Friday, August 21, 2009

Leaving the Chalkface

I had been teaching for six years at Melville High School when I applied for the position of inspector of secondary schools in the Hamilton team. I flew to Wellington for an interview. The year raced past, nothing happened and then halfway through the third term I was offered the appointment. I accepted. A watershed decision. The fact I was doing well was irrelevant. I was eligible for promotion, I just took it. The question would I miss the class-room never crossed my mind. There were regrets but no doubts.

I had cast for a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had never produced a full Shakespeare play. That was not to be. My selected Puck was a girl, a tomboy who seemed a monty for the part. It proved a hospital pass to my successor. Puberty set in, she suddenly discovered boys and pimples became a disaster. But during the evening that I was offered the position as I policed the grounds during a school dance, (one of the least enviable of a teachers' tasks) it seemed a good choice though there were several regrets.

I had been asked to stand for PPTA National Executive. (Of course, I may not have been elected). I would have to give that away, though I would be in the ambiguous position of a departmental officer delivering a regional president's annual report critical of the Department. It would have been an exciting time to be involved with PPTA. In that era it led the secondary charge, but I sensed a deeper affinity to being in government with all its frustration but ability to deliver rather than in opposition with its freedoms but also impotence.

Yet down the years there has been a niggle – I chose the side of authority. Somewhere in me remains a rebel and sceptic who would like sometimes to take the mickey out of the powers-that-be. I realise now that my masters in the Department of Education were conscious of that streak. Ultimately, I was not to be trusted. “After all he writes poetry”, I overheard one day. They were probably right. Looking back I value the independence of the staff-room at Melville.

The third regret was Melville kids had been great. My student librarians said "You can't go" when I told them. Principal B.T. Smith ran a good school – it’d been a privilege to work under his direction. But I was ready for fresh and wider challenges. I have seen too many good teachers vegetate not to be aware of the importance of moving on while one is still successful.

The thought did cross my mind that I would not teach Shakespeare again. After a few years history teaching the origins of the second world war lost their freshness. But every reading of Hamlet opened up new vistas, new thoughts, plus the sheer miracle of the language. Across the centuries Shakespeare remains a marvel of language and plot. No one has ever strung human dreams about existence better. It was a privilege to bring his text and students together.

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