield was hard physical and emotional work.
So, as I remount my lively pony – now caparisoned in the colours of the writer – and canter over hill and dale on my way to catch up with the Canterbury-bound Pilgrims, I reflect that the tough question’s diamond-hard centre does not always lie in its intellectual content; the earth-bound variety can be every bit as tricky.