Searching for Treasure

The best school I ever taught in was a small Catholic College in inner suburban Melbourne. It was run by Marist Brothers. I wasn’t Catholic but they desperately needed a teacher in the middle of term and I was the only applicant. I stayed there for ten years. The school drew its pupils from the surrounding suburbs and they were almost all from migrant families with a definite preponderance of Italians, Vietnamese and Lebanese. Unfortunately the ‘gentrification’ of the area saw these families moving to outer suburbs and young wealthy up and comers moving in. These new families sent their darlings to the top private schools and in the end the school was closed down.

So I needed a job, in Ballarat, to see out my final ten years before retirement. Again, out of desperation on my part, I applied for a job in a small Pentecostal School. This school had only been going for one year and because I could teach English, Maths, Science, History and Geography, I got the job. I was not prepared for this. Most of the students had been “Home Schooled” by their parents and had a collection of more problems than I had ever confronted before. And the text books were all from the US of A. I had no idea how to teach these students maths when the questions included stuff like, “If Mom sent you to the drug store with five dollars and you came back with two Dollars, three quarters, five nickels and seven dimes, how much did you spend?” And the Science book had a magic line in one chapter that said we did not need to worry about Global Warming because God would look after His creation.

But they did decide, after a few years to use texts approved by the Victorian Education Department. I have very fond memories of one very special English lesson. It was a pivotal time in the teaching of English in that school. I was teaching a class of apathetic year nines who had little enthusiasm for anything but gameboys and an inability to wear their trousers around their waists.

The class happened to be poetry. How serendipitous. The chapter in the English text-book – which was one of the most commonly used in Victoria at the time – was a complete unit on poetry with a list of outcomes to be reached. The third or fourth poem was this one. I must quote it to let you see the point of the whole story.

Sit down in the back of the bus.

Sit down in the back of the bus.

Sit down in the back of the bus.

Sit down in the back of the bus.

Sit down in the back of the bus.

Sit down in the back of the bus.

Sit down in the back of the bus.

Sit down in the back of the bus.

It needed to be read out aloud with the emphasis changing every line. Now this may or may not be a neat little exercise in the use of emphasis to change meaning but it certainly isn’t poetry. I asked the class if they had liked the poem. They all grunted and in some cases nodded without enthusiasm. So I asked why none had the courage to say that it was garbage. At this point they all heaved a sigh of relief and we discussed the ‘poem’. Actually the discussion was more a question. “If we think this is garbage and you think this is garbage why is it in our English book?”

At this stage I had no quick answer and the bell went.

At home that night I sat and watched “The Simpsons”. Now I don’t know if you are a Simpsons aficionado or not but the episode that night included Lisa coming home all upset and complaining to her mother that she was furious about one of her teachers. Her complaint was that her teachers were always “dumbing down” to them. I had never heard the phrase before but it changed the last five years of my teaching career.

Next day I went to my class and explained to them how we had been dumbing down to them for too long and it was time they got angry and demanded to be treated better.

During that period I set them the task of learning off by heart Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.

Ozymandias
BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

They all complained and said it was too hard. I told them that tomorrow I would bring to class two boxes. In one box would be twenty children’s books that I borrowed from the infants school. In the other would be some of the great treasures of English Literature. Each student would stand and recite, unaided, Ozymandias and if successful could go to the treasures box and if not successful would have to be satisfied with the baby box. These are the names they gave to the boxes. Some hesitation and skipped lines would be accepted but the decision was to be made by the class itself. Not by me.

That next morning was a little bit interesting. Three students were word-perfect. A majority were given approval to delve into the treasure box by their class mates on the basis of having done a reasonable job. I thought they had been let off too easily but it did show me that the class as a whole wanted to go to the treasures box. One student who would play an important role in the next phase of the programme just sat and told me, and the class, that he wasn’t going to do it. He then got up and went and picked out a ‘baby’ book. Another boy stood up and very bravely, I thought, said that he had not had the chance to learn the words because there was a crisis in the family and his elder brother who was a drug addict had come home and wrecked the place. The class decided that he should be permitted to go to the treasures box. He declined and said he would only do that when he had learned the sonnet and asked for an extension to the next day.

 

That was the start and tomorrow I will tell you more. I think there will be about three or four more posts on this topic.

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22 thoughts on “Searching for Treasure

  1. I enjoyed that — it reads like fiction, and the first draft of a book. (Is it?)
    In fact, the further down the page I went, the more it reminded me of “To Sir, With Love” by E.R. Braithwaite. It’s been a while since I read it but just looking at the excerpt on Goodreads (attached below) your post sounded like the beginnings of something as compelling.

    Looking forward to more!

    “He shamed them, wrestled with them, enlightened them, and – ultimately – learned to love them. Mr. Braithwaite, the new teacher, had first to fight the class bully. Then he taught defiant, hard-bitten delinquents to call him “Sir,” and to address the girls who had grown up beside them in the gutter as “Miss”.

    He taught them to wash their faces and to read Shakespeare. When he took all forty-six to museums and to the opera, riots were predicted. But instead of a catastrophe, a miracle happened. A dedicated teacher had turned hate into love, teenage rebelliousness into self-respect, contempt into into consideration for others.”

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    1. Thanks for your comment. First of all it isn’t fiction. And the obnoxious boy who wouldn’t participate turned around. That is a chapter in itself.
      And finally, my advice to all aspiring teachers when they ask about discipline is , “You have to love them and they need to know you love them and if you do that they will do anything you ask them to do.”

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Sorry about the confusion: I understood it wasn’t fiction, I was trying to ask whether it was the beginning of a potential book (brackets should have gone before period).

        I suspect there are few things that love doesn’t cure; the problem comes in having the capacity to love and the ability to express it appropriately. From what you write, you were a great teacher! (There was nothing as memorable or as motivating as the ‘baby box’ and ‘treasures box’ in my childhood. The teacher and the class slogged through world literature, one book at a time, with equal disinterest.)

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      2. …and I haven’t ever thought of writing a book. Although after forty plus year of teaching I s’pose I could.. However I have already summed up my philosophy. “You hafta love em. And they haf ta know you love em. And if you do they will do anything you want em to do.

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      3. … and sometimes random fellow bloggers have to point out that there’s material for a book in anecdotes like those 🙂 Your philosophy is the book’s core, the rest is the story that’ll drive it home for people.

        (That’s why I brought up the Braithwaithe book. Looking on Wikipedia it says ‘To Sir, With Love is a 1959 autobiographical novel by E. R. Braithwaite set in the East End of London. The novel is based on true events concerned with Braithwaite taking up a teaching post in a school there.’)

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  2. I really look forward to more of this. I think we all remember our very good and very bad teachers. Well I do. My French teacher always told us war stories on a Friday afternoon – who wants to do French on a Friday afternoon at school? But the rest of the week we did FRENCH. My grade 5 sewing teacher read “The Secret Garden” chapter by chapter and I still love the story. But it helped cement a love for reading I still have. But no teacher tried to challenge us with something like ‘Ozymandias’. I think I missed out!

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  3. So many great comments above. I do believe teaching is about winning hearts, not minds. If students don’t trust you as a good person, you might as well turn in your resignation. Your description of what awaited you in Ballarat gave me a roaring headache just reading it! We have dumbed down learning in our public schools, and are now churning out alternatively schooled young people who don’t have a clue what it means to function relationally or independently in the real world. OK. Maybe that’s a little over the top, but sadly, it’s all too true of all too many.
    Elouise

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