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It’s often said that school days would be better if they taught things the kids wanted to learn; things that are relevant to students. The premise here is that kids would be attentive and enjoy school. It is, of course an asinine platitude.

If that idea was adopted into a scholastic program elementary schoolchildren would learn nothing but finger painting, while junior high school students would only learn how to seduce the other students. The logic in the second half, holds even for English public school.

School should be what it is: tedious, frustrating, and occupied by intermittent negotiations with awkward teachers who seem hell bent on making ones own life difficult. In short, it is a preparation for a career and the workplace. Imagine the shock of moving into the workforce if school had been only long balmy halcyon salad days? A person would be completely unprepared. In my first real job I was convinced everything after kindergarten had been a waste of time. Well, it was an advertising agency. Sort of.

The whole tiresome experience can be re-lived by reading over a report card. Teachers must think they have a chance at posterity when they impose their judgement on a child. It’s probably a statistical fact that most report cards are only as good as the term in which they were finished. In other words, the failings of youth – and their opposite strengths – don’t last throughout life. If that weren’t the case, it might be wise to give up at about twelve.

It’s in this context that Charlotte Brontë’s school reports have been released by The British Library. They are not flattering. She was a child, so that they are hardly evidence of some incendiary force of a brilliant mind. The only reason we have any interest in these documents is that she wrote a classic. It would be odder if she had a report that said, “Charlotte creates stunning characters of emotional depth and her syntax is quite a joy as she employs the subjunctive mood with real grace. It is a shame she does this in geometry”. No, she was quite ordinary.

This is a type of sport. A famous writer’s reports are exposed and what is discovered! The genius wordsmith was apparently quite mediocre, at least in the view of the teacher. The purpose of this exercise is opaque. This is the literary equivalent of the famous model/actress no-make-up selfie. Without the magic of cosmetics she is not so pretty.

On the same level it is similar to that ancient question about giving hundreds of monkeys a typewriter in order to see if they’d create anything like a Shakespeare play. They might come up with The Merry Wives of Windsor because it’s rubbish. Never, to the end of time could they write King Lear, but most humans couldn’t either. It’s probably the greatest tragedy in English and it starts with a dirty joke. That requires some creativity.

Reviewing Charlotte’s school reports we should have some perspective. Although Charlotte’s teacher didn’t rate her writing skills very highly, it’s not as if the authorities at the time had mastered the most basic elements of a healthy life. This was a time when public health policy didn’t know anything about water borne disease. The Brontës suffered directly from this ignorance as family members died from typhus.

Her teacher did not have the final word on judgement or truth. For the writer that may be the best lesson from school because when the teacher scribbles in the report card, it’s like sending an emerging writer a reject slip. It’s real life practice.

Dear…
Thank you for allowing me to read your term paper, ‘The Causes of the Civil War’ and although we liked it very much it doesn’t meet our needs at this time. We wish you every success in your writing career.
Yours sincerely,
Editorial Board

Guy Cranswick
12th August 2014

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