When thinking about what inspired me about my encounters with teachers across the years of my education, I was struck with a few prominent thoughts. Inspiration is synonymous with creativity and innovation. It constitutes the generation of ideas and producing results from these ideas. We ask a lot of our teachers. We require them to be these sorts of individuals. We like to mythologize what we think they should do for us. That’s a tall order. It’s a great deal to expect them to be that every day in the classroom.
“It’s the slight things,
the simple things that
are often the inspirations.”
There was the Drama teacher who helped me find confidence, without doubt; and the English Literature teacher who took me aside and congratulated me on my talent with composition, analysis, and breadth of knowledge. These were great, impactful, and powerful moments. Did it lead to innovation and creativity on my part? Probably. Can I chart the moment by moment basis on which that happened, a) led to b), b) to c) and so on? No.
Really and truly, they were just doing their jobs, weren’t they? I mean, the way in which we over-burden teachers and criticize them, run them down if they fall short – and that shortfall is sometimes quite marginal. We expect them to be inspirational individuals at all times, creating these rags-to-riches momentous educational epiphanies on a daily basis. Preposterous really, but it happens.
It happens because there is so much at stake. These are our experiences as we strive towards maturity, and the import and gravity of the simplest of actions on the part of teachers has ripples that last for a lifetime, across the years. A critical word, a turn of phrase, or a tone – these can all have enduring effect, positive and negative. It’s what shapes us, those of us who have been lucky enough to live in a society that supports education and supplies it, in one form or another, into young adulthood at least.
Generally speaking, I am mostly grateful –sometimes inspired – but mostly just grateful that they got themselves out of the house on a freezing cold January morning and came into work in order to tell me all about the Italian Renaissance, the endocrine system, and Antony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles. It’s okay that they didn’t ‘inspire’ me everyday. With hindsight, I am glad they were there. It wasn’t always easy. I hope I inspired them, slightly! Maybe teaching me helped to assist them in their search for creative innovation.
Who were the best influences and inspirations for me, then? When I think about it now, probably those that taught me to self-educate. With that skill the possibilities that open up for you are endless. I was a difficult student, in the way in which I was so entangled in my learning that sometimes I lacked a critical perspective that was worthy of my developing intelligence. I cringe when I recall my awful school essays, the topics of which I won’t bore you with now. Critical self-awareness eventually became the line that I stressed when I was lecturing. The experience of the student is not just one of information absorption, but one of character formation. Whatever your character might be and whatever your self is to become, be aware.
A major inspiration for me came about indirectly. An inspiration as a moment of self-knowledge, innovation, and creativity happened thanks to my mother. She was a mature student at the University of Kent, and as a girl of primary school age I would sometimes have to accompany her onto campus, if I was poorly or on half-term break. More than once I sat in on her meetings with her personal tutor in the Rutherford School of English, the poet and critic Professor Molly Mahood. My mother discussed her impending Shakespeare assignment, and I sat with my colouring-in and drank some squash and had a biscuit.
Professor Mahood and my mother became friends. They corresponded occasionally up until my mother died. At one time, as a (very) junior lecturer newly embarked on my first teaching job and feeling despondent about my future, my mother wrote to Molly for advice. And she replied. Her remarks were simple, but so meaningful for me. I admired this woman almost as much as I admired my own mother, thanks to her writings on Shakespeare. She told me not to be discouraged, to follow what interested me as a critic and not to let the movements in criticism influence me unless I wanted them to.
She remarked that she had been around long enough to see many of them come and go. She was hugely in demand, hugely busy, and yet she took the time and effort not only to reply to one of her former student’s letter but also to include me (whom she probably didn’t remember drinking her squash and eating her shortbread biscuits in her study) and offer words of encouragement. It’s the slight things, the simple things that are often the inspirations.
I had the honour of meeting Molly years later, and hear from her personally how sad she had been on hearing of my mother’s death. I was able to thank her for the letter, and she was self-effacing and modest. I was also able to tell her how much I admired her book Shakespeare’s Wordplay, which I told her I used as a source for my teaching of practical drama. She asked me if I had noticed any mistakes in it! Now THAT’S inspirational!
Doctor Gabrielle Malcolm
Research Fellow at the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW), Canterbury Christ Church University
For more from Dr. Malcolm, take a look at her fantastic literary blog.