1.1 Teachers know their students
1.2 Teachers know their subject
The classroom was hot and sticky; outside, a grove of palm-trees gave patchy shade, their trunks mysteriously spattered with green mossy growth, the ground beneath them scattered with fallen nuts and a thin carpet of blown leaves. The branches creaked languorously in the breeze.
Inside the classroom, reacting to the heat, was my new class. They sprawled in their seats, or unstuck their arms from their sweaty desktops, or put their heads down on the desks. Twenty-two Year 12 students; five boys and seventeen girls. As it turned out there was a deep divide: the boys, four of whom were stars of the First Fifteen, the other Captain of the Mighty Turds, as the Thirds were known, cheerfully looked down on the girls, most of whom were arty or literary. The girls reciprocated with a sort of hissing fury; if they were interrupted in mid-sentence (it was not unusual) they looked daggers and tossed their heads and said, 'Excuse me' with exaggerated politeness, then turned their backs on the boys and spoke only to the other girls. (It wasn't hard to do - the boys all sat in a row on the extreme left of the classroom near the window.) Similarly the boys only asked questions calculated to embarrass the teacher or the girls, or else they stayed silent.
The leader of the pack was a boy who didn't even acknowledge his status but sat at the front of the classroom, his desk turned to the side so that he faced the opposite wall and could only be seen in profile. At times he withdrew even further, pulling the collar of his tracksuit top up and hiding in it as if it were a sort of hood to shield him from view. At these times he always had a stub of pencil in his hand and would dreamily draw patterns and sketches in his book or on his notepad. I still have the book I lent him in class one day which he forgot belonged to me and which he decorated in the margins with patterns. If he were silent the class proceeded; if he decided to take part the room crackled with energy; if he scorned someone's opinion, he let them know. He was an angry young man, whatever his outward show of remote politeness indicated. Yet he was a gifted student; a wonderful writer and maker of powerful images. Sometimes when I moved to his side of the room he would position himself so that I had my back to him; I refused to continue and always manoeuvred so that I couldn't be accused of ignoring him; it became a game we had and I decided not to give in.
I could teach these students but without his wholehearted presence it was a class divided. We were studying Macbeth. We teachers had discussed among ourselves, in the staffroom, the way in which the evil in this play seems almost palpable in the text and yet the students were not at all convinced. Helped along by Polanski they saw the Macbeths as banal and unconvincing in that 70's way that included the poem about Eichmann in their poetry books. I decided to give a lesson on magic, witchcraft and evil in Shakespeare's plays and prepared accordingly, looking up references, reading bits of James I's Daemonologie, and generally going to town on the idea. I was amazed at the reception of this lesson - I had hoped for interest, but got instead, a full-bodied row.
The captain of the Thirds almost left the room - "I have never heard a teacher speak such & rubbish!" he said. Some of the girls said primly, "I don't believe in witchcraft." Suddenly the boy at the front of the room swept round in his chair - "You'd better believe it!" he said, pointing his finger at one of the girls. We all saw it - the power this boy had, the sense in which he seemed to see beyond what was on the page; the sense in which his world-view seemed more sophisticated and paradoxically, more simple than theirs, informed as it was by another culture to which they had no real access.
But what was I to do with a class divided and led, when it pleased him, by a gifted student who had no real interest in identifying with the class?
About this time I was also involved in producing one of a set of one-acters that the school was presenting. Instead of a one-act play, however, I decided on Act III of Miller's The Crucible. I called auditions and to my amazement, after I had suggested that the boy and a friend of his, also in my class, come along, they actually turned up. Initially, I had thought of the boy as Proctor, perhaps, but after hearing him read I decided to try him out as one of the judges, Danforth or Hathorne - he had a commanding presence. The more I watched, the more I became convinced he understood the idea of Danforth - terribly misguided, yet absolutely convinced of his own rightness - and evil, as a result.
Rehearsals began: the boy read well, but was slack about learning his lines accurately, and also involved heavily in rugby; he was the captain. The date of the drama evening approached; he pulled a ligament in his knee and sweated through the dress rehearsals, grey with pain. The first night arrived; excited and nervous but still not entirely convinced the role was his, he was good but dropped lines and muffed a couple of moves. Shamed, he strode off the stage - "You're never getting me on that bloody stage again!" he said. The next day, he and his friend, cast as John Proctor, cut classes and went over their lines until they could have said them in their sleep - in fact, until the end of the year, any incident in class would provoke an outburst of appropriate lines from Act III. For once the other teachers, usually so hot on reporting missing students, left them alone to practise.
That night there was palpable energy on the stage and in the wings. The play went off so well that it remains for me the watershed experience of my alter ego as a drama teacher. It was brilliant. At the end the cast was so fired up by the emotion they had generated that they couldn't believe it had all ended. They were close to tears as the curtain fell and they realised there would be a hole in their lives from then on until that particular grief had been dealt with. The star was certainly the boy in the front row of my classroom who had made Danforth a terrible scourge and who seemed in some way changed by the experience of having to dig for all that he had to feel.
The next Monday I came into the room to discover that he had turned his desk around to face the front.