What do we do, as teachers, when we hit a crisis in our own lives? How do we manage if the world around us is falling apart?
That’s the situation that faces Tom Crick, the fiftysomething narrator of Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland. His wife, Mary, is in a psychiatric unit after abducting a baby from a supermarket and pretending it is hers. Meanwhile, at the south London comprehensive school where he teaches, his subject – History – is under threat. His headmaster sees it as an irrelevance, and indulgence, in an age where budgets are being cut and future employment prospects are everything. He is also being challenged by a student called Price, a ‘teacher-baiter’ who argues that history is nothing more than a fairytale. It’s the 1980s, and the world faces the nightmare of nuclear annihilation. What’s the point of looking to the past when you might not have a future?
So Crick starts to tell his class a story. It’s the story of how he got to be in his present situation: a story of incest, murder and secrets, unfolding over the previous century and a half, and taking place against the shifting, restless backdrop of the Fens. It begins when Crick was a ten-year old schoolboy, living with his father and older brother in a lock-keeper’s cottage by the side of an East Anglian waterway, and takes in a whole sweep of Fenland history. The story loops back and forth, worrying away at the past like a persistent student and approaching it from different directions. As Crick’s lessons veer away from the French Revolution, and as he approaches his enforced early retirement, he tries to get his class to see that history not so much a collection of facts, but an attempt to understand oneself: to look at the process of cause and effect that brings you to your present state.
I first read Waterland when I was doing my A levels, and one of my A level History teachers was a Tom Crick. The other was a giant Welshman with a walrus moustache and a penchant for rugby, but our Mr Crick – who was also my form tutor – was a troubled man who was clearly undergoing a crisis of his own. He had several long spells of absence, and then a period when he only came in to teach his A level classes. He told me one day, during a tutor meeting to discuss how my A levels were going, that he’d been prescribed pills and sent to see a psychiatrist. It’s a hard thing to find out about, when you’re seventeen. When I was going through my own phase of wanting to rage at the universe, he told me I should go out into the middle of the street and scream. ‘At the top of your lungs. Better that way than on the edge of a building.’
Teaching, we’re often told, is like acting. You put on a face and perform. But if you spend more than a few years in teaching, it’s inevitable that you, or a colleague, will face something in your personal life that will shake that professional persona. Back in 2004, I was undergoing investigations for infertility. I had a series of blood tests to measure whether my ovaries were functioning properly. I got the results of the final test – which confirmed that basically it was all a bit of a disaster – one morning while I was at school. I had a choice. I could let everything fall to pieces, or square my shoulders and go off and teach my next lesson. We were in the middle of an Ofsted inspection at the time, so the former wasn’t really an option. I took a deep breath, and went off to my classroom, where there was already an inspector waiting to observe my next lesson.
I never thought, when I first read Waterland, that one day I’d end up teaching in the Fens. It’s a weird landscape, huge skies, flatness, and the constant presence of water, pumped out from the land into drains and ditches, gleaming straight lines of silver. No broad sunlit uplands; no moments of the sublime. As Tom Crick asks: ‘To live in the Fens is to receive strong doses of reality. The great, flat monotony of reality; the great empty space of reality. How do you surmount reality, children? How do you acquire, in a flat country, the tonic of elevated feelings?’ The Fens have a beauty all of their own, but it’s a strange beauty, an acquired taste.
I never found out what happened to my history teacher, and we never find out what happens to Tom Crick and his wife, either. Teaching is many things. Sometimes, it’s frustrating: sometimes, it’s a slow, laborious daily grind, and sometimes it gives you moments of joy and hope that bring home what a real privilege it is to work with young people. And sometimes, it’s a form of support, a splint: a chance to put on a mask and carry on, a sense of purpose that takes over when everything else seems meaningless.