Day 12 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Musings on T S Eliot

The clock ticked by as the students sat in silence, writing as if their lives depended on it.

Rachel Wood, a teacher for thirty five years, surveyed the sea of faces in front of her, wondering if this time their writing would make sense. She had tried so hard to make poetry accessible, but ‘The Love song of J Alfred Prufrock’ was challenging at the best of times – and these pupils weren’t exactly the brightest in the school. In the end, she’d just told them that the poem was a whole jumble of thoughts and feelings going on inside someone’s head as he skipped from thinking about asking a woman out to being distracted by the cat-like qualities of fog. Dared she actually hope to believe that they’d learned something? That they’d actually written something meaningful?

Her eye fell on Asad, the pupil on whom she’d pinned all her hopes for the assessment. Last time, she’d been impressed by Rosie, writing frantically for the whole hour and putting her hand up three times for extra paper – until she’d collected in the scripts and realised that the girl had panicked and just written her name over and over again. How many more years could she stand this? she wondered, unaware that Rosie was thinking the same thing. How many more years before she could leave school and do something else? There was no point in English – she could speak it already. And why did Miss keep making them read poems? This Toilet guy was so boring! She wondered if they’d got the new trainers in yet. The blue ones. She didn’t like the black ones – they were too much like Sam’s. If she wasn’t careful, he’d ‘accidentally on purpose’ pick hers up instead of his own and wear them to school.

Perhaps she should have read them ‘The Waste Land’ instead? That was a far better example of stream of consciousness, with its train of thought flitting from one character to another, dropping in casual allusions to any number of literary works that the reader was expected to recognise. Was it true, what she’d once read – that Eliot deliberately removed half of the poem before he published it, to make it as confusing as possible for the reader?

It was too confusing! Sonia thought in despair. She’d revised ‘My Father Thought It’, not this rubbish. She got the idea of the boy rebelling against his dad, but this poem was stupid. What would her dad think if she got her nose pierced? Or her bellybutton? Did it hurt? Kate had said she’d had her bellybutton done and it went all scabby. She had to take the piercing out. Gross, that’s what it was – she remembered Kate showing her in PE. She might have had it done at a dodgy place, though. Did they need licences to give you piercings? What time was it now? She was starving. Hopefully it would be lasagne.

“Eliot captures the indecision of Prufrock as he struggles to make up his mind,” wrote Asad. He knew what the guy was on about: he’d been trying to make up his own mind for weeks now. Was he going to ask Rosie out; or should he stick to a ‘nice’ Asian girl and make his parents happy? The trouble was, none of the Asian girls he knew were very ‘nice’: they were loud and exuberant, talking too much in lessons and plastering their faces with makeup. Rosie was feisty too, but somehow, with her, it was different. She didn’t pretend, Rosie – what you saw was what you got. None of these strange, synthetic perfumes the others doused themselves with: Rosie smelled of sweat and chips and fresh air – natural scents. He was already more than a little in love with her; she didn’t know he existed.

“You have twenty minutes left.” Not that it would make any difference to some of them, Rachel thought dispassionately. They could write for hours and it would still be the same old rubbish. Take Ibrahim, for example: he was absent more often than he was present; and when he did attend, he sat in the corner, clutching his coat and rocking back and forth like a distressed penguin. She’d be lucky if any of his assessment made sense. Samira was another one – lovely girl, but not a brain cell in sight. She genuinely worried what these children would do once they left school.

“The speaker in the poem likes a lady but doesn’t know how to tell her,” Samira wrote laboriously. She sighed. It was daft, if you asked her. What was wrong with going up to someone and telling them you fancied them? She did that sort of thing all the time – had been out with four different boys so far this year, although her parents would kill her if they found out. Well, perhaps they wouldn’t kill her – but they might lock her in her room and not let her out again until it was time for her Nikah. “Also, he doesn’t do himself any favours by asking her out to really cheap places, like the sort of hotels where people go for a quickie.” What did people actually do when they went to hotels together? she speculated. She knew about kissing, of course, but most of the rest of it was a closed book. It wasn’t the sort of thing you talked to your parents about; and the stuff they’d done in science lessons on ‘Reproduction’ hadn’t really been very helpful either.

“Prufrock and Armitage both write about regret.” Sonia had suddenly remembered something Miss had said. “Prufrock regrets not asking the lady out and the teenager in ‘My Father Thought It’ regrets having his ear pierced. It makes him fall out with his dad.”

Rachel had plenty of regrets of her own – this job, for one. Bitterly, she thought of the friends who’d ended up in grammar schools – or even good secondaries. That was the problem with a lot of these academy chains – they were full of rubbish schools that the organisations were trying to ‘rescue’; but what happened a few years’ down the line when the schools were still failing? Who’d bother sticking around then? No, it was time she moved on. She’d had enough of this game of chess, constantly trying to anticipate SLT’s moves and then counter with a defence of her own.

“Ten minutes left. Make sure you’ve talked about the effect on the reader.”

Asad had been profoundly affected himself by the poems this term – not all of them, of course, but ‘Paradise Lost’ had moved him deeply – even more so when Abbas had blurted out, “I wish Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten that apple and then I’d still be in heaven now.” Of course, if Rosie said yes, Asad would be in heaven straightaway. For a moment, he allowed himself to dream of the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. He knew already what his family would say, though: ‘A white girl, Asad? We don’t think so.’ Like Adam and Eve, he would lose Paradise; like Satan, he would be condemned to hell.

“Pens down everybody.” Where had the time gone? “Hurry up, please. It’s time.” Like last orders, she thought, wryly, realising how much she needed a drink. Was it really only one twenty?

A clatter of pens being placed on the table; a rustle of paper as sheets were stacked neatly.

Her brain allowed one half-formed thought to pass: “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

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