An open door

Other people’s words about … inspiring teachers

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I brought Vera to one of [my mother’s] lectures. It was held in the quadrangle at Sydney Uni and the hall was packed. Vera and I squeezed in at the back next to the open window and then my mother made her entrance, rushing in with a briefcase under her arm. She didn’t know we were there and didn’t see us. Applause broke out, brief but enthusiastic.

‘Oh,’ she said as she reached the front, ‘you are being entirely silly and adorable.’ And then she put on her reading glasses and began the lecture. I didn’t hear a word of what she was saying. I just kept thinking that I too would have clapped had I not known her. There had always been a kind of heat emanating from her. People responded to it, and that day was no exception; that day she made everyone feel that Political Science 101 was a gateway to a brilliantly inspired life.

from ‘What the Light Hides
by Mette Jakobsen

When I began my Arts degree at university, the one subject I refused to enrol in was the subject in which my father was a lecturer. I didn’t want to have the experience of being tutored by, or lectured to, or graded by, a parent. I wanted to make my own way through university, no strings attached.

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Still, word gets around. My father was an immensely popular lecturer: fallow students in other subjects began to come up to me and say incredulously, seeing the surname I shared with him, ‘I think your Dad’s my lecturer.’ The lecture theatre was always packed when it was his turn to speak. He told anecdotes that made students rock with laughter, and the passion he expressed for his subject lit up his eyes, filled his voice, guided his gestures. He was cool; he was a legend: friends told me this all the time. I know now, as I did then, that his students, walking under the shaded trees of that campus, strolling past the old stone buildings with the arched doorways and the spreading lawns, were lucky to have him.

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It’s a cliché, but teachers and lecturers really do change our lives. When I was in Year 12, I had a teacher who shared the same kind of popularity amongst students as my father did at university. She taught Australian history — a subject as dry and dusty as any you could think of, at least back then, in the days when the history of Australia’s first people was rarely considered or contemplated in high school classrooms. She took us through the history of the Australian Labor Party, the social history of (white) women in Australia, the beginning of national pride in Australia.

Like my father, she taught by telling stories. She had a flat, slightly croaky voice, and crinkled, grey hair through which she would push her hand as she walked between our desks. The whiff of cigarette smoke hung about her clothes — woollen jumpers, tweed skirts — leaving a trail behind her. She kept a sheaf of notes on her desk to consult if she needed to, which she rarely did. Mostly, she just talked. Sometimes her voice grew sad, sometimes urgent. If I close my eyes, I can still hear her talking.

Beyond history, she also taught us how to study. It was from her that I learned how to take notes, how to structure an essay, how to study for exams, how to practise good time management so that you could hand in an essay on time. I took those skills with me to university. I wasn’t happy socially the first time I attempted university — indeed, I left at the end of that first year and didn’t return for another six years or so — but I loved the academic challenge of the subjects I was studying, and I have my Year 12 Australian history teacher to thank for that. To this day, I still use the skills she taught us to structure anything I’m writing or drafting, and I rarely miss deadlines. That’s because of her.

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If you look closely, you’ll see a common theme in each of the photos I’ve chosen to accompany this post. They are all taken on or around my local campus, the University of Adelaide — and every one of them shows a door or a window. That’s because learning should be about opening doors, letting fresh air into our minds. It should be about allowing us to enter new worlds, to see things from a new perspective.

Gifted teachers guide us through this process — people like my history teacher, people like my father. They change our lives for the better.

In return, we carry their teaching with us for the rest of our lives. We never forget them.

Inner world

Other people’s words about … resilience

I think maybe [my father] liked the worlds in his head better than the real one. As far as I ever knew, he didn’t have any close friends … Once, when I was about nine or ten, I told him I wasn’t very popular at school. He told me that friends were overrated, because the only person you could ever really count on was yourself. Weirdly, that actually made me feel better.

from ‘Thanks for the Trouble
by Tommy Wallach

I am, I suppose, what most people would describe as introverted. There are other words that go along with this kind of description: shy, quiet, aloof, disengaged, uncertain, insecure, antisocial. Those are mostly negative words, I see. Perhaps they are coined by extroverts.

The year that we lived in England, I was at my most introverted: I had no friends at all. (Here’s a question: do you end up without friends because you are introverted, or do you become introverted because you have no friends?) I was fourteen, and I wandered those long school corridors with the white polished floors alone. I wore the wrong clothes, and I had the wrong accent, and I lived life at the wrong pace and the wrong volume. At lunch I sat in one of the stalls in the girls’ toilets, waiting the hour out. I listened to girls coming in and out, the cubicle doors swinging, the toilets flushing. My breath caught on the sweet spray of perfume they doused themselves with as they stood before the mirrors. I listened to their chatter, high and loud and lipsticked. And then I listened to the door to the girls’ room banging shut again, their footsteps receding down the white-floored corridors as they went back to wherever they had come from.

After the first few weeks, one of the school teachers took pity on me, and introduced me to a couple of girls in my class.

‘Go and sit with them at lunchtime,’ he said, with a look on his face that was half-pity and half-exasperation. He was small and balding and chipper. ‘They’re nice girls. They’ll look after you.’

Such well-meaning, misguided intentions! I looked at the two girls and they looked back at me. I could see they were as horrified at the prospect of me spending lunchtime with them as I was. And yet we all did what he said. They took me back to their lunchtime bench, and I sat with them and their friends — that day and the day after and the day after that. For months, in fact, I ate my sandwich with them silently; I sat with them silently; I watched them silently; I listened to them silently. They took to ignoring me, in the end. They went on with their lives — their parties and their gossip and their drinking and their shopping and their boyfriends — while I sat mute beside them, in what seems to me now almost a parody of introversion.

I have often thought back to that year in high school. I’ve thought about how, at night, I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, the one with the wallpaper with pretty sprigs of flowers dotted over it, and longed for popularity and friendship, for someone my own age to count on. I’ve thought about how I believed that I must be faulty in some way — weak, or cowardly, or defective — because I couldn’t do what other people my own age did instinctively: talk. Make connections. Relax. Laugh.

So it astonishes me now, to look back and see a different possibility, a different narrative, from the one I’ve just told. I don’t believe that friends are ‘overrated’, to use Wallach’s word. Still, I wonder: what if I had learned to trust myself during that year? What if I had learned that I was my own friend? What if I had allowed myself to like the world in my head at least as much as the real one? More broadly, what if we could teach all young people to count on themselves in this way? What, then?

I am not sure. But I think it’s important to listen to alternative narratives like the one in the words above: to retell our life-stories to ourselves, to seek out new plots, new endings. I think it’s important to trust your own inner world: to learn to turn to it in times of need, or in times of loneliness. Introversion, in this context, is irrelevant. What’s relevant is resilience. Resilience is all that matters.

Resilience, you will note, is not a negative word.