We sit in the lab twice a week, sharing our weighty borrowed purple ‘Elements of Literature: Introduction’ tomes. Every third lesson I write up or dictate one of the syllabus’s set poems from our sole copy of the anthology, and they use half our available time writing it into their exercise books.
There are seven of us, including me. I haven’t taught this form before. One boy I recognise from frequent detentions. One girl is one of our sporting stars. One has a heart defect introduced to me theologically by her mother. One came to me over the summer for a private tutorial because she was upset by her summer English exam mark. The remaining two are our scholarship students, though neither is outstanding: all six are similarly bright.
I count myself because we are an experiment (hence the lab, perhaps?). Not only has Aishalton Secondary School never had literature on the syllabus before: they’ve never had any arts options for CXC (the end-of-school public exams, which are Caribbean-wide). Students sit whatever subjects the staff are qualified to offer them. Since most are Aishaltoners who studied in this same region, the scientific bent self-perpetuates.
Despite loving reading, these students have read very little because there are so few books in the village. Most of them are regular church-goers in conservative traditions. Perhaps that is why they have such a strong instinct to view all texts as infallible. They approach each item with deference, seeking only to understand its top layer. They struggle to understand that stories and poems are authored. They want to stop once ‘what’s it about?’ is answered. And the story has absolute authority: if the moral is that it’s bad to be lazy, then it’s bad to be lazy. ‘Why?’ does not arise. And ‘how?’ is the hardest of all. The text’s plucking of your heartstrings or tickling of your funnybone is accepted, not examined. And like most students, they want to get it right. ‘Do you like this poem?’ has always been a hard question.
They also struggle with form. Take rhyme, for example. I remember realising that I’d always taken English rhyme for granted as an aural absolute, until my Chinese students couldn’t grasp it. With good reason: no syllables in Mandarin end with a consonant, so they couldn’t exactly hear the consonants as rhymes. You can’t call words with different tones rhyming, so if you said “sea” falling and “he” rising, they don't rhyme in Chinese. It wasn’t at all that they couldn’t hear enough- they could hear too much going on. How could they say whether those final consonants rhymed or not? It was bewildering. Like my friend Katy, who is so musical that she used to do really badly at exam aural tests, because when they played two notes for her to sing, she could hear all the harmonics clashing and vibrating in her head. She heard sixteen notes, not two.
I’ll give you one further shard from the tip of the cultural iceberg. We read a pleasingly understated poem called ‘Richard Cory’. I’m using deduction to help them engage with the poem, so I write it up leaving out the shock denouement. I try to explain the concept of living on the street- there is no homelessness here, and in a place that never gets cold, where people spend much time outside their house, roof it with ite palm leaves, and live on local fruit and wild meat, it wouldn’t be a very meaningful hardship anyway. I finish my explanation, feeling pleased with the general understanding, and a hand goes up. “Miss, what’s a pavement?”. No wonder I’m so keen on teaching them to read for gist... They guess with success the denouement, despite not recognising the pavement.
Despite the yawning gaps, they progress by leaps and bounds. Golda’s test poem ("rhyme 1&3, 2&4") about the Inter-House sports jumps off the page at me:
On the track I ran the three thousand metre race,
With my hands moving to and fro for speed.
The sun was very hot as it reached my face,
Falcons shouted for first place- their only need.
She’s clearly feeling for a regular metre, as well as choosing perfect rhymes. I think, all things considered, that’s extremely impressive.
Detention boy turns out to be sparky and full of imaginative flair. Sporty girl is perceptive, and intriguing when she tries. Scholarship girl is a budding actress, reading her drama parts with verve. Scholarship boy is lazy or tentative and it’s hard to deduce which. The girl with the heart defect is full of heart. Worried Summer Tutorial girl is zooming through with a great combination of originality and pleasing turns of phrase. I have no idea whether they will ever do well, but I have every confidence that they deserve to. I wonder is there room in the system to value excellence from scratch?