I’ve read some interesting materials about the role of personal narrative/personality in forming professional-identity. I often reflect on this and find myself grappling with the fact that our profession is forever under the microscope and people, both within and beyond it, make assumptions about us. I personally recoil at the thought of typecasting teachers, categorising and rating them in accordance to the outputs they generate (scores/value-add etc.), their ability to ‘prove’ or periodically hoop-jump or justify the strategies or interventions they employ, which may or may not be deemed ‘effective’ by some professional body.
I struggle sometimes to reconcile the judgements I hear made about lessons, teachers or schools when something as intangible as culture and personality are likely to play a critical role to success or otherwise. It is for reasons like this that I am wary about myself making assumptions or others making assumptions. I have thought long and hard about why I feel so strongly about this and find myself returning to the summer of 1987 … Indulge me please …
I pulled back the curtain slowly and peeked out of my bedroom window. The sun was coming up and that signalled it was time to escape. I tip-toed across the landing and snuck into my brother’s room which faced out onto our street. I checked his alarm clock. It showed 5:30am. I was late! I scanned the street and in the distance spotted my three mates perched on their bikes, backpacks on looking up at my brother’s window gesturing energetically for me to hurry up.
I returned to my room, retrieved the backpack from under my bed which I had hidden there the night before, and, in military fashion, slipped downstairs, desperate to not be heard or wake anyone up. I had rehearsed the route to the back door to avoid the creaky floorboards countless times and had it down to an art now. I clenched my fist and silently punched the air – I was outside and there was no sign of anyone being disturbed. I slung my bag on my back, grabbed my battered bike and sped round to the meeting point at the end of the street.
The four of us simultaneously slid our hoods over our heads, looked at each other knowingly and set off. We had our first argument by the end of the street, no less than 200m away from where we started. Gavin had forgotten to take his pegged Corn Flake packet wheel clickers off and had set the massive Rottweiler off at Mr Beech’s house. The painfully loud barking sparked a few bedroom lights to come on and curtains to be twitched. It was time to bolt across the fields and down to the river via the farm.
As we rode 4-abreast down the old lane through the avenue of trees, Gavin piped up. “Do you reckon we’ll get there in time? My brother said he’s there every day at 6:15am without fail. Do you reckon he’ll kick off if he sees us?” “Yes to all of those” I replied. We were all excited and curious. A few weeks earlier on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Gavin’s older brother had been to the local video store and got out Stand By Me, The Goonies and Karate Kid and we had a movie marathon in their family attic. By the end we were pumped and wanted to go on all manner of adventures. Gavin’s brother told us of this old farmer who lived near the river and every morning at 6:15am he would be out at the end of his garden practicing some slow, weird looking moves like Mr Miyagi. None of us believed it because we all knew him as the grumpy old man who would shout at us and tell us to ‘get off his land’.
As we neared the river we deposited our bikes against a fence and crawled up the bankside to take up a position to see this creaky old farmer do his thing. We looked at our watches and sure enough at 6:15am, the farmer emerged from the back door of his house and trudged wearily to the end of his garden. He reached for some tarpaulin and slid it off what we thought must have been a folded-up washing line, but was in fact a strange looking tree object with pieces of wood poking out at different heights and angles. The farmer started staring at what we learnt later was a Muk Yan Jong (wooden dummy). From being completely motionless, within seconds his hands, elbows and forearms were flailing at lightning speed and ferocity. We crouched, absolutely transfixed, as this doddery old man demonstrated such dexterity and fluidity, the likes of which none of us had expected. We had made assumptions about his old frame and ability without any knowledge of him.
When the old man had finished, he grabbed the tarpaulin and covered the wooden dummy again and trudged the same track back to his house. I glanced at my watch and noticed that he has been at it uninterrupted for 45 minutes. Without saying a word, we stood up, walked back to our bikes and set off home. We were no longer interested in having our packed breakfast by the river. We had just seen the coolest thing ever and wanted to go and practice what we saw in Gavin’s garage to ‘The Eye of the Tiger’. Sad, very sad.
That was 1987. Twenty eight years later I spoke to Gavin via Skype and he told me that the farmer has passed on at the grand old age of 91. The village had congregated to celebrate his life in the local hall. Gavin had never left the local area and had been invited to the wake. While there he discovered that the old farmer had been practicing on the wooden dummy for nearly 40 years. A local Kung Fu teacher described his routines as remarkable, text-book and effortless, the result of dedication and a love-affair with his craft.
I reminded Gavin of how guilty we had felt making an assumption about the old farmer all those years ago. He asked me if I still held true to this view, to which I replied ‘yes’. As I reflect on that Skype call nearly one year later I remind myself of never doing this in my job. The extrovert, the confident teacher, the classroom-bound teacher, the part-timer, the 30-year service teacher, the graduate, the leader, the researcher … there is so much I don’t know, so much invisible, unquantifiable personal narrative they bring to their role and do day after day. I need to remember this. Do you?