Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dying in harness

I was reflecting the other day on my first career as a schoolmaster (nearly twenty years ago now: it seems another life, someone else's, not my own).  Much as I loved the job (or certain aspects of it, anyway), I was mightily relieved to have escaped it, when a spell of serious illness forced me to retire in my mid-twenties.

There's something insidiously comfortable about that lifestyle: the steady routines, the short working hours and long holidays, the sense of separateness - of being insulated - from the outside world; and the sense of mastery too, of having absolute dominion over your classes, absolute (well, nearly) freedom to do whatever you will with them - unsupervised and unchecked by anyone.

But there's a deadening inertia about it, too.  There's not much in the way of a career path - unless you want to take on major administrative duties (at the cost of reduced contact time with pupils) or pastoral responsibilities as a live-in housemaster in a boarding school.  It can be quite difficult to change schools.  And, after a while, you become so attuned to the characteristic eccentricities of the school and the staff you're currently working with that change begins to seem too effortful, too irksome a dislocation.

It's not uncommon to find schoolteachers (particularly in the private sector) who have spent their entire working lives in the same school.  In fact, the deputy headmaster at the school where I taught had himself been educated there, and thus - apart from the brief interlude of university, which I gather he hadn't much enjoyed - he had spent his entire life in the same place.  I found that baffling and horrifying.  But I could see that - without a bold and decisive step, and perhaps a willingness to embrace a period of unemployment - this was a path that I myself was heading along.

For me, it was ultimately the routines - the very orderliness and predictability that some people find so reassuring - that started to make the job seem irksome to me.  The repetitive cycle of the timetable oppresses the soul, I found, makes you feel like a hamster on a wheel.  Each week is the same as the one before, and each term, and each year.

There's not even that much variety available to you in what you can teach (in English literature).  Shakespeare is, of course, compulsory for all; but the number of his plays which are at all accessible for children of 14 years old or so is really pretty small.  The longer, more complex works like Lear and Hamlet have to be reserved for advanced studies at 16+.  With the juniors you're stuck with Romeo & Juliet or Julius Caesar, and perhaps Macbeth or Othello; and maybe Henry V or Richard III for a history play, and As You Like It or The Taming Of The Shrew for a comedy.  And that's assuming that your school has sufficient copies of all of these, and that all available copies have not already been appropriated by your more senior colleagues; in practice, you may only have three or four to choose from - and you have to do two with each year group.  When 'The Scottish Play' came around for the third time in four years, I found myself thinking, "Not again!"  And I didn't want to be feeling like that about Shakespeare, going 'stale' on such great writing through enforced over-exposure.  And so I resolved to get out, after at most one more year.  (But, as Fate would have it, a near-death experience got me out of it rather sooner than that.)

Philip Larkin has a fine short poem, Schoolmaster, on the theme of spending a whole lifetime in such a narrow sphere, and how such an environment erodes your sense of identity, your independent will.  It closes with the chilling line:  He had dissolved.  (Like sugar in a cup of tea.)

Unfortunately, I can't find that one online.  But here's another good one.  Some online sources appear to attribute this to Larkin, but I'm pretty sure it's actually by Vernon Scannell.  The style and sensibility are very alike, though; I'm not completely confident in the identification.

Ageing Schoolmaster

And now another autumn morning finds me
With chalk dust on my sleeve and in my breath,
Preoccupied with vague, habitual speculation
On the huge inevitability of death.

Not wholly wretched, yet knowing absolutely
That I shall never reacquaint myself with joy,
I sniff the smell of ink and chalk and my mortality
And think of when I rolled, a gormless boy,

And rollicked round the playground of my hours,
And wonder when precisely tolled the bell
Which summoned me from summer liberties
And brought me to this chill autumnal cell

From which I gaze upon the April faces
That gleam before me, like apples ranged on shelves;
And yet I feel no pinch or prick of envy
Nor would I have them know their sentenced selves.

With careful effort I can separate the faces,
The dull, the clever, the various shapes and sizes;
But in the autumn shades I find I only
Brood upon death, who carries off all the prizes.

Vernon Scannell  (1922-2007)


Tony said...

Tough luck for those who were taught by a miserable self-centered sod like Vernon Scannell.

The Weeble said...

That Larkin poem would be

It was acted as he planned: grown old and favourite,
With most Old Boys he was quite intimate
For though he never realised it, he
Dissolved. (Like sugar in a cup of tea.)

JES said...

That poem appears in Scannell's Collected Poems, 1950-93 (per

You seem to be correct that the entire Larkin is nowhere online. I have a feeling The Weeble's comment will start showing up as the canonical result in future Google queries on that stanza.

Froog said...

Thanks, Weebs. Is that the complete thing? I had thought it was a bit longer than that.

Thanks for checking the Scannell source, JES. I had thought I remembered it as one of his, but then finding a couple of places online attributing it to Larkin sowed the seeds of doubt. I thought the tone, the attitude very Larkinesque - but I'm not sure that our Philip ever adopted a character point of view in any of his work.

Froog said...

I know little of the man, Tony, but I like his writing. As I just pointed out to JES, I think this is an imagined perspective. I don't know if Scannell ever was a schoolteacher, or if he was of quite an advanced age when he wrote this - or even if he was particularly obsessed with his own mortality at any stage of his life. However, it does seem reasonable to assume that we might often find this mood in an elderly schoolteacher. I think the school environment does tend to throw your own mortality - and your ageing - into sharper perspective: your surroundings change little or not at all, and the youthfulness of your charges is continually refreshed, but you... inexorably wither and decline.

And I have quite a bit of affection for some of the 'miserable sods' who taught me (but then, I'm of rather a morose temperament myself, at times). A quicker intelligence, leavened with a little humour, a hint of a creative spark, and a little unconventionality - a willingness to stray out of the usual ruts, to wander and digress, and share something of their personal concerns and interests - was what appealed to me in teachers. I suspect that you find these attributes rather more often in the depressive types.

I may have been one such myself. I would like to thinks so.

Froog said...

Hmm, I suppose Goodbye, Mr Chips would be an appropriate addition to my Christmas film-watching marathon. I must get down to that 'golden oldie' store soon.

Ryan said...

I randomly came across your post and it reminded me of some of the depression I went through while I was "enjoying" a career as a publicist. Where it was limited in expectations, I found that it was demanding and emotionally taxing. Over the years, I've switched jobs and found solace in meditation (mostly by reading David Fox's book, Comfort Healing and Joy), but the thought of even going back to that old job bums me out. Thanks for sharing.

Froog said...

Gosh, a new visitor all the way from Seattle! Welcome, Ryan.

You're not an associate of Sister Surly (former drinking companion and occasional blog correspondent from those parts), are you?

Ryan said...

Froog: I'm not familiar of Sister Surly, though I do imbibe the occasional beer, so it's possible that our paths have crossed. Thanks for the warm welcome!

John said...

So you wouldn't be tempted by the challenge of a Comprehensive then?

Froog said...

I did a couple of spells of teaching practice at comps during my PGCE, but they weren't one of my more rewarding classroom experiences, no. And they were supposed to be quite 'good' comps - god help us all!

Actually, in academic terms, most private schools aren't very much better. A senior colleague of mine once bitterly described the place where I worked as "a rich man's orphanage". The behavioural problems may be a bit less severe (although there were a lot of very disturbed, dysfunctional, potentially dangerous kids at that particular school), but there are still problems of weak discipline, low motivation, and very low average standard of ability.

I might have to go back to teaching in my dotage, but I don't think I'd consider anywhere other than a grammar school.