This year I have set myself a challenge to write in whichever genre I am teaching at the time. If the class is studying the elements of narrative then I create short stories (my favourite). This term has been particularly challenging though because… well… it’s all about poetry. From experience this seems to be the hardest topic to sell, even more so than analytical expositions!
Because a tantalising hook is important, I begin this unit by sharing an anecdote about the time I signed up to a course at university titled ‘Romantic and Victorian Literature’. Arriving at the first lecture, I found to my dismay Frankenstein and Dracula were not going to be making an appearance. Instead, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ were the guests of honour. Talk about hanging an albatross around my neck! Meanwhile, William Wordsworth waxed lyrical about daffodils and ambling around Tintern Abbey.
I continue to explain to my class that it did not long before my disappointment turned to intrigue because my lecturer revealed the all-important context that drove two famous English gentlemen to put ink to paper. For example, by nature Coleridge was prone to reoccurring bouts of melancholy. In today’s terms he might be diagnosed with depression and treated accordingly with some anti-depressants and talk therapy. Instead, Coleridge remedied his affliction with regular doses of addictive opium. Perhaps his low mood was due in part to a deep envy of his friend, the well-adjusted Wordsworth, who was not only happily married but also had a warm relationship with his sister, Dorothy. So warm, in fact, William took to rifling through her diary pages to find inspiration for his poems. Here is one case in point that took place back in the early 1800s:
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Earlier, Dorothy had written:
I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.
Personally, I’m torn between amusement and annoyance Wordsworth had the gall to rip off his sister’s work as his own, but then again it was the 19th century…
Teenagers, through trial or vicarious experience, know about the pitfalls of drug taking as well as the pendulous swing of deep feelings. It becomes easier to make parallels about an ancient mariner's miserable experience at sea and a poet’s tortured state of mind. Just as I did back in that university auditorium, my class start to realise perhaps there is more to this poetry business than first thought.
With the new Queensland senior syllabus implemented for the first time in 2019, I am personally enjoying bringing students’ awareness to the ‘symbolic bravery of Australian poets.’
Certain themes of life, identity, health and challenges erupt from Aboriginal poets such as Oodgeroo Noonucal, Samuel Wagan-Watson and Ali Cobby Eckermann, who eloquently draw our attention to the terrible experiences inflicted and endured throughout colonial history. They also honour custodian connections to and the inherent beauty of the Australian landscape. Never before has our groaning planet been in such need of this sacred Indigenous wisdom.
Another voice also emerges, lending itself to the current social commentary surrounding Australian identity in an increasingly multi-cultural climate. Omar Musa and Ali Alizadeh are transporting the experiences of minority migrant groups to the mainstream, providing a strong voice for those who are so busy working as they assimilate into an unfamiliar environment.
Bruce Dawe and Les Murray espouse our collective experiences of suburban life and gratitude for our fallen war heroes, while David Stavanger, the self-described 'lapsed psychologist', reminds mental health issues continue to afflict many of us, just like Coleridge.
In order to encourage fledgling writers to be brave enough to share their own voice, I, too, enjoy taking time to write alongside them; imperfectly and hurriedly at times, slow and considerate at others. Together we form a collaborative platform of ideas. These young people never fail to amaze me with their unique insights and ways of constructing thoughtful imagery. As they tentatively begin to write their own poems and conduct peer reviews they become aware of the contexts, cultural assumptions and underlying issues driving their words. Realisation dawns that these may be unique and yet relatable for another reader. From this creative experience they learn it takes real skill to select the right vocabulary and structure it to make the biggest, bravest impact. Most importantly, they begin to understand that poetry can offer meaningful insights about our collective experience of this world and, just maybe, it is worth studying after all.
If your milestone birthday must fall on a workday then working at a school is the place to be. Usually I go to great lengths to ensure my age remains a mystery. This stance provides many a teachable moment for students who are still working on their sociably-unacceptable-things-I-shouldn’t-ask’ filter. ‘How old are you, miss?’ is always responded to with, ‘a lady never reveals her age’. However, on this happy occasion I have been making allowances to let them know that in my world the view looks really good ‘over the hill’.
I must add nothing makes you feel more special than two full class ‘Happy Birthday’ serenades, a junior assembly sing-a-long, one staffroom birthday party with a rockstar chocolate mud cake (which will be talked about with reverence for many months to come) and a desk decorated with a banner and streamers. I’m also suspicious there may have been a secret email circulated due to the fact every single colleague I encountered offered birthday wishes.
On the home front, while homemade gifts from the children have historically been – how shall I put it? – special, gone are the days of waking up and being served a cold milk and butter-less toast breakfast. The kids dug deep and outdid themselves this year. The husband and I are all about nurturing the Arts and I would at this point like to give a sincere shout out to YouTube. My daughter’s fascination with a historical sewing channel helped her created a bespoke embroidered cushion. Likewise, our power-tool operating boy was able to produce some impressive tea light holders. Sure, the youngest may have unleashed his acerbic thirteen-year-old wit by writing this missive inside my card, ‘Dear Mum, now you are old. Just stating the obvious. Next year I will buy you a tombstone. This year I did not have the budget. I love you,’ however, the husband pulled through with a two-day pass to the upcoming Brisbane Writers’ Festival. I am excited to attend and absorb some fresh inspiration.
Add to this the stream of text messages from dear friends across the various States and seas, which kept pinging in my pocket throughout the day and I truly am feeling the love. As far as I’m concerned, some ages are just a little more special than others and I’m looking forward to seeing what this next decade has on offer as I sit more comfortably in my skin, embrace my foibles and confidently continue to use my voice.
We took a breather from the intensity of the First Lego League Asia Pacific Invitationals where our daughter was competing to take in some of the Sydney sights this week. Having travelled the eleven-hour trip south from our usual balmy Brisbane for the event, the bare branches and chilly air felt novel. The city arguably does have one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.
I’ve been throwing a lot of literary seeds to the wind lately in the hope that a few will germinate into something fruitful. In a happy coincidence, it appears that many national short story competitions have a May deadline and these have given me a much needed push to get cultivating. When I find checking my emails and Submittable account becoming a five-times-a-day compulsion – much like watching grass grow – it has been helpful to instead turn my attention to growing and pruning my entries. Remember, I don’t drink coffee so the small entry fees are my happy little vice.
When I was a child I used to cringe whenever adults asked me that question because I was embarrassed about the answer I really wanted to give, one that still stands true today; live in a cottage beside the sea and write fiction all day long. When I turned fifteen and fell in love with my art classroom this answer expanded to ‘and paint pictures as well!’
This past week at school the staff have been dropping like flies. The Ekka winds are blowing and everyone in South East Queensland know this heralds not only the arrival of fairy floss, carnival rides and agricultural awards but also a huge dose of winter ailments. In my staffroom six of us lost our voices. I’m starting to suspect some sort of biological warfare: If you want to plot a successful takedown at a school what better way to do it than silencing the teachers?
The symptoms of laryngitis are more of an irritant than a miserable I-can’t-function type of illness. Despite the complete absence of sound I was optimistically foolish enough on Tuesday to think I could keep calm and carry on teaching. A well-modulated voice is our most important teaching tool but it is certainly not the only one. I saw this vocal setback as an opportunity to bring the others out and sharpen them up. Tools like pausing, using facial expressions, monitoring, using the board and making gestures.
This winter break our family decided to have a short getaway to Seventeen-Seventy and Agnes Water, a manageable five and a half hour drive north of Brisbane. The trip started innocently enough as we followed the tried-and-true ritual of each packing our own bags and then leaving the husband to Tetris everything into the back of the car. It wasn’t until we made a pit-stop at Gympie that I discovered a catastrophe had occurred. Where the heck was my bright red you-can't-miss it backpack?
There has been yet another round in the media of negativity directed at teachers, thanks to politician Andrew Laming’s comments about our working hours and super long holidays. I sometimes like to read the comments beneath the articles to see where the general public falls on the issue. It’s really heartening to know so many understand that as a group, teachers are valued for the work they do put in.
I used to be a sentimental hoarder of many precious treasures. As a child everything, as far as I was concerned, had feelings and certainly invoked memories and strong emotions in me. I come from families, as I’m sure many others do, where certain objects have been bestowed at different milestones on the next generation. A passing of the baton, if you will. Whether attachment to objects was a result of early childhood loss, boarding school years, or just my love of stories, it is true to say that sometimes bearing so many ‘things’ has weighed me down. It doesn’t help that in my adult life I have lived in three countries, five cities and eleven houses to date! So, now, every school holidays I take the opportunity for a big clear out. This means at our house there’s a spring clean, an autumn clean, a summer clean and a winter clean!
It dawned on me this week that my living arrangements are feeling less like a family home and suspiciously more like a student flat lately. Teenagers are awesome and all that, but one downside is that they can’t afford to pay rent or bills. Indeed, they even expect to be paid for doing chores. Wouldn’t it be nice if at least they could bring their plates out of their rooms and put them in the dishwasher from time to time?