Last Thursday my Year 12 class sat their exam. Each year I see a bunch of nervous-looking students into a large hall in which they will sit their final English paper. They clutch dictionaries and pens; their facial expressions vary from expectant to a fervent wish that this was over already. By the time we get to this stage, I have been instructing them and chivvying them and posing them questions, marking their papers and more or less marching them through the set curriculum for nigh on ten months. Some have enjoyed it. Some have merely endured it: English is the only subject one must do in the matriculation year — every other subject is a choice. So any Year 12 classroom has got conscripts. Fortunately, English is a subject in which there are pleasures and beauties if one looks and works for them. And some did look and work, and they found them.
The teachers up to this point have been sharing resources, groaning under the weight of piles of assessments and practice essays, and guessing what will be on that decisive final paper. In staff rooms they have been creating that ongoing conversation that is a mixture of professional discourse and (at times grim) camaraderie.
But what happens after the exam?
At my workplace, we actually had a meeting to begin planning the next year’s Year 12 course a mere forty minutes after the students had finished. And perhaps this is the right thing to do – because a curious, unspoken mood can descend on a Year 12 teacher at this time of year. We speak of it only obliquely, because there seems something excessive, even foolish about it. It manifests itself in various ways: thinking of that one last, crucial thing you needed to tell the class, and which you didn’t. And it was not really crucial. It’s just that teaching a class becomes a habit: you know the students; you think about their intellectual habits, you think about what they need to do to get to the next level. But the exam has intervened and now the year with them is over. Or you find yourself worrying over the choices some students might have made in the exam: “I hope Sophie chose the first question for On the Waterfront, because she will not do well if she chooses the other.” And so on.
What we come up against is endings. We were doing something at a frenzied rate and now, abruptly, we are done. We had a job to do – to teach, advise, encourage. But the questions the students choose and what they write is up to them.
We all recognise that finishing school is a rite-of-passage in our culture. We are familiar with its images and rituals – graduation night, awards ceremonies, the written-on uniforms. For some, this marks a hiatus while they plan a ‘gap year’, while for others work and study beckon. But the characteristic mood is future-oriented.
Most adults have quite strong memories of this period in their life. For myself I have a collection of mental photographs: reading To Kill a Mockingbird under a green plum tree out in the garden, because I was finally free to read books that I did not have to study. The ‘final day’ party our Year 12 class held on an oval at dawn. We drank champagne and ate chicken salad as the sun rose over the plain, squat buildings of the adjacent school. The school had issued a ban on our celebrating on campus, so we worked around it. I took a photo of two boys, friends, glasses raised, “Here’s to rock and roll!” The future was uncertain, and it felt big and nebulous. But I remember feeling packed with energy, hope, and willingness, if necessary, to brazen things out.
Teaching, therefore, contains this complicated gift: each year, as I watch those students walk away from their final exam, I come up against the relentless movement of time. There is no getting away from getting older when you are a teacher. No hiding in the perpetual adolescence that seems to steal over some people in their thirties. No, in teaching, your clientele will not let you go on thinking that you have lots and lots of time to become what you wanted to be. Because their time for that kind of thinking is now.
Which is not to say that I come over all maudlin and decide that my life is over. Quite the opposite. Rather, it is worth revisiting what you promised yourself as you left school behind. As the exams grind on and more and more students walk out of those school gates for the final time, I am guessing that a good number of them are making promises. They will have plans – to travel, to pursue a creative life, to see what lies beyond the life they have lived thus far. Some of those plans will be unrealistic or even futile. From the standpoint of my late thirties, I look back on my seventeen-year-old self and smile at what I thought constituted adult life. I know now that it takes years and years to learn and hone complicated skills and that the vagaries of circumstance and relationships can do much to disrupt or even derail the best-laid plans. Which is to say that it takes a lifetime to build a life.
Nonetheless, there are some things, some of those promises, that have endured. They are still around, demanding attention, wanting to know when I am going to put in the time and effort to make them materialise.
Once I talked with my sister about this dilemma. She said that what you set out to do may not end up like you thought it would, but that the kernel would still be there. When I was sixteen I wanted to be a writer. I am thirty-eight and I still want to be a writer. Except now I am caught in the thicket of complicated, adult life with motherhood, marriage, household, mortgage and career. I am an English teacher and I like doing that: the ‘kernel’ is still there. But it is not quite all that I set out to do. Writing has been a constant in my life – since I could write there has never been a time when I was not engaged in some kind ‘literary’ project. At present it is this blog. During childhood it was making ‘magazines’ with articles and stories. It is an ingrained.
Most of the kinds of writing I have done since entering adulthood have been highly disciplined, academic modes, and they have a relationship to non-academic writing a bit like what dressage has to riding horseback through an open field with the wind in your hair. You may benefit from the stylised discipline of dressage. You may even learn to love it and its ritualised beauty. But it is unlikely to be the reason you first wanted to climb onto the back of a horse.
Similarly, while I am intensely grateful for the training postgraduate study gave me, its rigor and intellectual complexity put me at odds, in some obscure way, with some of my initial motivations for studying literature. I loved literary theory and the sense it gave me of having the language and tools for discussing the patterns of meaning I saw in texts. But it misses something. Adam Philips writes something like, “‘Literature’ is what is left after interpretation.” Twenty-one years after leaving school I am still on the trail of that ‘something’ that interpretation misses, the trace of which we can nonetheless only glimpse through interpretation.
At thirty-eight, have I finally developed the presumption to do something about that promise I made to myself when I was seventeen?