Saturday, January 07, 2012

Visceral learning

It's almost the end of the school holidays, and the thoughts of even this retired teacher turn, once more, to education. Is it my coming to the end of a job which involved setting exams for standardised testing? I don't know. But in conversation the other day I found myself stating the three most important facets of my own education - most important in that they are foundational to the me that is me now, today, the person who recognises her own strengths and is confident in the use of them and in the acknowledging of weakness in other areas.

9 yr old blethers
I learned to read long before I started school. I can remember the look of a particular book of numbers and letters to which I was devoted - and the setting of my memory makes me three years old, as my mother was in the nursing home giving birth to the sister who is three years younger than me. I can recall all too readily the excruciating boredom of listening to other children in my Primary One class struggling to read aloud to the teacher, of hating one poor girl because of her hesitant voice and the long silences between words ... syllables ... Her name was Carol. What I don't remember is being made to learn letters and words. They seem to have come to me in the daily business of living, and there was certainly no pain or resentment involved. And  by the age of seven I was reading Treasure Island.

For the last twenty years or so, I have known about poetry. That sounds very prosaic, at once sweeping and vague. But I mean I know how poetry works, why it works; I have learned how the right word in the right place can stir emotion in the reader, how a sudden shining image can transform a piece of writing - or a sermon, come to that - and I have explored these exciting possibilities in my own writing. And how did this come about? I certainly wasn't like this as a young teacher, let alone as a student at school or university. What brought about the epiphany?

I think it can only be described as a visceral need to know. Poetry, as my father's wonderful note on the subject began, poetry, like all the arts, is useless. There is no practical need for it - so it's not like basic reading skills. Somewhere along the road, however, teaching Larkin's poetry to seniors, I suddenly got it. And I have this picture of myself, on either a holiday or recovery from a sickie, sitting at the table in our dining room with three books open in front of me - the Selected Letters, Andrew Motion's A Writer's Life,  and Larkin's Collected Poems. For perhaps the first time in my life I was behaving like a real student, reading, comparing, contextualising, making notes - and all for my own enjoyment. There was no reason for this depth of study in terms of the teaching I had to do, but for the fifteen years or so after this event I was aware of the added depth, the insights I was able to share, the asides that would bring a poem to life for someone else. I did the same with the work of R.S.Thomas, buying slim volumes eagerly as they came out, even copying a whole collection laboriously by hand into a notebook when I realised it was out of print. I studied his style as it changed over the years, his subject matter, his autobiographical writings; I read both the unauthorised biography by Justin Wintle and the much more perceptive one by Byron Rogers. Two summers ago I visited two of R.S.'s parishes, and bought another small collection I'd never encountered. Two weeks ago, I re-read some of his work and was able to find the words to write another poem of my own. No purpose here, only enrichment and excitement.

The third leg of this self-motivated learning props up what I am doing at this very moment. From the day when I decided that I wanted to touch-type while my second-born infant had his afternoon nap, I was on the road to being what I am probably best known for now. I asked a friend who taught Business Studies if there was a good way to learn this skill; he gave me an old school text-book to prop up beside my portable typewriter and I started - two fingers, two hands, three fingers .... Then came the day, years later and back teaching,  when I sacked most of the pupils who could use Adobe Pagemaker and had to learn desktop publishing for myself, and my latest forays involve YouTube videos and Google+ hangouts. You could argue that there was a degree of practical necessity in there - the magazine would have died the death had I not learned to format it - but there was no compulsion for me to run it at all. It was fun, though.

And that last sentence sums the whole thing up. It was fun. It is fun. Nowadays, I'll not stick with anything that doesn't engage and absorb me. The idea of sitting for hours on uncomfortable bench seats at cramped desks listening to boring teachers talking about quadratic equations appalls me. (When did you last use a quadratic equation?) What a dreadful penance to impose on the innocent young. What did it do for me? Even in the English class I found a way to opt out and became expert at reading under the desk, where I would stash a pack of Mintolas to sweeten the experience (soft enough to swallow whole to avoid detection). Now, if we'd been exploring our own passions, I could have told you all about the vicissitudes of first century Rome - for that was an enthusiasm of my mid-teens.

And that too was fun.


  1. Quite- as I say at the start of Para 4!

  2. Dear Christine,
    "Blethers" surely suits my fancy of a blog that branches my dendrites. Now I have two new poets to discover.

    Like you, I want my learning to be fun. And the strangest things can excite me and lead me down the yellow-brick road to adventure.

    I think all this started when Dad and Mom bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias in about 1946. Every evening Mom, Dad, my brother, or I would invariably ask a question about the news or politics or the sunset.

    Dad or Mom would say, "Go look it up." One article in the first volume would lead to another, to another, to another. By bedtime, we'd have dragged all the volumes into the living room. The last task of the evening was putting away the encyclopedias and kissing one another good-night. Learning had so much meaning.

    Good memories. Thank you.


  3. Dee, I've just learned a new word! Hurrah for dendrites!

  4. Hello, This is my first time at your blog. I flew here after reading of you on Perpetua's blog. I see you are not only a retired teacher, but a life-long-learner as well. Well, that strikes a chord in me.
    So good to have stopped by. BTW I am part Scottish, on my father's side, though have never been to your fair country. It's on my short list of Must-See Destinations. Cheers