(Australian Education Union Magazine)
I have been called in to cover English for a week at my regular CRT school.
Year 11 Literature. Yasmina Reza. Art. Check. Good (new) choice.
Year 10 English. William Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew. Check. Know it well, but… really? One of my least favourite of his plays. How to teach nuanced gender politics to 16-year-olds?
Year 9 English. Peter Weir, The Truman Show. Check. Love teaching film studies.
All the students have work booklets asking them to list chronologically, chapter by chapter, scene to scene, what happens in the narrative. I tell them that all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.
They look at me like I’m nuts. I tell them to fill out the booklets for homework and tell them we’ll leave exploring different approaches to temporal structure, for now.
The Year 9s ask me to go through how to write an essay again. The Year 10s ask me if they can listen to music on their iPhones. The Year 11s want to talk about E.E. Cummings.
I decide to talk about Elena Ferrante instead. In a piece Ferrante recently wrote for the Guardian, she describes in her typically elusive style – a mix of self-revelation and self-protection – her ‘first times’. The first time she flew in an aeroplane; the first time she got drunk; the first time she fell in love: “an exercise both arduous and pointless”.
As an ice-breaker activity for the Year 10s, I get students to write about any ‘first times’ they remember – or think they remember, because memories can be slippery, unreliable things, after all.
I did consider the appropriateness of such an activity, particularly for a group I had not taught before, given any kind of life-writing has the potential to reactivate or uncover tough stuff.
Nevertheless, drawing from one’s life is central to so much good writing. As long as there is positive guidance, strong boundaries and a safe space – and students are discouraged from straight-out confession or diary-style navel-gazing – it can work a treat.
I told them about a couple of my less ribald first times. Watching my mother laughing with her friends and realising how relieved she looked about having another life apart from the one she had with me. The first time I stole something and how simultaneously guilty and elated I felt.
I also told them my ‘first time’ favourite book was Milly Molly Mandy. I remember that she wore a pink-and-white striped dress. I remember reading her as I travelled on a red double-decker bus in Sydney after having flown for the first time in a plane.
I gave the students 20 minutes and demanded they write in full sentences, because dot points are for corporate reports. I ruled out sex and drugs, because: a. that’s dicey territory; and b. also usually dull in the recounting.
Some standard responses: first crush; first day of school. Some more original ones: first time they saw the ocean; first time they felt jealous; first time their brother locked them in a front end loader and turned it on to spin cycle.
“So what do you really remember from childhood?” I ask my Year 10s.
“We just did this,” one of them protests. “We already wrote about our childhoods.”
“But how can you be so sure it’s the truth?” I ask. “Maybe you just think you remember something happened. For example, maybe your mum showed you a cute photo of yourself in a paddling pool in the backyard in the middle of summer, clutching your stunned and bedraggled cat to your chest with a demented grin on your face, and so you think you can remember this happening. But do you actually remember it?”
“Well, I remember when I went to the Show with my dad and got lost and hid under one of the rides for hours and he didn’t find me until it was dark,” one of them says.
“Really?” I ask. “Hours? In the dark?”
“Well, it might not have been hours and it wasn’t dark, exactly, but it sounds better if it was.”
“It does,” I say. “It makes for a better story, that’s for sure.”