Sunday, September 14, 2014

Riding The Waves (For Virginia Woolf)

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The ___ ___ _____ ___ ___ ___ ___ ______ burning
We ___ ___ _______ __ ______ ___ waves

‘OK, hands up those of you who did your homework.’

A sea of arms fell to the floor.

Homework. The dreaded h- word … or o-word, depending ’ow you pronounce it. Soldiers cling to their rifles; preachers to their Bibles; and teachers to their trifles. Except they call it “homework”. And whoever invented it has a lot to answer for.

As any experienced teacher will tell you, “homework” is short for “anywhere but home work”. In the street, on the bus, at work; in the yard, on the tube, at school; in the library, in the canteen, in the playground; in the corridor, in the toilet; in class. Especially in class.

And, as any home owner will tell you, the little “homework” that actually gets done at home is short for “poor sods at home work” …

‘How are you getting on with those Basque verbs, Dad?’
‘I’m stuck on number ninety-seven, Sam. Does “Aditzak gustatzen zaizkit” sound right to you?’
‘No. You need to use past verbs, remember. How many times do I have to tell you, Dad? Try, “Aditzak gustatzen zitzaizkidan”.’
‘OK, thanks …’
‘Can I interrupt you a moment, Jason?’
‘Not now, Mum. Can’t you see I’m watching The Simpsons?’
‘But I need your help, darling.’
‘Well, quickly, then.’
‘It says here, “Discuss the implementation of The Marshall Plan and its immediate effects on post-war Europe”.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘I haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.’
‘Why don’t you ask Dad? He’s always banging on about the War.’
‘Dad’s busy doing Sam’s Basque verbs.’
‘Have you tried Wikipedia?’
‘Vicky who?’
‘Ha ha ha … When will dinner be ready, Mum? …’

As if deciphering the true meaning of “homework” isn’t hard enough in itself, getting to grips with the word in the context of a full-blown sentence often proves to be a formidable challenge, particularly for the more inexperienced student. So, for example, when a teacher says, “OK, do exercises nine, ten, eleven and twelve for homework”, what they really mean is, “Next class, we’ll be doing exercises nine, ten, eleven and twelve, but I’m pretending to set these for homework in order to cover my back”. 

By the same token, when a teacher begins their next class with, “Hands up those of you who have done your homework”, the last thing they want to see is an enthusiastic show of hands, as this means they will most likely have to move on to exercises thirteen, fourteen and fifteen, which the teacher hasn’t prepared properly or even looked at yet. Worldly-wise students – or “learners”, as optimistic pedagogues would have us call them – are more than willing to play along with their teacher, given that this happy arrangement means less work for all concerned; a win-win situation if ever there were one. 

Unfortunately, there are always one or two students who take their teacher’s words at face value, with the result that the poor teacher has no choice but to pick up from exercise thirteen, as it is hard to justify making these “good” students do exercises nine, ten, eleven and twelve again. In brief, the reality is always far messier than the theory, and never is this more so than in the classroom; especially in Colin’s classroom …

Two people raised their hands enthusiastically. One of these was Miss Tedley, simply because she always raised her hand enthusiastically. But Colin had never seen the other person in his life. Or in anybody else’s life for that matter …

‘Who are you?’ asked Colin, discernibly displeased.
‘I’m Miss Tedley, dear. Don’t you remember?’
‘No, I meant him,’ said Colin, pointing pointedly.
‘I’m Scott.’
‘Well, you sound Irish to me.’
‘No, my name’s Scott. Actually, I’m from Saint Paul.’

Colin had always been hopeless at accents. And at geography too. He knew Minnesota was in America somewhere, and he had a rough idea where America was. But whoever said that ignorance is bliss was even more of a fool than he was. And that was saying something.

‘Well, wherever. Why did you raise your hand, Scott?’
‘Because I did the homework.’
‘But you didn’t even come to my last class.’
‘Oh yes he did!’ said Swotty Scott’s supporters supportively.

Not only was Colin useless at spotting accents and locating places; he was also notoriously bad at remembering faces and taking the register. In rare moments of peace and quiet, he would take the class sheet out of his briefcase and decorate it with a few random ticks. Nobody had ever complained about his attendance records – probably because he never handed them in – so why rock the boat by taking them seriously?

What was the homework? Colin cast his mind back, then forward, from side to side, and back again; but it was no good. He was beginning to regret having raised the topic in the first place. Unfortunately, “Hands up those of you who did your homework” was one of Colin’s stock phrases for beginning a class; in much the same way that we ask, “How are you?” to begin a conversation. And just as “How are you?” is not a serious question – only a crushing bore will reply, “Well, actually …” – this was no less true of Colin’s homework enquiry: the last thing he expected was a serious answer. Scott The Swot, however, had yet to learn the fundamentals of classroom etiquette.

Colin had no intention of admitting he couldn’t remember what the homework was. He was on the ropes again, and he loved nothing more than a good challenge. It was time to fight back …

‘So why didn’t you do your homework, Jack?’
‘Couldn’t see the point. You always forget what you set us.’
‘Don’t be so bloody cheeky, Jack. OK, how about you, Cow, er, Nicola? Sorry.’
‘They didn’t have it.’

At last! A clue!

‘They didn’t have what, Nicola?’
‘The book, of course. Looks like Scott beat me to it.’
‘Sorry, Nicola.’
‘That’s OK, Scott, I wasn’t going to read it, anyway. I just wanted to make sure nobody else did, either. At least I know where the library is now.’
‘Sorry again,’ said Scott, already half wishing he’d stayed in Minnesota; or three quarters wishing, to be accurate.
‘So what did you make of The Whales, Scott?’ Colin didn’t need any more clues; he was back on everyone’s wavelength.
‘You mean The Waves?’
‘That’s what I said, Swot … Er, what are you doing, Miss Tedley?’
‘My Computational Fluid Dynamics homework, dear. You don’t mind, do you?’
‘Aren’t you interested in Virginia Woolf?’
‘Virginia who?’
‘Virginia Woolf. You read her book for homework.’
‘Did I?’
‘Never mind, Miss Tedley. Scott, tell us something about Virginia Fox.’

Seizing his opportunity, Scott cleared his throat – not that he needed to – and addressed his audience …
‘Born in London in eighteen eighty-two, Adeline Virginia Stephen is considered to be one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. In nineteen twelve, she married fellow writer Leonard Woolf, with whom she remained until her death at the age of fifty-nine. Suffering from severe depression and nervous breakdowns throughout her life, Virginia ended up taking her own life in nineteen forty-one. Noted for her fine innovative and lyrical prose, Virginia Woolf produced, among other works, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Between the Acts and, of course, The Waves.’

‘Great Scott! You’re a walking Dikipedia!’
This was just the signing Raphead’s Rappers needed: a student who studied.

‘OK, does anyone have any questions for Scott?’
‘Where’s Minnesota, dear?’
‘It’s somewhere in America, Miss Tedley, but I meant, Does anyone have any questions about Virginia Woolf? … Nicola?’
‘Why’s it called The Waves?’

Not having read the book, Colin had no idea how to answer this question. Fortunately, he no longer needed to know the answers to questions. That was Scott’s job now.

‘Good question, Nicola. Tell her, Scott.’
‘Well, on one level, The Waves is an obvious title, set as it is on the south coast of England. On a more figurative level, however, The Waves refers to the protagonists’ flow of thoughts – their so-called “stream of consciousness” – as they interact and interweave with one another throughout their lives.’
‘Thank you, Scott. Yes, that sounds about right. OK, anybody else want to ask Scott a question?’
‘This one’s for you, Craphead: Why?’
‘Why what, Jack?’
‘Why should we read The Waves if you yourself can’t even be bothered?’
‘Er, tell him, Scott.’
‘Well, …’
‘Shut it, Scott. I want to hear Craphead’s version.’
‘An appreciation of great literature is essential, Jack, if we are going to perform well in the Storytelling Championship.’
‘Bollocks it is. So, anyway, what’s the last great literary work you read?’
‘Apart from The Waves?’
‘I said, “read”, Craphead. Lifting summaries off Wikipedia doesn’t count.’
‘Doesn’t it? In that case, I suppose it would have to be Papillon.’

There was a deadly, deathly, deafly silence. Or something like that, anyway. Well, let’s just say it was very silent. You could have heard a papillon drop. Papillon was possibly the only book Colin had ever read from cover to cover in his life – back in the days when he still had time to read and hadn’t yet sold his soul to Looniversal Learning. It was therefore, by definition, the greatest work of literature that Colin had ever read.

‘It’s a milestone in French literature, Jack. You ought to read it. I expect they’ve got a translation in the library. Nicola could show you where the library is. Kill two birds with one stone.’
‘Easier said than done.’
‘I’m sorry, Miss Tedley?’
‘Killing two birds with one stone. I find I need at least four or five stones these days just to kill one bird.’
‘Stone the crows! Is that the time?’ asked Colin, pointing to the clock by the door.
‘No, it’s twelve minutes fast, we’ve got plenty of time,’ said Nicola helpfully.

But Colin was already in shutdown mode …

‘OK, everyone, for homework, read The Waves – if you haven’t done so already – and then write a short story about boats, the sea or something like that. Basically, anything water-related.’
‘How many words?’
‘Two to three hundred, Nicola … Jack, if you can make fifty, I’ll be more than happy, but remember that compound nouns like “birdbrain” and “bonehead” count as one word, not two.’

- zzz -

It had been another narrow escape for Colin. As Colin stuffed his stuff into his briefcase, he noticed that Jack was looking none too pleased. The silly lad only had himself to blame: when was he going to learn once and for all that you just don’t mess with Papillon Raphead? Nevertheless, Jack seemed to cheer up no end when Nicola showed him her mp3 player.

‘What, Nicola?’
‘Do you like Steve Harley?’
‘Love him. Why?’
‘Knocking on a bit, isn’t he?’
‘The older, the better. Look at Miss Tedley.’
‘Have you ever heard her sing?’
‘Well, no, Jack, but that’s not my point.’

As the two giggling lovebirds fled the nest, Colin was left pondering, Why can’t you ever find a stone that is big enough when you genuinely need one?

dayrealing, chapter 13, "Riding The Waves"

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