May the Force be With You

By | 6 September 2007

Live long enough, you start developing theories. One of mine sees life as a giant pinball machine: we bounce off each other, off people and events and places, and who knows what the consequences may be, or how far we may be shunted in a new direction, by a completely accidental encounter or choice?
An example: last year I read and enjoyed Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and did what is for me a very rare thing – I lent it to a friend. Having skied in the winter, she and her husband had no summer holiday plan, other than for him to keep working and for her to get to the beach if the weather was good. Which it was, last summer.
She read the book in the sunshine, left it on her towel while she swam, and walked out of the waves to encounter a hunk.
Actually, a hunk with a very appealing little dog. And she and the hunk got chatting, until she said she had to get back to her book, and he asked: “What are you reading?” She told him and he (having been on a different planet – Australia – for some years and having missed the hype) said: “What on earth is a pretty girl like you doing, reading a book about tractors?”
She said: “No, it’s not like that – let me show you!” So she did, and the rest, as they say, is history. Reader, she married him. Well, she will, when her divorce comes through, but you get the point.
Howzat for accidental encounters? I was so busy I seldom read a book for five years; when I did, it was this one, which made me laugh and reminded me of my sister and myself, so I recommended it – even lent it!
The borrower was a skier, determined to pretend she was having a summer holiday. The weather was wonderful. This book had an odd title, and he was one of the few people in Britain who had never heard of it. And lending it to him kept them in touch, and they discovered so much else in common, apart from a love of dogs and good books (and bingo)! Happy ever after. Life is a pinball machine.
So what has all this to do with teaching?
Second theory: more than any other profession, teachers are in a position to send people off to happy endings. Teachers impact on so many lives every single exhausting, exhilarating day.
I swear I became an English teacher and would-be writer because of my headmaster’s response to a particularly flowery essay I wrote when I was eight.
“Your daughter,” he told my mother in solemn Welsh tones, “will be a writer!” She believed him. So did I. “Being a writer” has been like the Holy Grail ever since. Teaching English pays the bills because at some stage another teacher said a degree in English was a good foundation for a writer (wrong – knowing more about English lit just paralyses you with fear! “How dare you presume?” and all that – okay, so sometimes the pinballs fire you off in the wrong direction).
Actually, that is one of the risks of a teacher’s position of enormous power and influence. I have never forgotten the parents who accused me of having ruined their daughter, a promising (and I think now published) writer, by my criticism of her A level English work.
Sadly, the truth was she was wasted in an A level class – not good at what A level demanded, brilliant at creative writing. Different skills, but not, at the time, welcome news.
So we need to be careful. But most people can tell you of a teacher who made a difference in their lives, pushed them off in a direction that changed their future.
For every teacher who goes purposefully out on a limb for a recognisable rescue job for a particularly difficult child, there are hundreds more who just do the day job so well, and so inspire generations of children, that their effects will last for lifetimes.
I had the pleasure recently of showing a friend the newspaper column in which a famous comic actor credited him with having put him on the road to his life. The teacher was a modern linguist, the lad hated French, but blossomed in the teacher’s class, grew to love French, got a degree in French, met people at university who led to the acting career, never forgot the teacher.
The teacher moved on to headship, and did forget, though he remembered him immediately when he saw the photo.
For the teacher, it was all in a day’s work. For the pupil, it changed his life.
Last theory: teachers are vital, pivotal elements in life’s pinball machine. Treasure the opportunity. Use it for good. Change a life today.

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