Saturday, July 17, 2010

Crocodile & Class Size

I was pleased to do a term’s stint relieving teaching at Wellington East Girls’ College in 1987 helping the school out when it temporarily lost its Head of English. I hastily add I took her classes, not her responsibilities. I enjoyed the return to the classroom more than I’d anticipated. It helped give credibility to comments I made as a consultant again about education. (For a while – the chalk-face is a rapidly evolving institution). It made me aware of the multi-cultural nature of our large city schools.

I’ve written elsewhere about the experience. (See blogs 6/7/09 & 6/11/09). But not about this particular incident. I recall the fourth-form class, a lively, clamorous, noisy group. One Pakeha student, however, could not fail to be noticed – inattentive, doing as little work as possible, withdrawn, sullen and spiteful. Staff-room gossip confirmed her as a trouble-maker. A loner she did not mix with the others. She did not rebel so much as not conform. I sensed her problems were not so much fury against authority but more those of personal angst. All of us in that room had been bruised in various ways. She had been damaged. It showed.

A few times she was late for class. ‘She’s seeing the counsellor, sir’, the class chirruped when I asked after her. She arrived with the note explaining her lateness. I checked with the counsellor. “Home problems.” An explanation was not given. It was not for me to pry. Not only was I temporary, I had once been inspector with responsibility for counsellors. I had repeatedly warned of the dangers of voyeurism in other teachers. So I adopted a policy of containment to keep that student’s disruptions under control as much as possible.

One day near the end of my time there I arrived to find them engaged in a heated argument. There had been a news item that morning – a salt-water crocodile had killed a young woman swimming in north Australia. ‘Would she have felt pain, sir?’ Others argued that fear would numb her, ‘like a bird before a snake’ an Indian arrival suggested. All shuddered at the prospect. Mortality, briefly glimpsed in their confident lives. “What a horrible way to die.’

I asked them what they thought. Debate grew heated. (They thought I was being side-tracked. Their glee at having done this was obvious. I had abandoned my lesson plan but when a teacher strikes a gusher you go with it. For once they were all focussed). After a while I set them an exercise – to write about the incident; a newspaper account, an interview with a survivor, or the young woman’s experience.

Most opted for the last option – lavishly illustrated with oceans of blood, a copious use of red pens. It’s a phase, most grow out of, a sort of rite of passage. The naughty pupil though took a different tack She wrote from the crocodile’s point of view. An orphan, parents killed by humans long ago. Nobody loved her. She was starving, had to feed herself. Now those terrible humans were shooting at her. She’d only done what was natural. God had given her those teeth to use. Shortly, they’d kill her and all her troubles would be over.

It wasn’t ‘Wuthering Heights’ and it was littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes, but the piece was urgent, vivid and real – an aching loneliness shone through. I wasn’t skilled to cope with her problems but had I the time, the therapy of creative writing might have eased her pain. In the morning I would have to face over thirty of her spirited peers, all demanding my time and attention – the teen-ager as the centre of the universe.

Recollecting that incident I shake my fist in anger at those misguided boffins who argue class size does not matter. It does. The classroom cannot be divorced from the society that surrounds it. And I wonder what became of that ‘crocodile girl’?

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