Pupils from the surrounding area were invited to the University of Sussex to experience a snippet of university life. After a campus tour, the children would partake in an English appetiser. This is where I was called upon and my worldly knowledge was desperately needed. English Literature was covered. English and Drama was too. But no-one was available to teach a bunch of teenage munchkins about an English Language degree, so I happily stepped into the breach.
I have been attending such events for a couple of years. Because I am currently a student, barely out of secondary school myself, I command a little more respect than a bearded man in his forties smelling of Benson & Hedges. I talk to the kids on their level. I wouldn’t dare say I’m cool – far from it. But somehow I command a little authority. During one tour, a young girl asked if you could buy condoms on campus and whether you could have boys round to your place. I felt like saying “You’re fifteen! You shouldn’t be worrying about the subtle intricacies of the University’s sex policy”. Just for giggles, I should have said “No, this is a Catholic campus and last time I checked, Pope Benedict still isn’t keen on Johnnies”.
One cocky kid, after seeing the accommodation, asked how much it would cost for a double bed, alluding that he needed the room to perform his “moves” on the countless ladies he was planning on bedding. “Listen mate”, I responded with unmerited chutzpah, as if I was the ultimate authority on such matters, “If you can’t do it in a single bed, you’re doing it wrong”. It’s certainly an entertaining job.
I have led visits before but never taken charge of a group for which I have to create my own lesson scheme. I hurriedly jotted down a plan, trying to squeeze all of the interesting bits about English Language into a PowerPoint slideshow. This did not take long, as the interesting bits are far outweighed by grammar and phonology, the twin peaks of boredom.
Mine was the last lesson of the day and I was relieved that the two previous tasters were quite dry. Very dry in fact. They could have been wetter if delivered in the Sahara. Two rather stereotypical lecturers gave lessons about Shakespeare and poetry. They did a fantastic job and the story of Hamlet now makes a little sense to me (although considering it’s studded with revenge, betrayal and lunacy, there is an unmistakeable whiff of déjà vu). On the other hand, I looked into the children’s eyes as they were debating ‘movement’ in a Frank O’Hara poem about Billie Holliday’s death and I knew they were being put off English for life. “It’s like English at school” one kid said out of earshot, “but more boring”.
The O’Hara poem was interesting in the sense that it was not interesting in the slightest. In ‘The Day Lady Died’ the narrator is going about his daily business, before seeing Holliday’s face on the front of The New York Post. At the end of the session, once all viable means of analysis had been applied, the tutor asked if anyone actually liked the poem. There was a hushed silence so intense it practically screamed.
“Do you think O’Hara wants you to like this poem?” he pressed with a wan smile. A few kids mumbled what sounded like “no”, wondering whether such an admission might lead to a beating in the student dorms.
“You’re quite right. This is not a very likeable poem but that is the message that the poem is trying to impart – how little difference it makes to our lives when someone famous dies”. I could have cried. For a full hour, I was desperately trying to motivate a roomful of poetry-phobic teenagers to search for metaphors and poetic techniques, and then I discover that the poem is as popular as meningitis, even in the academic world!
It was my turn to sort things out. I showed them a clip of cunning linguist (try saying that in a roomful of adolescents and here the gentle ripples of suppressed laughter) Stephen Fry discussing the nature of language. Then I launched into the main body of the lesson; the characterisation of men and women in Amy Winehouse’s ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ and Lana Del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’. I nearly chose the former’s ‘Back To Black’ but the lyric “kept his dick wet” may have gone down like a lead balloon with the accompanying teachers.
I asked them to choose four lines and deliver a short presentation t0 the class about what they had found. The kids came out of their shell. It was astonishing. Half an hour previously, they were slumped in their chair, clinically dead. Now they were arguing with their mates about whether Amy Winehouse’s lyrics are stereotypical of womankind.
If you had entered the classroom during my lesson, you may have come away thinking I was trying to be one of those ‘trendy teachers’ – all YouTube videos, background music, felt tip pens and relentless enthusiasm. But the response was phenomenal. Yep, I still wanna teach.