Saturday, May 23, 2015

Remnants of personal pronouns

When the lesson was over, I told my colleagues in the staffroom that I had just heard from a student about how, when he was in his final year of high school at the end of the Iraqi war (that is, in 2005), the students had killed their teachers. I said that we had been discussing education systems in preparation for the essay topic: compare the education system in your country to the one in Australia, and it was when we had got to the bit in the task that asked them to describe whether the system of the country they'd been born into could be called a formal system or an informal system that the student had told us about the killings. I described to my colleagues, who always liked to hear these kinds of stories, I knew, about the way my student had said that they had first killed the Chemistry teacher, and then all the teachers who taught the senior subjects -- six in all -- and, in more detail: that it was when the Chemistry teacher had stepped forwards in public, as the student put it, that he had been shot. At this point, there was some confusion amongst my colleagues. What had I meant by step forwards, one of them asked. But I found I was unable to answer her, since I hadn't asked the student, and that in fact, as the student had been talking, I'd got the impression of two distinct but incompatible scenarios: one with all of the teachers standing in front of the students, but on a slightly higher platform than their soon-to-be-killers (such as on a wooden stage at the front of a meeting hall), and the other (since the killings had been in public, as the student kept insisting) outside in the dust of the street -- with the kids bringing the teachers right to the edge of the roadway in front of the school, and so putting on some sort of public trial the teachers who, until this moment of apparent freedom after the war, had always been strict, unfriendly and had failed most of them (as my student had said), which had stopped them from being able to go to university (this same student, I told my colleagues, had earlier told us about the brutal way, when he had only been ten years old, a teacher had slammed his face into the blackboard and sunk her teeth into his head because he had leaked, without thinking, the questions of a test to a cousin). I said too that, after the student had told us all this, another Iraqi student in the class had tried to soften the edges of our incredulous questions by saying we should understand that when the first student had said the word kill he didn't mean kill -- definitely he will mean something else, the second student had said, not kill (although the first student, of course, had insisted that everything he'd said was true -- and that he had been living in Baghdad, while the other had not). I even realised then in the classroom as I was listening, I said, that the first student had made it very hard to believe him because the whole time he'd been talking he had been smiling (and almost laughing) -- this compulsive need he had to smile as he talked, which should have made it impossible to believe a single word that he said but, instead, had seemed to make it all the more unavoidable and true, as if it were only a distorted lump of something that it had been been his job to place before us -- his odd and rough but hilarious job. In the staffroom someone, then, had observed that, over the years she had taught, there were always so many stories like these being dropped into classroom discussions about the ordinary, dry and generally predictable and earnest topics that our textbooks suggested -- and that from this she had concluded that most of our students had stories like these to tell but, also, that they only occasionally let them fall -- dropping them into talk about the levels of government, or public health provision -- and either with no emotion at all or otherwise the most odd, foreshortened, glimpse of something that was hard and shrunken, nearly dead. After all, she said, these accounts that are dropped like this are not novels or movies with their arcs of sentiment but only the shards of things -- just broken bits of moments that have been reflected onto the sides of some god-awful fact that we are only given so that the person who tells it might have a chance to relieve themselves of that object (just for a moment), which we are invited to look at but never absorb -- that the feelings in the student about that object had long since escaped or been pressed into a grimace -- and hence all we could do was to suspend what we, as teachers, had been going to say for the time of the student's telling, which always made it so difficult to go on with the lesson afterwards. Of course her saying this about the continuity in the lesson made me recall with no inconsiderable embarrassment that, after the first of the two Iraqi students had said that for the rest of their final year, with the other teachers dead, he and the others had been taught by the junior school teachers, and that none of these junior school teachers had been any good -- the students still failing their exams -- that even at the crumbling end of the Iraqi student's story I had found myself saying something completely inane about the difficult things that all of us carry -- how hard it must to be to bear such memories, I had said as well -- such being the useless clich├ęs I had come out with (as I was thinking, but didn't have the guts tell my colleagues) -- all of this unfelt nonsense about the things we carry (as if our heads had arms). I went on to tell them, though, that in the end all I could do was to move right along to the parts of the task that I needed to cover that day: and consequently how I'd got the students to write down their contrasting points in two columns, so that all we had had to hear that morning might fit into the constraints of the well-planned essay -- that the story about the teachers might be further leached of feeling, stripped of even the remnants of personal pronouns, and shoved in, too, with all the more pre-known material about classrooms that the other students had come up with, and thus become the requisite block of writing that is built on through a chaining of transition markers -- that block of writing that is known to all who teach it as the model essay paragraph: that is, a paragraph with a topic sentence, then ones with supporting evidence, and a concluding statement -- where the concluding statement functions as a link to the paragraph (and argument) that follows it on the next indented line.

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