… but of course, where I came on this one was that my nephew rings me up and asks for help with his homework, and, if he has any sense (he is pretty well-endowed in that department), he rings me up with his English homework, the idea being that I ought to be able to deliver the goods in that area – although he knows I’m just going to prompt him to think about it for himself. Thank goodness they don’t still do parsing, because I think I’d let him down. I have to think very hard about matters such as adjectival clauses and past participles these days, although I do actually (sound of a penitential bell here) quite enjoy reading old grammars and the like.
But his homework a short while ago was to write a piece which answered the question ‘Is homework a good thing?’ I suspect this is one that many teachers of eleven-year-olds come up with, and I wouldn’t bet against having had to answer this question myself at the same age. Some things don’t change. Children still have to write ‘What I did in my holidays’, although I really hope that not many of them have to come up with ‘A Day In The Life Of A Penny’, which was the complete staple of my childhood, and which now carries with it, to me at least, the air of a punishment.
Just to digress, the punishments that I received when at school were often not terribly punishing, because they asked me to do things I liked doing. For one infraction, I had to learn ‘John Gilpin’, a long poem by William Cowper (‘John Gilpin was a citizen/ Of credit and renown;/ A train-band captain eke was he/ Of famous London Town’ and so on for a hundred lines. I never knew what a train-band was, and still don’t, and I didn’t work out ‘eke’ for a good decade, either). On another occasion, I was asked to memorise – I can’t quite believe this when I look it up – the whole of ‘The Pied Piper Of Hamelin’ by Robert Browning. I loved that punishment.
Equally exciting and meant to drive you into a coma for your sins was to be asked to write one thousand words on ‘The Inside Of A Ping-Pong Ball’. This apparently terrifying and impossible task was the kind of thing I was writing in my spare time anyway, and as a matter of fact, I think it might make quite a good poem. The bastards who set this cannot have been pleased by the way my face relaxed into a large grin at the prospect of it. They misunderstood me. If they’d asked me to play a game of cricket, they might have caused me some proper suffering.
But the ‘Is homework a good thing?’ question is a teaser for an eleven-year-old, because it cunningly forces the writer to have to think of some arguments why the very thing they’re doing might actually be a good thing, despite the inner voice saying to them, ‘I would like to be on my Playstation.’ The post-modern answer would presumably be to hand in a neatly-folded and blank page, or possibly some origami, but my nephew is savvy enough to know that this will bank him no credit with the teachers, and possibly exclude him from a football game. In fact, what exercised him the most was thinking of arguments as to why it might be a bad thing (‘It prevents me from catching up on my Proust’? ‘It prevents me from completing the cleaning of the bathroom’?)
I realise also that I am vicariously re-living my childhood through his homework. He is the last nephew in line, so I may as well enjoy it while I can.