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Back to school

Geoff Charles

We never quite get over that “back-to-school” feeling. When I was sent to school for the first time more than seven decades ago, in spite of my stubborn resistance, I imagined that one day in school would be more than enough but found to my horror that it was back-to-school the next day too, and the next, and the next.

In a way it never ended for me because I spent years as a teacher and still live, half-consciously, to the rhythm of the school year. So, the end of August always has the same slightly vertiginous feeling, like being poised on the tip of a high diving board above a pool of unknown depth.

This feeling is not at all logical, because I do believe in school and in education — the more the better. Without it we would still be living in the Dark Ages. It’s just that childhood education is so difficult, whether you are on the giving or the receiving end. It is a once-only window of opportunity when young minds can absorb almost anything with incredible ease.

This is the time to learn things like languages, music and mathematics, which will be a hundred times harder to learn later in life. Children will absorb some sort of information no matter what we do, and if they are surrounded by cultural garbage they will absorb cultural garbage, which is what all too often happens. You could say that education saves us from our own culture.

Learning doesn’t seem important when you’re young. For me school was just a distraction from everything interesting, like going for bike rides in the country, and finding strange creatures at the bottom of ponds, and building surrealistic machines out of Meccano. Instead, we were locked inside a classroom on sunny days, lined up in rows on hard seats, and facing a blackboard full of mysterious hieroglyphics that were especially incomprehensible to me because, until I was eleven, nobody noticed that I was extremely short-sighted.

We survived the educational process somehow and emerged with little bits of culture stuck to us like post-it notes, but with a lot of disagreeable memories. The teachers were too fond of physical punishments, and there was no attempt to protect the self-esteem of students who happened to be lazy or dumb. Within each class we were arranged from front to back according to weekly test scores.

Everyone could see that the smartest kid was in the front right seat of the A class, and the stupidest and most rebellious kids were in the back seats of the D class. The teachers may have been trying to teach us about the real world and, if so, it was a good lesson. This is exactly how the world works. Naturally the smartest kid got beaten up every day for being the smartest kid, which doesn’t always happen in the real world, although perhaps, as a matter of social justice, it should.

Back-to-school is less traumatic now, so much so that I’d like to start over again with a yellow bus instead of a long walk, some kinder, gentler teachers who know the laws against child abuse, and a bright laptop instead of an unreadable blackboard. But I can’t start again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for each generation. I hope today’s small scholars make the most of it.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.