The prospect of moving house concentrates the mind horribly: especially when you’re a hoarder like me. I did have a huge clear-out about nine months ago, but there is still the matter of the loft, the other loft, and oh dear, the small shed in the garden, where four slightly battered filing cabinets stand – almost untouched since I left further education eight years ago, almost to the day. They contain all manner of oddities, I’ve discovered: photos and letters, things I wrote when was eleven, but principally, all the teaching material I accumulated in 28 years, and which even I reckon I will never need to use again. Handout after handout: perhaps 200,000 words of material I’ve actually written myself. But who wants to see what I wrote about The Rainbow in 1974? No human, that’s for sure.
Some of the stuff has been easy to shift, and I’ve managed so far to get the whole of 14 of 16 full drawers into four small archive boxes. i.e., that’s all I am tempted to keep. I have even found my first lesson as a full-time teacher.
My first lesson was as an English A-level teacher to a group of nine students in their first year. That would be more like twenty-nine nowadays. I had no idea, not a clue really, what to do. But I decided that the first thing they should do, since they were going to have to read, would be to learn to write. I’m quite proud of this. All my career, I’ve argued in favour of creative writing, and my first lesson was a creative writing lesson. I had no idea then that I would wind up as a Creative Writing Lecturer some thirty-six years later, but I started as I meant to go on.
The Sunday before the Monday on which I was due, at 9 a.m. prompt, to start, I was stuck for ideas. But the Sunday Times colour supplement (as the magazine was then called) cam to my rescue. It had an article about Bridget Rose Dugdale, the heiress who had, amongst other things, robbed her own parents’ house in the name of the revolution, and had joined the IRA. She had recently been sentenced to jail. In it, she was cited as saying that her favourite quote was from Mao’s little Red Book – a little section that said that, in order to understanding the meaning of a pear, you had to change the pear by eating it. This was a metaphor for revolution (to understand revolution, you have to participate in it), and it was followed by the line ‘All knowledge originates in direct experience’.
So I decided – changing pears for apples, because I wasn’t confident about students liking pears, largely because I wasn’t keen myself – to get them to write about the experience of eating an apple, which I would insist took about forty-five minutes (might even have been an hour). I can still recall the slightly ripple of shock when I handed them each an apple. They wrote intently. And then later we discussed the different approaches they’d taken to the experience, as writers. It was all instinctive teaching, and for perhaps the next ten years, it was my signature first lesson. And of course, there in the filing cabinet were all the writings about apples. (I used to type them up on the Monday night, too: I was a workaholic.)
What does one do with such sacred items. For several minutes, my hand shuddered above the waiting bin-bag. And finally, I kept the typescripts. The rest, I let go. It was a difficult moment. I expect there are more to come.