Some stared off into the distance, a couple squabbled half-heartedly, half a dozen had their heads on the desks (was Michael actually asleep?), and even the most conscientious were struggling to keep their minds on the rather mundane exercise I’d set for them. Well, it hadn’t seemed mundane when I was planning it the night before; in fact, I’d managed to convince myself that this activity would, finally, allow the students to get their teeth into something enlivening. But it hadn’t really worked.
We’d shut the windows to keep the hot February wind out of our classroom, but this only made it worse; after a lunch hour tearing around outside, twenty-five sweaty boys meant that they brought the heat in on their bodies. All day – no, if I was honest, all week! – I’d struggled unsuccessfully to engage them, and I was beginning to think it was time to abandon the attempt. Maybe it was best just to see out the afternoon and try again tomorrow.
This was 1971. This was my second year of teaching and I hoped it would be a fresh start after a challenging first year at a different school. I was desperate to find some way of focussing the intelligent energy I was convinced was there, though up til now I’d seen only flashes of it. The boys were usually compliant, most of them keen to please and wanting to continue to succeed (as most had done at this Melbourne private school), but there’d been little real intellectual excitement.
And, right now, there was none. Just lethargy. Going through the motions. Waiting for the bell. I could feel it in myself.
Then Andrew, something of a class clown, climbed up on a desk, apparently intending to open one of the high windows in our stuffy classroom. There was a long rope attached to this high window, installed make it possible to open the window without climbing on the desks, but Andrew wasn’t a boy who liked to do things the obvious way.
‘Andrew,’ I said rather irritably (and perhaps more loudly than was necessary). ‘Get down from the desk.’
A slow smile spread across his freckled face. He had my attention. He looked down from his vantage point and saw that he had everyone’s attention. He grabbed hold of the dangling rope and put it loosely around his neck.
‘Is this a hanging offence?’ he asked.
We all laughed.
I looked around the room. Where a moment before the boys had been listless and unconnected, suddenly they were alert, focussed, engaged. It was what I’d been hoping the exercise would have done, or any number of things I’d tried during those early weeks.
I very much wanted to prolong the moment, and, not quite sure where this would lead, I had an idea.
‘You are on trial, Andrew English,’ I intoned in a voice that I hoped sounded like some 19thh century judge, ‘for the wilfull act of attempting to hang yourself by the neck until dead. Take your place in the dock …’ I hastily moved one of the desks so that it sat in relation to my ‘judge’s’ desk where a dock in a courtroom might be. ‘… and subject yourself to the full might of blind British justice.’
Andrew’s smile broadened. Then he made a half-hearted attempt to look awed, bowed his head, and solemnly got off the desk and sat himself down in the ‘dock’.
I sat in the judge’s chair and hastily appointed a lawyer for the prosecution, another for the defence. Other students became character witnesses or observers, court reporters and the like. The ridiculous nature of the alleged crime – attempting suicide – was never questioned; we’d suspended disbelief.
For the next hour or so, our classroom was transformed, the heat forgotten. I watched as a group of lethargic 11 year olds transform themselves, in an instant, into a galvanised team attempting to creatively cope with the excitingly unexpected. They put on new voices, adopted new body language, created (in that hour or so) a new space shaped by their imaginations and ability to think on the go.
All of that happened 43 years ago. I think it’s possibly fair to say that I’ve spent the last 43 years trying to understand that moment better, and to find ways of building what I glimpsed at then into my teaching. Dull minds became intelligent, spent bodies became animated. Something significant was triggered, released, harnessed.
One way of describing that moment would be to say that a story was told that captured imaginations, got into bodies, agitated molecules, and changed the way an environment was constituted. A story did something. It became an actor, an agent, a mover, in our classroom. We became infected by its presence and found ourselves being carried along by a momentum that hadn’t been present before the story made its entrance.
During the past 43 years, I’ve come to know better (but never understood enough) about the ways in which a story acts in and on the world, and how this capacity of a story to do its work can be used in classrooms to release and focus dormant energies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I moved into secondary English teaching and then, for a period of about ten years, into psychotherapy, where those who came to see me – often adolescents or primary aged children – would tell me stories and we would work with them.
These two moves – to secondary English teaching and psychotherapy – were, as I said, perhaps unsurprising, given my professional preoccupation with the potential power of story. Yet in both those professions, I found myself being diverted from my earlier insight that a story is a free agent, an actor, a do-er of things in the world. In both secondary English teaching, and then in psychotherapy, I found myself being unconsciously seduced by the notion that a story is less an agent of unpredictably but exciting change, and more an object to be understood and studied from a disciplined distance.