My life through books #1 “The Fault in our Stars” by John Green

I actually found John Green last year when I was trawling YouTube trying to find a short video that would encapsulate some of the most important aspects of World War I for my senior class (who were hopelessly ignorant of most current events, never mind historical ones). I found Crash Course History and was transfixed. Here was a man who includes all the basic facts I know about World War I AND includes questions about the usual Western way of looking at things (plus he throws in all kinds of cheesy puns which are practically the staple foodstuff of my teaching style).

But that is not really the story I want to tell. The reason I would recommend this book (and why it tells some of the story of my life) is that it reminded me of something about teenagers that everyone (especially teachers) should know.

As my last blog post will tell you, I had been struggling to connect with the teenagers I teach and with the whole school system. So many aspects of it do not ring true to me and actually feel like an affront to many of the principles I hold dear. Then, I helped direct a play and my whole perspective shifted. I spent hours with a small group of these teenagers and a fellow English teacher on a hodgepodge of Shakespearean scenes we put together. I would leave for school in the dark and return at 9.30 pm feeling more exhilarated than I have done for years. This is not to say that I have had an uneventful life, but rather that there is something about being involved in a play that enlarges your world and makes every moment more vivid and intense. And it was this collaborative effort with only one other adult and all these foul-mouthed boys (and two brave girls from the sister school) who could barely concentrate long enough to practise a scene without some self-created interruption that brought this intensity. I, practically a hermit who feels like an outsider in the school almost all the time, felt a little like I had found my tribe.

So when one of the actors recommended The Fault in Our Stars (after several of the boys in my other classes had said it was really good), I picked it up after our final performance, absolutely exhausted but too wired up and ecstatic to sleep. I fell headlong into it (isn’t “falling headlong” the perfect cliché to describe getting involved in a book? You start reading and then tumble, tingling brain first, into the words and worlds in the pages) and was so moved, not just by its honey of a love story, but by the way that it reminded me that teenagers are inexperienced adults that have to deal with a few more hormones. I think the fact that so many teenagers love The Fault in Our Stars is “the truth of this” (to pinch from Sydney Clouts). Take this bit of introduction by Hazel (the protagonist) about her favourite book:

“My favourite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like betrayal”.*

This is a fairly complex idea to express, and one that would be supposedly alien to teenagers who supposedly share everything (notice all those “supposedly”s? Mmmm!), but it is one which (I think) resonates with most readers, no matter what their age.

I also found it strangely challenging to read about characters who did not want to live life “zombically”, but who also affirmed the value of personal experience rather than world-wide adulation: “You say you’re not special because the world doesn’t know about you, but that’s an insult to me. I know about you”.

Finally, some people may be offended (as the Guardian’s film writer Peter Bradshaw was) by the supposed “cashing in” on a cancer-weepie about teenagers. If you read this excellent article in the New Yorker about John Green, you will see that he actually worked with terminally ill teenagers for several years and that he is very civic minded. It is then a little clearer that this is an author who puts his own experiences into his books, rather than an author who engineers fictional situations that will pull on heartstrings for cash.**

The Fault in Our Stars was a revelation to me because it reminded me of that teenage state when you are bursting with ideas but have little independence, when your world is exploding outwards at a rapid rate but you haven’t shaded in all the colours and detail yet. It reminded me of the relevance and legitimacy of the lives of others, particularly of those I teach, and that unexpected things can reveal a little more of the world to you in unexpectedly transcendent ways.

PS: I haven’t yet seen the film because I am too afraid that it will be, in Hazel’s words, “a betrayal”. Can anyone enlighten me about whether I am right to stay away?

*To my shame, I do not have a page number for this because I have a Kindle version. Amazon is an evil behemoth and I usually buy actual copies of the books I care about, but this book was a late night impulse buy.

**By the by, all the New Yorker’s articles are free for three months. You’re welcome.

***Photo source: PoChun Liu at http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-contest/2013/entries/239238/view/


Hello. My name is Clea and I am an English teacher (the mostly bad news version)

So it’s been a while since I posted anything online.  It has been over two years, in fact. There are many reasons for this, including ideas for other blogs that I have been working on and the fact that my computer gave up on me.  Most importantly, however, my life has changed radically since 2012. I have not had a child or moved countries or even cities. No one close to me has died, and Zwe and I are still more than happy together. I have savings in the bank that don’t need to be spent immediately and I am still friends with all the marvelous people I am fortunate enough to count as friends.

What changed was that I became a high school teacher.

To be honest, I thought that teaching would give me more time to write about what I am really interested in.  Writing a Masters thesis hangs overs your brain like a fine mist and affects all your other activities. You feel like every waking moment should be spent bettering your ideas to produce this thesis.

I thought that teaching was more like a real job, one that could end when school ends at the end of the day. I thought that I would have more head space for my own interests as the work would be delivered at school. Both my parents are teachers, so I knew it would be hard work but I figured that while that the after hours work is fairly consuming, it is not the itching, nudging feeling of a thesis that WILL NOT let you alone and wrestles with every word you want to put on the page.

What I did not realise is that in teaching, you work with young human capital in a field that is constantly shifting the parameters of what is considered “good work”. This means several things:

1. All of a sudden, I have become partly responsible for the English education (and moral fibre, critical thinking skills, engagement in current affairs, general knowledge and my pupils’ understanding of male-female relations as I teach in an all-boys’ school) of over one-hundred growing boys.  This is a heavy burden to bear and I constantly question (inexperienced as I am) whether I am doing enough or doing the right thing for them.

2. Education is changing (and so it should!) Teachers should not get their pupils to sit, listen and learn reams of facts off by heart. Instead, teachers should be encouraging pupils to make connections, to stay curious and to become involved not only in the array of school activities, but also in their communities to make positive changes. This is awesome (in the good, old-fashioned sense of the word: inspiring awe).  But I have been struggling all year to wonder how I can fulfil my responsibilities as a teacher by getting these kids through exams and tests, and yet by challenging them to take responsibility for their own learning which means, necessarily, letting them fail if they don’t change on their own. Quite a few of the days, I feel I do not get the balance right.  After two years of feeling like I was fairly good at what I did at Wits, many of the days I teach, I feel a horrendous failure.

3. In order to get better at the above skill, it is important to develop and read up on stuff in my spare time. By the time I get to my “spare time”, however, I feel emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Most days, I teach my first lesson at 7.30am (with preparation and sometimes even meetings beforehand) and usually work almost continuously until I put away my work at 9.30pm with work still left unfinished. I teach extra lessons in the afternoons, as well as run two clubs.  This is still far less than many of the other teachers at the school contribute. They also seem pretty normal, able to talk about things that might be happening outside of the school, or make conversation that doesn’t revert back to, “One of my grade …s said … in class the other day”.  This makes me feel like I am not only failing at the content of my job, but as a friend or half-way interesting conversationalist.

I thought that when I started teaching, I would gain fascinating insights into the nature of humanity and human development, and find some magic formula for making teenagers excited about Shakespeare. Many days, however, I concentrate on not going crazy so that the pupils and hard-working, selfless teachers who rely on my contribution will not have to pick up the pieces.

And after all my angst, a woman I was studying with at Wits asked, when I saw her many months ago, if I was finding teaching challenging enough.

There’s a really good line I read in John Green’s The Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist says that if his parents didn’t stop talking he “would blow up. Literally. Guts on the walls; his prodigious brain emptied out onto his bedspread”. John Green seems to have a knack for describing certain responses to situations perfectly, and the frustration I feel when people ask if my job is challenging is pretty well encapsulated by a guts-all-over-the-walls frustration (while I would not describe my brain as feeble, I would’t go so far as to call it prodigious).

Teaching is so all-encompassing that it is, in many ways, a kind of sacrificial profession. What I have promised myself is that if I am to sacrifice some of my life for others, I will keep striving to make the time worth something to these other minds I profess to know. As mired in contradictions and compromises as teaching is, I hope I can distil something useful from the experience in these (ephemeral and digital) pages, and contribute some words to the chatter.