*and by best, I mean crazily emotionally rollercoasterish.
So today was one of those days that are often alluded to in teaching. Basically, I cried in front of a class. Yes, lost it totally, in fact, in tears, great snotty sobs, the works. I think the last time this happened as a fair few years ago. It was the same age group (Year 11) and they’d just presented me with a signed photo of James May as a leaving present to me on their last day. The tears were happy, emotional tears, and I was touched beyond belief. This was a little different.
The thing is, it wasn’t their fault. I mean, OK, so there had been some low level argy bargy, but nothing I couldn’t handle (I’ve been doing this gig for fourteen years straight; it takes more than a bit of idle chatter to derail me), and they weren’t actually my full time class (I’ve been covering some lessons for a friend these past few weeks), but it really wasn’t down to them.
It was, in fact, down to a poem. I’ll put a copy of it at the end of this post, just in case, like me, you find yourself weeping when you read it. Let me set the scene. As you can imagine, poetry isn’t exactly a dream pastime for most Year 11 students; give them a load of song lyrics and you’re generally fine, but poems? Words without music to accompany them? Not so much. This poem in particular was about a character experiencing something that they hopefully will never have to, and the character was an elderly man, so fairly far removed from their empathetic experience. I’m battling through the aspects of it, labouring points about pathetic fallacy and simile, structure etc, and we’re getting to the end. I’ve threatened a couple of students with being chucked into the corridor for talking over me and it’s coming up to about fifteen minutes before the end of the lesson. A lot of them have been in and out for the meningitis jab, so things are quite disjointed, but we’re getting there. I’ve read the poem out loud once, they’ve annotated it and we’re trying to discuss it.
And then I get to the last two lines and I fall apart. I can feel it coming; the poem reminds me of people I’ve known, things I’ve seen, and suddenly I can’t stop the emotions. I lose the ability to speak and the tears flood from my eyes. Year 11 are stunned; for the first time that lesson, no-one talks. I’m utterly mortified, but I can’t stop crying.
After what feels like forever, but is probably only about thirty seconds or so, I stammer ‘it’s not you, honestly, it’s me. It’s the poem. It reminds me of…things, people…’. I’m usually pretty articulate but I’m lost for words at this present moment.
‘Do you want to go outside for five minutes, Miss?’ One of them asks.
I smile through my tears and blink my furiously bloodshot eyes. ‘No, honestly, I’m fine, but thank you.’
‘Do you want us to go outside?’ Another one asks. The rest laugh a little nervously.
‘No, but thank you, it’s fine.’ I blow my nose on the ragged tissue I always have one of in my cardigan. ‘But do you think you could, like, you know, write a paragraph analysing a part of the poem. Or something?’
Surprisingly, they comply. Or at least, they give a good impression of doing so. I manage, eventually, to get a grip on myself and calm down a bit before the end of the lesson. As the bell goes and they leave, some of them give me sympathetic smiles (probably wondering if they should inform senior management that I should be carted off to a padded cell). One of the last girls to leave stops and says to me ‘It’s all right, Miss. I work at Sainsburys at the weekend and we’re trained to be aware that elderly people might be isolated and that this might be their only interaction.’
I just about make it to the staff toilet before I lose the plot and cry again.
I’d like to make some kind of salient point about the power of literature to evoke strong emotion, but I’m kind of drained by it all. But if this experience isn’t enough to show that words can absolutely floor someone (even without the music backing), I don’t know what is. David Sutton, poet, you made something painfully magical happen in that lesson today; but you owe me a box of tissues!