She had uttered the words, “The end of civilization as we know it!”
It sounded a little trite but she was speaking from the foundations of honesty.
“One day, and we don’t know when that will be, we will be faced with the imminent arrival of a rogue comet. And perhaps, when that day arrives ,the human race will be in real danger of extinction. As things stand, we can only detect and predict the pathways of such objects within a window of six months. That is not enough time to orchestrate an effective response.”
From BBC Five Live News November 2016
It was a dark morning with fog settling in for another miserable mid-winter’s day. The news of the comet had an uplifting effect on my mood; just another thing not to worry about. We have no holidays booked for the summer so there was no danger of losing deposits. Somebody texted in with the words, “Fresh Start” and I had to agree that there was something in the glass after all. Mankind would be gone and so would Ofsted. No more short-notice inspections, no more categories, no more pompous old farts opining on the success or failings of schools. Donald Trump and Nigel Farage would be gone too. So, there is a God and it’s as hard as rock.
The important thing about comets is that they chase away the futility of anxiety. My own dark clouds had spent a week over me but had been blown away when I returned to teach the very same Year 9 group that precipitated their arrival. I planned an up-yours lesson which involved reading. There are certain stories that students should read, some people call this cultural capital but they are mostly referring to the classics of the nineteenth century. The late, great marget fatcher would have summoned to mind the writings of Austen, Dickens and the Brontes. Fatcher, as one kid spelt her, was of the old school that worshiped at the font of writers who lived and died in that golden age of British culture. My canon is more for the everyman and it includes a wonderful story by Penelope Lively called The Darkness Out There. There was a certain irony that struck me with my choice.
The darkness was out there and it was part of you and you would never be without it, ever.
In short, my lesson plan was this: hand out short story, ask for readers, get none, so read it myself as best as I could, bearing in mind the potential hostility of the audience. So, I began to read and they began to listen. Oh, miracle of miracles.
There is something rather magical about reading. I still recall listening to my English teacher read Watership Down whilst at high school. He was originally a PE teacher who had developed a somewhat successful sideline as a thespian; he was the circus master in a film called Stardust. And he was a very good actor indeed. When he read, he brought a whole story to life. The characters became real, as real as the kids sitting next to me. Kehaar flew amongst us with his harsh Teutonic tone and it was all we could do not to duck when he entered the story. Watership Down is a pretty lengthy book, but we read it all, or rather our English teacher read it for us. Nobody talked or fiddled during these lessons, the act of listening had become an art form, and the world of the rabbits had become ours.
When I became a teacher, it was this teacher to whom I turned. I measured my rendition of novels and short stories against his. I know that I can never be as good as he was. Nevertheless, I have always given reading a special place in teaching and lament a curriculum that crowds it out in favour of tuneless sound bites. In an age when concentration levels are falling amongst the young and old alike, when libraries (both school and public) are wastelands devoted to as many activities that are as far removed from the enjoyment of the written word as is possible, surely classrooms ought to be a reservoir of reading. The last fifteen years of teaching English has seen the subject drop down the favourites’ list of staff and students alike. Novels have become novellas, quick reads that are more than often done as film to save time. The key characters and events are studied and revised for the sole purpose of passing an examination. There is no more opening of astounded eyes, flickering of emergent understanding and empathy, or the hearing of life changing lines. The reason we read is to enhance ourselves as decent human beings not to achieve examination results that fuel the judgements about schools, teachers and the education system itself. Why bother loving literature when all you need to do is pass it?
Penelope Lively’s Darkness is a seminal piece that acts as fairy tale and rites of passage narrative. It is a short story that stays with you and I have brought it out, rabbit from the hat-like on many occasions, for the sole purpose of enjoyment and understanding. It has the timeless trick of sticking in the mind’s eye and resonating as much with young readers today as it did many years ago. The central character is an old woman hidden away on the wrong side of a haunted wood, hiding a secret that is so rank with moral corruption that it clings to the young protagonists and its readers forever, and a day. I read the lines once again and was not surprised that the class was being reeled in.
Little by little the writer’s spell was working. The class, that had been apathetic at best a week earlier, was now listening. I was firing questions out and hands were being waved for an opportunity to reply. I don’t normally go with the hands up thing instead preferring to pick those students who would have avoided detection. This time, however, I went with the tide of my good fortune and found myself becoming lost in a warm enthusiasm for that moment. I was the teacher that I used to be and it was good to rediscover him. Let nobody get me wrong and think that my redemption was somehow complete through this episode; my time in teaching is coming to an end and the time is right for that. But books continue to hold me and to provide hope for the future.
Somewhere high above us, a rogue meteor looked down as it sped onwards. Something had changed its mind. Something in the vast randomness of the universe had redirected destruction. For the time being, the planet was safe.
And it was thanks to the arrival of the rogue rock.