This cartoon was on a friend’s Facebook today:
This happened to me twice in high school. Once, in Afrikaans class, it was in connection with the poem Die Hardloper (The Runner) by Ernst van Heerden. Here’s a quick translation:
With wild but pure heart
he made a fierce start to the wild race,
teased each mile with fleet foot,
he would beat the swiftest runners yet.
His heart beat high, his blood on fire,
the wind lifted his hair;
with rapid run he measured the track,
the joy of power was on his face.
He ran with a storm in his blood,
his breath a chase of fiery wind,
the sea’s thunder in his stern mind,
then already he heard the dark, bitter question:
Who is the unseen comrade in the run,
whose the footfall beside his, and the wind
of breath behind him,
from whom the hope
that another breast will find the white ribbon?
This stranger teammate he knew not,
never again would he run without pain or fear;
he knows though this time he won the race,
the other man would one day be first.
I developed a fierce hatred of analysing poetry in school, because I felt, and still feel to a large degree, that a poem should speak to each person individually, and what it says to you should not be questioned by me. The poet writes, and lets it go, to whisper words she may never have had in mind as she wrote.
Either way, the question we had to answer for homework was: who was the unknown runner? I replied that it was the knowledge that his peak could not last, the awareness of inevitable decay, the knowledge that he would not forever be first. As our teacher read out the answers for us to correct our homework, she announced that the other runner was, in fact, death. I put my hand up.
“Could it perhaps have been…”
“But could it not have…”
The answer. is. death.”
No wonder I still hate even the thought of analysing poetry.
The second time I came across this stupid attitude in a teacher was in English class. We were ‘doing’ The Highwayman. The question was: “With which biblical character, do you think, can the ostler be compared?” I can’t remember what I answered, but the right answer was “Judas Iscariot”. I put my hand up to point out to the teacher that no answer can be wrong, because he asked what I think. He disagreed, shall we say, and leave it at that.
The teacher of course just had to put the question into the next exam (we hated each other with an impressive intensity). I fumed as I hovered my pen over the line where I had to fill in an answer. I knew if I wrote anything other than Judas Iscariot, I’d throw a point or two away, and I was very proud of my consistent high scores in English. In fact, if I remember correctly, there was some other little competition going on about him swearing he’d never give anyone 100%, so there was that little game, with me getting 98, 99, 99 1/2… I scratched out the ‘you’ in the question, changing it to the teacher asking me: “…what do I think?” He’d made clear what he thought, so I could write in Judas Iscariot with a little less bile.
I’m embarrassed, in a way, to still feel a degree of bitterness towards these teachers. Get over it, it’s not a big deal. But it was part of a whole culture of forcing kids into conformity, dictating what they did and didn’t think, which crippled me for years. I often wonder how different I might have been if I’d been in a better school.