This is a story I wrote a few years back and found on my old computer. There will be more soon…
It was within about a week of starting my work at the school as a trainee English teacher that I realised there was something different about Oscar’s lessons. He was supervising my classes, and I was becoming increasingly flustered as I struggled simply to get the little darlings to sit down, shut up and pay attention. On one particularly bad day, Oscar spontaneously stood up and joined me in front of the mob. Within a few minutes, the children were utterly spellbound as he brought the works of Shakespeare to life before their eyes. For a moment I felt rather lost and helpless, but it wasn’t long before I was in as buoyant a mood as the children, throwing myself into the role of Lady Macbeth as the classroom transformed itself into a sordid lair of dark plotting. It was only after the lesson had finished and I was driving home in the dreary November twilight that I was hit by the full realisation of what had happened. It was a wonder that anyone had been able to get those adolescent thugs even to stay in their seats for two minutes, let alone appreciate the finer points of literature.
During the next couple of weeks, I sat in on a few of Oscar’s lessons at my own request. I was never disappointed and quite often even my own expectations were exceeded as he led his enchanted audience on literary quests through legends as vivid as firework displays. Having collaborated in Macbeth’s dark works, they proceeded to become lost in the hopeless passion of Romeo and Juliet and delight in the ridiculous irony of Much Ado About Nothing.
One December lunchtime, when the rain was blattering down outside, I was drinking coffee in the staff room with Oscar and pondering on his miraculous success. For a while I had been wondering whether to ask him how he did it, or whether that would be a stupid question considering that he had probably accumulated a cluttered shed-load of little teaching tools during his many years of experience.
“Oscar,” I ventured, “I know that this is probably a stupid question because it would probably take several years to answer, but how do you manage to teach like you do? I mean… not only do they listen to you… they actually seem interested… no… more than interested…”
“Goodness me,” exclaimed Oscar, beaming, “of course that’s not a stupid question! I’m guessing you’re thinking it has everything to do with experience, but I know many teachers who’ve been around far longer than me and still have difficulty keeping bums on seats, let alone getting ideas into heads. There is one secret, my child, and that is to open doors to new worlds… vibrant worlds of imagination for young minds to explore.”
“But I’ve seen you open many doors to many different worlds, and surely each door needs a different key… and surely you’ve needed a great deal of time to accumulate such an extensive bunch of these keys to imagination?” I asked, continuing with his metaphor.
“No, you misunderstand… there is only one key… and that one precious key will open any metaphorical door you’ll ever need to open. The key, my friend, is inspiration.”
I almost jumped out of my seat.
“But I am inspired!” I cried, “I absolutely adore literature, especially Shakespeare… that’s why I decided to be a teacher in the first place… and that’s why it frustrates me so much when they don’t listen!”
Oscar shook his head, and smiled at me in a way that somehow subdued me.
“But do you actually feel inspired… I mean when you’re there standing in front of the class taking a lesson?”
“No,” I answered, frankly, and added rather pathetically, “I feel terrified.”
“I don’t blame you, many teachers my age still feel terrified… but the key is to give the kids inspiration by completely exposing your own to them… it’s not easy, it makes you feel awfully vulnerable… it’s like handing over to them a very personal part of yourself… I’m talking crap, aren’t I?”
“Not at all… but what I want to know is how, when you walk into the classroom to find little Ryan Spinks climbing onto the top of a cupboard and Stacey Jones sitting at the front daydreaming and picking her nose… well… how do you stay inspired?”
In response, Oscar told me a story about the gap year he had taken after university. He had been, he explained, “a bit of a hippy, really”, and had engaged in the rather clichéd gap year activity of “a squalid and impoverished backpacking expedition with my then-girlfriend”. He told me about a colony of monks he had discovered in Tibet, who led simple and uncomfortable lives in a monastery carved into the side of a bleak mountain. They put him up in a peculiar and craggy little room, which he thought was absolutely wonderful. The girlfriend, however, disagreed, and quickly became disillusioned with living in “a cave” with “an unwashed hippy”. The monks taught the young Oscar all about inspiration, and how it is the key to a happy and fulfilling life. He never told me what faith, if any, they followed, and I didn’t ask because I gathered he realised it didn’t matter. They were primarily freethinking philosophers, and seemed perfectly happy in whatever they believed, despite their materially deprived lifestyle. After a couple of weeks, the girlfriend went home in a rage (“you and those bloody monks!”), but Oscar stayed. He never saw her again after that.
When Oscar came to leave the monastery, he was intent on making sure that all he had learnt would stay with him throughout his journey through life, insofar as that was possible. When he asked the monks for advice on this, they huddled together for what appeared to Oscar to be rather a long time, after which the eldest of them came forward and spoke to him.
The eldest monk gave Oscar a single word, and explained to him that whenever he feels uninspired he must repeat this one word to himself in his head, and he will instantly feel inspired again. At that point, Oscar had the impression he had been short-changed. One word? He wondered if the monk had been mocking him, and meandered back to the airport in disillusionment. Maybe the girlfriend had been right all along, he thought. He berated himself for losing her… for being so gullible as to listen to a bunch of hermits living on an inhospitable mountain. “It was simply the atmosphere of the place”, he thought to himself, “captured my imagination and carried me away… and now I must be sensible and come back down to Earth”. It was at that point, he told me, that his mind started nagging him.
“Try it… just once, Oscar… after all, what have you got to lose?”
He shook his head, as though in doing so he might physically dislodge the thought, but it refused to go away. Eventually, he somewhat grudgingly obeyed it…
It worked. He felt immediately at peace with the world, creative, as he had only a few hours ago before he had left the sanctuary of the mountain.
It was here that Oscar finished his tale.
“It still works,” he said with a smile, “I have no idea how or why it works, it shouldn’t do… after all, it’s only a word.”
“Tell me the word!” I exclaimed impatiently.
He smiled serenely and shook his head.
“I’ve never told anyone, not even my wife. In fact, you’re one of the only people who I’ve ever even told the story.”
For a few days, this conversation was constantly spinning around my mind as I attempted to make sense of it. I even dreamed about it. If only I knew what that word was…
Then it dawned on me one nondescript afternoon just before school broke up for Christmas that what the word was didn’t actually matter. Maybe the monks just made it up at random, but that is something that I shall never know, and nor will Oscar for that matter.
I have now been teaching for several years, and have one several awards for my work at comprehensive schools in deprived areas. Of course, I would never go as far as to say that I have anything comparable to Oscar’s talent for inspiring young people, but they do at least listen to me.
Whenever I feel uninspired, I think about what Oscar told me… about opening doors to new worlds…
It never ceases to work.