Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Teacher Who Gave Me Freedom And Took Away My Hope

Prompt 31. The Professor: Write about a teacher that has influenced you.

Last night I considered these questions:  Has any teacher influenced me in a big way?  How was I influenced?

I concluded that no school or university teacher influenced me in any spectacular way worth writing about.  Some teachers helped me.  Some, I'm sorry to say, hindered me.  Very few encouraged me in the realms of ideas and I'm not someone who says, "Ah yes, without Mrs. Burke I don't know where I'd be now."

I decided I'd write something about my secondary school music teacher, Phil Baker.  He was a good man and I wish I'd allowed him to be more of a friend.  I also wished I'd decided to study A level music with him.  It would have been a brilliant two years, one to one teaching with Phil.  He ran our community choir and he introduced me to music I wouldn't otherwise have heard.  I also socialised with him a few times out of school.  He took me to a world premier concert, got me involved in a production of My Fair Lady, and took me to a spirituality day at Tekels Park - which was a home to both the Theosophical Society and the Liberal Catholic Church.  Phil Baker was the best.  The last time I saw him was many years ago.  He surprised me by showing up at the house to see how we all were.  We weren't all great.  My mother happened to be an inpatient at the Royal Marsden.  Phil instantly changed his plans and took me up to see her.  He was one of the best things about my school.  So why didn't I study A level music?  That's not a question I'm answering today.

I didn't write about Phil though.  What I wrote deviated from the facts about a teacher who has influenced me.  It's true that Phil had an office near the main music teaching room.  It's true that his clothes were slightly to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.  And it's true that he used to sit in his book-filled office, music playing, and smoking a pipe.  All of that is true.  The rest is not.

What follows is a free-written story.  It's unfinished.  1800 words plus the 500 you've just read is enough for now.  I think I know a little of how the story would develop.  I'll let you into a secret:  An arrest follows.  And a hiding away.  Then either a sad resolution or an antagonist and a crisis to lead into something bigger.  You can have your own ideas and complete the tale in your head.  That's what the full tale is about:  Having your own ideas.

"Freyja and the Necklace" by James Doyle Penrose

He was a brilliant man.

He was my religious studies teacher and he was my first love.  Half the girls fancied him, and no wonder, but I loved him for his intellect.  Almost from the beginning of my first year in the school I looked up to him because he seemed so in control of his life.  It felt like nothing could ever worry him and the air of calm he carried with him was contagious.

He wasn't anything like the other teachers.  Compared to Mr. Stevens they were nothing to me.  They might as well all have been robotic imitations of people for all the difference it would have made.  A lesson with them felt like being bossed around by something only programmed for one task and with one set of knowledge.  Go to a maths class and it's just maths, monotonally mouthed.  The beauty of numbers was systematically drained of excitement in those lessons.  Go to an English class and have grammar forced into you as if the English language was meant to be the most fundamentally dull subject on the planet rather than the tongue of the poets, the orators and the novelists.  Even music had life sucked from it.  It felt very much like our music teacher, Mr. Cuthbertson, was on a mission to encourage all children to want to avoid all forms of melody and harmony in their adult lives.  Whether Bach or The Beatles, Chopin or Coltrane, his view was that we should analyse them methodically but that they weren't there to be enjoyed.  In our school music was just maths, and maths just a near infinite series of meaningless tests to be completed.

Mr. Stevens was different.  He was the only teacher who made life bearable in that place.  He was quite the eccentric.  He would sit in his little office playing music at high volume, smoking a pipe.  He wasn't really meant to smoke on school premises of course and lots of us would joke that it was something stronger than tobacco in his pipe.  He would tell jokes too.  Often they were bad jokes but they were the best we could get in our school.  He dressed scruffy.  Dress code was that all male teachers wore a suit and tie and Mr. Stevens followed the code.  He just followed it badly, without a hint of enthusiasm.  His jacket and trousers never matched and his jacket was so old it had patches in places where it had worn out.  His tie always seemed out of place.  It was never tied neatly, was often brightly coloured and sometimes had words on related to religion or politics.  Children would laugh about Mr. Stevens sometimes but the jesting was only half-serious because although we thought of him as the school nutcase we all liked his lessons and wished he taught us more often.

Almost every child looked forward to religious studies even though half of us couldn't really care less about the subject and wouldn't have wanted to go home and discuss religion with their families.  He animated every topic with his teaching style.  He could make Immanuel Kant exciting and I'll always remember the time he got us debating the rights and wrongs of David Hume's views about the possibility of miracles.  That anyone would ever think to debate this when it was so clear that Hume was anti-truth and an idiot astounded me.  How can you debate a liar?  But it was when Mr. Stevens left behind pure philosophy and taught from the sacred ground of the greater and lesser religions that his classes really took off for me.

I came from a godless family.  It wasn't as if our lack of a god had turned us into rabidly immoral creatures or had made us all fall into a bleak nihilism and despair at the dinner table about the meaninglessness of it all, wondering whether it was even worth eating another meatball for all the lack of good it would do in the long run.  We just didn't do God.  No deity ever got a mention and to this day I don't know what my parents personally believed about God beyond a belief that religion should never be discussed or expressed except in a church.  I don't think they realised there were religious people who didn't meet in a church.

I knew what they thought about maths and the sciences.  They told me often, "You make sure you pass those physics exams or you'll spend your life washing up in the back room of a bar where terrorists meet."  My parents had some strange ideas and they knew what they wanted for my life.  Any other choices would have been a disappointment for them.  My choice.  I was disappointing enough that they locked me up for six months until I promised to buckle down and become a proper scientist.  When I turned again from that path they disowned me.  If it hadn't been for Mr. Stevens I'd have obeyed them without question.  Tried to make my scientific contribution to saving our world from the climactic climate disaster that looks to be inevitable.

Mr. Stevens showed me the path of the religious and I was hooked.  He showed me the path of the musician and the writer too and once apologised for how useless Mr. Cuthbertson and the rest were.  One lunchtime I needed to go and see Mr. Stevens about a problem I was having with a tricky essay about the relationships between Christianity and Islam in the time of the Crusades and how it was that Jerusalem was of such importance to both, and to the Jews too, a people often persecuted by both of the larger religions.

Mr. Stevens sorted out my confusion in moments and then beckoned me across to his desk, saying excitedly, "Look at that, boy."  A large book was open on his desk and on the page was an image of woman.  She was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen in a book and I told Mr. Stevens so.  "This is Freya," he said.  "She's one of the goddesses of old, like a god but they're women.  You won't learn about her in lessons.  She's not in the curriculum.  The powers that be think we need to be protected from ideas of goddesses.  As if the gods have done a good job.  Just look at those Crusades boy.  All that bloodshed, fighting over land and whose god is better.  Perhaps we should have done away with all of those dictatorial deities long ago.  Instead we see them coming back and our governments are complicit.  Maybe they think another batch of Crusades would be good for the economy.  What do you think about that boy?"

I really didn't know.  I'd never heard anyone talk like that before, not even Mr. Stevens.  And I had never heard that their might have ever been female deities.  I fumbled for a reply and mumbled something inane about how I didn't want more Crusades and wished the religions could just agree to differ and that people should stop fighting for each other's land when there was plenty to go around.  Mr. Stevens nodded, harumphed and said, "Freya was more free than we are.  I'll tell you more sometime if you like.  Now go boy or you'll be late for your next class."

I went back to Mr. Stevens' office the next lunchtime to look at Freya again and he began to tell me more about her.  I was astounded by the ideas he was giving me and that there could be another way of thinking than the one we were all used to.  Wasn't our way the only way?  Wouldn't it be seditious to even talk about an idea that challenged it?  I asked Mr. Stevens that and he quickly back-tracked.  "Of course I don't believe in Freya.  Of course not.  But I don't think there's any harm in looking at the old books or uncovering a forgotten history.  This is how some people lived and whether or not we choose to remember them or suppress this knowledge is up to us.  There's lots to learn.  Come back tomorrow I'll show you more."

After that I was in that office nearly every lunchtime and often I'd go there after school too.  Our teacher-pupil relationship developed into a friendship and I became more and more fascinated by the old ways and the possibility that there might be a greater truth beyond the three religions proscribed by our governments and that strange Jewish religion that had been allowed to exist within all three societies ever since the trilateral planetary treaty was signed two centuries ago.

Mr. Stevens had dozens of books hidden in his office, all of which told of other faiths and other systems of government too.  I told my friends and parents that I was working in the office, that I found it a calming place where I could better focus on preparing for science exams.  In truth of course I could hardly contain my excitement at the thought of reading more from those volumes.  Mr. Stevens told me that most of them were forbidden.  He warned me that even reading them was officially a crime and that I would be punished severely if the authorities discovered I knew about this forbidden history and hadn't reported it.

I would never have jeopardised my lunch times of course.  I treasured being able to sit with Mr. Stevens.  We would drink tea together and discuss the ideas and wisdom as we discovered it and would talk of how there might, one day, be a world in which hundreds of choices might be expressed without fear.  I came to see how our media consistently promoted one viewpoint, how there was no freedom in the press and how the newscasts didn't always say what was right.  We were fed what our leaders wanted us to think was right, that Christianity was the basis of the superior society and that we must continue our battle against the inferior Islamic and Hindu societies in the other societies, standing firm lest we be overcome by them.

Sitting with Mr. Stevens it became clear that such spoon fed misinformation was garbage.  Sitting with him I became more and more angry.  I wanted change, wanted to be able to talk of Freya, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and all the deep beauty found in them.  I discovered there were even Christians whose teachings had been uncompromisingly repressed.  Mr. Stevens taught me about Quakers, about the Progressive Christians and about rogue theologians like Kierkegaard and Eckhart.  He even showed me how much merit and clarity there was in the ideas of David Hume and how he was a brilliant man we were all taught to despise.

I asked Mr. Stevens, "So what do we do?  Is there a way to bring change?  What would it take for me to stand up for freedom?"  He sighed sadly and said he didn't know.

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