The problem with Life, as opposed to Story, is that it has an obstinacy – a habit of refusing any shape we wish to give it. Mrs Whats’ grandmother would tell her, she’d say “I’ve not got long.” The only problem with that was that she had been saying it, on and off, for nigh on thirty years: she lived out almost a third of her later life as one prolonged epilogue.
Life continues after each climactic moment. When the confetti is cleared there are a succession of non-moments. No sooner is the last strand of ticker-tape removed from the tarmac, we are left aimless in such non-moments as being sick into a sink or wiping our bottoms or replacing a toilet brush back into its holder. Our lives are full of non-moments: to such an extent that I suspect them to be the very fabric of our lives.
One thing I find curious about our age is that it is both Romantic, Modernist and Postmodernist all at the same time. It’s as if we are rolling through time, all scrunched up together in one massive snowball, steadily accreting all philosophies (picking up a bit of Hume here, a snatch of Neitzsche there – is that Marx’s leg sticking out there, or is it Wittgenstein’s?). We remain attached to story – it’s the basis of argumentation in that evidence is the story of what precedes the moment which we seek to understand. Understanding is narrative.
And yet, understanding is also made of discrete items. In the same way that I must remember not to lean to far forward with my mouth open when I am brushing the interior of the toilet basin, I must also know the shapes of words and their associated sounds. Understanding is both mechanical and magical.
The worst links in my lessons are when I try to segue from learning intentions associated with the magical to those under-pinning mechanical foundations of understanding. Only today, I found myself telling my students the following:
“And so, in the same way that Jack explains his aversion for Lady Bracknell, we are bound to provide evidence for our opinions on a text.” I led my students, groaning and mirthless, into a sub-Alan Partridgean soliloquy on Point, Evidence and Analyse (no pee for me, having had enough of toilet-brushing for one week). My lesson, and this dustbowl link, was a mess of narrative thinking mashed up with the practical and served cold, to deepening silence.
I sometimes worry that I look for narrative climax in my teaching life: the point where a student said something back to me that sounded a bit like the thing I’d hoped he/she would say; the point where a child raves about a book that’d been recommended by a friend; the point where a student who’d been floundering on the non-academic rocks had started to paddle to shore. But, as these moments accrete (I’m still rolling along in this metaphorical snowball, for some reason with the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme-tune in my head), such moments begin to flatten, to be stretched out: as the oscillations of my teaching life peak and trough, seen from such a distance over time, they begin to look like one long and straight line.
I worry that what I’d thought was a story, was neither prologue nor epilogue, but just a kind of -logue. One that, no matter how hard I push the handle, refuses to flush.
All systems, applied to education, aim to tell a story. Data, in essence, is just an unsexy sentence: it shows without telling, it is rich in detail, but it is a blank seed in comparison to the child that it snapshots.
In my late teens, I read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, in which he wrote of how, in Nazi concentration camps, the occupants found ways to create life in the midst of horror and death. He described how laughter and the carrying-on of life was possible in the middle of an existence characterized by brutality, deprivation and ever-encroaching despair. It terrifies me not only to contemplate such unendurable horrors, but also to contemplate the search for meaning as a desperate circling – a dog trying to catch its tail, an evermore frantic striving for some closure: a time when we can say that what we did was done and is finished, and it was good.
There may be a moment when a student returns to me and tells me of another moment when his mind changed shape for the better as a result of something that I had said to him. There may be a moment when the same student returns to me later and tells me of another moment when his mind changed shape for the worse having reflected upon telling me about how his mind had changed for the better – and then changed his mind. We all can pick any moment in our lives and point backwards to a point of beginning. None of us want to point forwards to a point of ending – Mrs Whats’ grandmother’s company excepted, of course (God rest her now-presumeably very satisfied and well-rested soul).
But then the clock continues with its ticking. And there are dishes to be done. And this toilet will not clean itself. We roll and we roll, as the true fabric of our lives continues to pry into our waking, despite our best efforts to make some story of ourselves.