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Teachers and a Poor Student

“Don’t be a teacher” said Mrs Small, “if you want to be an artist”. She played Shostakovich and encouraged us to destroy things.

Peter Bishop tut-tutted about the standard of painting in the art school and showed me how to stretch a canvas properly. He showed me how to print the old-school way, with slow, considered craftsmanship.

I began learning Greek in a class on Western Traditions. It was the core subject in humanities, taught by the senior lecturer, Dr Roger Sworder. He swept into class in his academic gown, reciting Homer in Greek.  Dr Sworder didn’t drive; he hated technology. He knew the Western canon intimately. “There’s an Indian idea,” he said, “that if you don’t know something by heart, you can’t say that you know it. You only know of it.” And this is true; any musician will tell you this. You can sightread all you like, but it’s only once you know a piece, and internalize it properly and make it part of you, that you can fully express the piece.

Dr Sworder’s lectures were magical. I’d be transfixed as we discussed Homer and the Renaissance, the Greater Chain of Being, The Oration on the Dignity of Man… it was a night class, and I’d go back to my dorm room and lay awake for hours, mind spinning.

I’m fairly sure I thought differently then. My thought processes were different. There were long periods of silence, no internet, a little music. I read a great deal, and wrote.  Writing was different; pen on paper, or typing, carefully, lest an error mean the entire page had to be retyped. Ribbons were expensive.

I took Latin. Sitting around a table with John Penwill. I didn’t know then that he was a renowned scholar; I found him hard to fathom – a dry wit, too sharp for my slow brain. He was patient and quiet… I was a poor student, no doubt one of many.  Later, I took Latin with Charles Tesoriero at UNE. He had the most wonderful baritone voice and knew the language like a mother tongue.

As I work on my own teaching, I find myself thinking often about my best teachers. What made them great? What was it about them, that 20 or even 30 years later, I still think of them with affection and respect?

And myself: I wish I’d known, then, how to learn.

Categories: education


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