Why Size Matters (and What You Can Do About It)

There once was a man with incredibly large genitals. His sex life was spectacular – but for one problem.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who was known across the land as “Slippery Sybil”. The reasons for her nickname were many, but all of them related in some way or another to her enormous…

This is a story about the most impressive erection in the history of mankind: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

How did you respond to these story openings?

My guess is:

  • shock after reading the first line;
  • confusion in the second paragraph because it doesn’t flow naturally from the first;
  • frustration, annoyance or apathy in the third because none of this crass garbage fits together.

So what’s my point?

I have been thinking lately that full-time teaching is like writing a novel. Both undertakings can be incredibly daunting. Each requires resilience and countless hours of unacknowledged effort. For the teacher, every year-long class is filled with highs and lows, and similarly, authors experience some days when words gush in a torrent onto the page, and other days when they daren’t go within 45m of their computer for fear of keyboard poisoning. Despite the challenges, successful teachers and novelists give their hearts and souls until the final bell, and those with talent are rewarded with a wonderful story.

If we take this analogy a step further, then the frustrating series of false starts that you experienced at the beginning of this article is analogous to the lot of the humble supply teacher.

For the supply teacher, every day is another new beginning. Names and faces come and go, and real progress, in the form of sustained student development, is never observed. It’s a fate similar to that of Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, except that in Connors’s surreal nightmare each day was identical to the last, enabling him to easily anticipate events. In the life of a supply teacher, a day of intellectual wrestling with pre-pubescent Year 7s can be sandwiched between a day minding three-year-olds in Nursery and a day teaching religion to Year 4s in an Islamic school for boys. Sometimes it feels like stepping into a series of Oz-like parallel universes, where the unfamiliar and unexpected are commonplace.

That’s certainly how I’ve felt at times in the past few weeks, and I know from personal conversations that many other supply teachers also see their job as a demoralising series of non-sequiturs. But need it be this way?

To return to the literary analogy, not all stories are novels. There are plenty of smaller-sized stories to be found and enjoyed. Novellas and short stories are the obvious examples, but even shorter genres exist. The fifty-word story has risen as a genre in recent years, but that seems like a giant in comparison to the true midget of the story family; the six-word story.

Legend has it that this genre was born the day Ernest Hemingway accepted a challenge to write a story in six words. Fascinatingly, Hemingway is said to have regarded the resulting story as his finest work. It went, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Since that fateful day, the six-word story has developed into a genre of its own. Creative writing lecturers often encourage students to practice writing six-word stories on the basis that this practice hones a student’s sense of storytelling by forcing conciseness. Every word must count.

In the hands of talented writers, six-word stories can be romantic (Ships fire; princess weeps, between stars. – Charles Stross), grotesque (Kirby had never eaten toes before. – Kevin Smith), philosophical (It cost too much, staying human. – Bruce Sterling),political (Bush told the truth. Hell froze. – William Gibson), haunting (I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ? – Neil Gaiman) or humorous (Longed for him. Got him. Shit. – Margaret Atwood).

The key to writing a good six-word story is to manage expectations. If you are expecting to write a novel in six words, you are setting yourself up for frustration. But writing six-word stories can be incredibly fulfilling, as Hemingway’s experience shows, if you focus purely on getting the most out of those six words.

Similarly, if a supply teacher arrives at work every day expecting to develop a deep educational narrative with their students, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. But if they arrive ready to accept the challenge of showcasing their teaching talents in one day, they may go home satisfied.

In my case, when I made this adjustment I found that each new beginning suddenly transformed into a fresh opportunity to change my teaching approach completely, a practice that would have seemed too inconsistent in a full-time role. For someone like me, who is intent on developing his teaching skills through continued reflective practice, it could be argued that this is the ideal situation. Why slog away at the same story and be constantly held back by your early mistakes when you can pump out five stories a week, generating new, better ideas each time?

There are plenty of other benefits to the “bite-sized teaching” mindset. The challenge of learning a new set of names every day is excellent brain exercise. Those first moments with a new class are fantastic opportunities to rehearse the art of “hooking”, a crucial skill as the old proverb “first impressions last” reminds us. And on a broader scale, the range of different classrooms and schools provides a rich pedagogical sampling ground.

I don’t know much about genitals, or erections, or whatever Slippery Sybil had that was so captivatingly massive. But I do know that when it comes to supply teachers’s expectations, size matters. The supply teachers who learn this lesson are far more likely to sympathise with the Wizard of Oz’s protagonist in Steven Meretzky’s twisted six-word story, below.

Dorothy: “Fuck it, I’ll stay here.”

References:

Wired Magazine, 2006, Issue 14.11, Very Short Stories viewed 25 June 2013, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/sixwords.html

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