A Question of Doubt



We had a moment yesterday, a potential throwback to the good old days of shouting and screaming insults at each other. Those days were quite infrequent but surviving, we tended to consider them in the same way that others look upon wildfires; they are an evil, a necessary evil that cleanse and revitalise the earth.


In the past, it would take a number of days to come to terms with our violent explosions of rage and frustration. The fire would have long since burnt itself out before we could repair the rents in our relationship, redefine the boundaries and then sweep up all of the physical debris such a broken painting, smashed glasses and hurt feelings. The thing with the wildfire is that it gives very little warning before it races up and sweeps past everything in its path.

In retrospect, we ought to have smelt it on the wind.


Every now and again we wake up with wrong heads on. Often these wrong heads are only attached to one of us at a time and quite frequently, we take the wrong head to a place of quarantine: work. Having a wrong head on in a place of learning is barely noticeable. Indeed, having a wrong head is a positive benefit. Unfortunately, wrong heads can sprout outside of school time and it is then that you must fear them the most. No, not just then, but it is when two wrong heads appear at the same time, it is an omen  and a recipe for disaster.


Thinking back to the near-miss, neither of us has any idea what caused it. From apparent calm, we moved through the stages of sharp remarks, raised voices and threats of divorce. Pre-lapse, I would have thrown myself willingly into the cauldron of madness and played my role as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.


Yesterday was different. If a cartoonist had been present, they would have drawn me with dark clouds and lightning covering my head. There would have been a dramatic soundtrack, Wagner or some such like. And let’s not forget my strictly dance partner whose determination to bring about this terrible tango could not be faulted. At that moment, she would have appeared as Lady Macbeth, easily taunting my manhood and stabbing away with razor-sharp incursions that she knew would hit the spot. We were both so caught up in this perennial drama that we had forgotten our need for sanity, so just we just picked up the old script and delivered our lines.


As the crescendo was rising, at the very last moment before tipping into the void, I turned to look out of the garden window and stopped mid-performance. I spotted a number of tiny birds, tits or swallows, I didn’t know, but I watched them flutter from tree to tree, branch to branch, fly off and then return. Whilst caught up in their antics, I lost my lines. When I eventually turned back to my wife, it was not Lady Mac waiting for me nor was the caretaker staring at her. I smiled and returned my offering. The fire was extinguished.


Today we have woken up as near to normal as we are ever likely to get. We drank tea in bed, read the news about the world of fascist madness, shook our heads, ate toast, shook the duvet, and picked up our separate bedside reading books. We stayed in bed for hours and the girls seemed to get the message that this was one of those days that demanded nothing more than keeping one’s eyes open whilst maintaining a closed mouth. Reading, reading, reading.


It has always been an uphill slog to get our daughters to pick up a book rather than turn on the television. Apart from our middle daughter, our children have never willingly gravitated towards the consumption of literature. They prefer to cut out the middle-man and go straight to celluloid. Who needs to pour over hefty tomes when somebody can do the deed for you? In this, I think that I have been remiss. As a child, I was constantly being berated for having goggle eyes. My father told me that I would be blind by the time I was twenty if I didn’t stop watching the box and start reading. He may have added, blind and stupid, but I can’t truly remember.


Getting other people’s kids to read has always been one of my challenges since entering teaching. A report published recently has highlighted just how badly reading is perceived by adolescents.  The drop in reading ages, year after year, is nothing short of phenomenal. By the time students have reached their GCSE year, many have a reading age three years less than their actual age. As an English teacher, this doesn’t surprise me. Year after year the only reason for studying English is to gain a passport qualification. It’s become something of a driving test rather than a liberating adventure in thinking.


Anybody in charge of anything in education would see in me the husk of a once passionate educator who has now lost his way. It’s not about fluffiness, it’s about facts, measurable units of data, the hard stones of progress. I am the one who is out of sync. I am the one who would attempt to waste the valuable essence of time in a venture that promises little more than awareness and understanding. Oh, and empathy.


There he sits as bewildered as he was on that very first day. Before him the rows of tables that he sought to send into exile. They are there still, empty with so many faces from a life spent wishing, wishing for something better that came. The yawn of hope mocks his memories and smirks at him from the back of the classroom. That was where he had been sent for talking or daydreaming, for not displaying appropriate application to his task. But now he sits in the teacher’s chair and cannot veil the signs of wear and tear. Just when did he get old?  


My wife looks at me and there is sadness in her face. At some point, I represented something bright. My poetry days have long gone as has my belief in something good happening. That way lies madness, if madness does indeed lie. My thoughts are that it is a truth-teller in wolf’s clothing. Beyond anything else, it has been a companion. Doubt has dogged my steps through the years of desperate hope. Doubt sits with me now, as much a part of me as these hands are that are recording its presence. Doubt is consistent and must be listened to. If not, I would plunge head-first into whatever new adventure beckons.


Back in the eighties I understood my plight. Paul Theroux wrote The Mosquito Coast about an errant father who dragged his family across South America on some half-conceived plan to make ice in the jungle. It ended badly. He was too innocent and naive, “to be wary of spiders in the jungle grass.”


But spiders there were, yet my own dream of jungle ice has always failed to make me doubt.






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