Striding towards the classroom, she asked herself questions that toppled the self-confidence she’d built up over the holidays.
Am I getting too old?
Will I still be able to communicate with them?
Will they start by hating Shakespeare and end up hating him even more?
Will they laugh at my jokes?
Will they even recognise when I’m making a joke?
Outside the classroom which thumped with raucous male voices, she paused and admonished herself.
Look firm, organised and full of energy.
Don’t let them think you’re a fluffy teacher who wants to be their friend.
Go in swinging. (I can use clichés if I like, but only to myself.)
The streaming of English classes according to students’ subject choices meant that her Year 11 class had nineteen boys and six girls. They’d all chosen Physics, Chemistry and another science and the highest level of Maths. They’d probably do their Maths homework every night just for the joy of it. English would be their lowest priority.
A decision had to be made in the next few seconds. How would she make her entrance – come in unobtrusively and wait for silence, or burst in and take command? Both those techniques were part of her repertoire. The first was her natural style. She opted for that.
She strolled into the classroom, skirted a group of boys grieving in trumpet tones about having to walk out of this morning’s epic surf, put her books on the teacher’s desk and stood beside it, a pencil clasped loosely in her hands. She thought of the pencil as a symbol of her authority – a fantasy no student could possibly imagine. Silence fell in pockets until “Bloody English – bor-ring!” from a sneering male voice tumbled into a void.
Everyone found a seat, all the girls together near the front. Christine let the silence stretch out. She had no more than a few seconds to decide what she’d say first. Would she do her blood and sex speech? If she didn’t get it right, it could alienate some and offend others. If she did it well, she’d hook in most of them from the beginning. When one of the girls flicked her eyes at her neighbour, Christine knew she had no more time. Keeping her voice low so the students had to strain to hear, she began.
“English is compulsory and Shakespeare’s compulsory too. From what I’ve just heard, at least one of you isn’t too happy about that.”
There were a few begrudging smiles, but most waited warily for what was to come.
“Why do teachers inflict Shakespeare on students? Many think it’s because he uses beautiful poetic language. I think it’s because he knows about love and sex, violent jealousy and head-kicking ambition. He knows that families are breeding places for resentment and hatred.”
The girl in front of her stopped twirling a strand of hair around her finger. Had Christine hit a sensitive spot? She hoped so.
“He knows that men lust after women and some women are cock-teasers.”
There were several intakes of breath. She was launched now and gambling that no one would quote her to a parent who’d complain to the principal.
“His characters get drunk and wipe themselves out. They commit murder and treason. In battle, the mighty warrior, Macbeth, unseam’d his enemy ‘from the nave to the chaps’.”
Faces went blank.
“Can you imagine the physical strength and sharpness of sword required to skewer a man through his navel and slice upwards though his sternum, jaw and skull? Can you see the spurt of blood and spray of teeth after the sword is swung in a sideways curve and the head, with eyes wide open, is lopped off and falls into the steaming pile of its own intestines?”
She raised her clasped hands above her head to illustrate the sword’s upward movement. Without her intending it, her pencil flew in an arc and bounced onto the linoleum floor tiles. The prolonged clattering could have made her words sound ludicrous. Instead, it intensified the dramatic atmosphere she was trying to create.
All six girls were grimacing. A couple of boys snickered.
Christine resumed. “Shakespeare’s audiences loved that sort of thing. We’ll be discussing themes like morality in leadership and why horror is so attractive.”
“As for Juliet, she was thirteen years old. Some adults think passionate love isn’t possible at that age. If they read Shakespeare with sensitivity, they’d remember their youth. He certainly makes me remember mine.”
Now warmed to her topic, Christine scanned the room to identify the student whom she wanted to target, someone who was already sending signals of challenge, someone with whom she must establish contact in order to make the class worthwhile, both for him and for the others throughout the year. There he was, inevitably in the back row. His eyes were lowered. She couldn’t tell if he was listening. He was slumped in his chair, hands in pockets, legs sprawled in front of him, no tie, acne, hair gelled into spikes, – oozing indifference.
Fortunately today the words flowed easily. Except for the boy in the back row, the students were listening to her with full attention. Some were leaning forward. One boy had his mouth open. Confident her timing was right, Christine switched from the sensational to the mundane. She explained the activity for the rest of the lesson and gave homework. A boy groaned at the word “homework”.
Christine stared at him over the top of her glasses and said, “No one else is protesting. You’re obviously the only person in this class who dislikes homework.”
There were half-smiles at the small joke. The boy at the back shifted from a backwards slump to a forwards slump. He put his elbow on the desk and propped the side of his head on his fist. His desk was bare of paper and pen.
Christine borrowed a pencil from one of the girls and called the roll. When she called out a name, the student either said “Here” or put up his hand. The boy at the back raised his forefinger. She was lucky to see the gesture at all.
When the bell rang, Christine quelled the rising hubbub. “The bell is a signal for me to end the lesson. It’s not a signal for you to stampede out the prison gates. I insist on some courtesies. At the end of every lesson I say good-bye to my students and I expect them to say good-bye to me. My younger classes stand up and say good-bye in unison. I like to say good-bye to my older students individually. It takes just a couple more minutes and I don’t expect there to be a scrum by the door.”
As the students filed past her she remembered some of their names. She asked the others to give her a tag to help her remember.
The gelled spikes shuffled in the queue with hunched shoulders and eyes staring over her head. His non-uniform jeans were so low on his hips that she saw the top of his underpants. Although she remembered his name from the roll call, Christine debated.
Will I address him by name?
Will I ask him for a tag?
What will make the bigger impact?
As he passed her, she said, “Good-bye, Brad.” He raised his chin slightly. It could have been an acknowledgement or he could have been checking the crowd milling outside in the corridor. Suddenly he turned, made a sharp arm movement like an uppercut and jabbed her pencil in front of her face. Removing it from his loose grip, she was glad she hadn’t flinched.
“Thank you, Brad.”
He looked appraisingly down at her uplifted face and then joined three other boys who were waiting for him. One of them she knew to be the top Maths student in the school.
He’d taken the initiative! He’d made contact! Joyfully she accepted the challenge. His behaviour today was stereotypical of a rebellious adolescent. What she had in mind, the words and the concept, would make him shudder, but she’d keep the cliché to herself. From this moment on, she’d work towards turning him into a gentleman and a scholar. If she succeeded, he‘d be armed with the best weapons possible to be a rebel warrior. He’d skewer his opponents with courtesy and linguistic ingenuity. Maybe – and she refused to quash this fantasy – even a bit of poetry!