This is the first of my past writings which I have retrieved, dusted off, and posted to this blog.
I sat down and wrote this article intending that it would go in the school newspaper, a paper which never actually ended up existing1. Once I’d written it, I hadn’t thought about this article until today, when I found it in a folder on my desktop. I wrote it on 7th December 20082.It’s probably not the sort of thing which I would write nowadays, but after reading it through, I think it’s worthy to post here. Pretentious? Full of shit? You decide. Anyway, here it is: a (slightly edited3) look into my December 2008 mind.
Nowadays, I spend a lot of my time consuming content: books, blogs, newspapers, podcasts, audiobooks, TV, films, and pretty much anything else that I can lay my hands – or eyes or ears – on. Indeed, this weekend I spent about 8 hours watching television shows, around 4 hours reading, and another few working my way through a rather interesting audiobook – “The Ghost Brigades,” by John Scalzi. These media, however dissimilar, all have something in common: some entertain me, some enrich my knowledge, but all of them prompt me to think.
In the summer of 2007, I was just starting 5th year – the first year of being a ‘senior’ at school. I was studying for my Highers, in maths, physics, French, geography and English, and the step up from 4th year’s standard grades was striking.
Naturally, we had all been warned that 5th year would be much harder, but it’s one of those strange issues. Firstly, the warning is coming from teachers – people that you inherently do not trust; after all, fear is one of their favourite tactics used for whipping kids into shape. There’s also the problem that, when you’re 15 years old, looking into the future and trying to analyse it is akin to considering how a rock can breathe. Ask me what I think University life will be like and the bewildered look on my face will tell you everything4. With no experiences to draw on, thinking about the unknown is extremely difficult. Despite the reason for not accepting the warning, they were right: schoolwork was difficult and homework was plentiful. English was the primary cause.
I hated Higher English, but I also loved it. It is year at which I will look back and proclaim to be a particularly defining part of my life. It was so much more than learning how to use the English language – it taught me how to think. For others, perhaps even my beloved ‘English Crew’, it was most likely just another period in the day, but for me, I entered English each day with a strange feeling. Walking along the English corridor to room 35, I had a sensation similar to nervousness, except that it wasn’t; I think it was a mix of dread – there was a lot of work involved – but also perhaps a touch of excitement, knowing that I could leave the room an hour later a different person5. It was not a particularly nice feeling.
I don’t know what it is that made Higher English such an important time for me. I think one aspect was being around people who I really cared for – by at the end of 5th year, most of the Crew had sat together for an hour a day for three years. We had long running jokes, great conversations, and, being intelligent people, we all learnt a great deal from each other. Over the three years, we grew up together, and I will always be particularly fond of them.
Also, my teacher was a particularly interesting and endearing character. If minds were wells, hers, though of an unimaginable depth, would be positively overflowing. Despite admitting her ignorance in many areas – notably science – her knowledge and understanding of language, history, and literature was astonishing. It was her ability to communicate her insight and to inspire us that was so important.
Today’s economies are moving to a position where the thing most highly valued is an idea. Throughout Higher English, we read texts: poems, novels, short stories, plays; and then we talked about them. And then we thought about them. And then, in essays, we communicated back our ideas.
The whole process, at least superficially, was incredibly tedious – long periods of reading, then long discussions of form and structure and word choice and imagery and onomatopoeia… and then essay writing – something which usually stole away my Sunday afternoons, and all too often took the evening, too6.
Deeper down, however, we were learning a great thing – how to think. My favourite text was “Thrushes” by Ted Hughes, a short but wonderful poem contrasting man with animals. We must have focused on this poem for many weeks, slowly reading, extracting and interpreting ideas. The discussions went all over the place. Finally, when it came to writing an essay about the poem, I felt liberated – now was my chance to crystallise my thoughts and feelings. Throughout the analysis, we had been taking in ideas and thinking, but now it was time to reverse that, to express myself and my ideas7.
At first, I was not aware of the changes that had taken place in my mind – in fact I don’t think I noticed until long after my final English lesson. Looking back, however, I can see that I was learning about the power of ideas, and I was learning the skills needed to take them in, process them, make my own, and then express the result. All of a sudden, the “Marketplace of Ideas” that is so often referenced was no longer just a load of corporate bullshit. I finally appreciated that ideas really are valuable.
Although Higher English, sadly and gladly, has finished for me, the lessons that I have learned will stay with me. I didn’t leave at the end with my writing or speaking particularly improved, but it was my thinking which had changed. I find subjects such as Geography really interesting, but in five or ten years, many of the details will be forgotten8. English, however, changed me. Language is one of the main differences between man and beast, it gives us the power to collect our thoughts and communicate them to others.
This is how Higher English has ruined me – it got me thinking. Before starting the course, I could get lost in a story; develop attachments to the characters, wonder in amazement at what has just happened… and at what lurks around the next corner. Now, though, I am a different person. Although I can still really enjoy stories, each character development I regard critically, each plot is twist a cause for deep thought. What are the creators trying to convey? I think to myself more and more: how would I have done that?
It’s quite annoying really – watching TV is no longer the mindless entertainment that it used to be. People who say ignorance is bliss are right. With my hunger to think, to take in ideas and develop my own, I insatiably devour content. I crave the ideas. For the past few months, that is what I have been doing in my spare time. Although school work takes up a considerable part of my time, whenever I have a spare moment, I will read, watch, listen, or discuss with others – I do whatever I can.9
Now though, I have taken in so much that I have ideas constantly swimming around my head. This causes a new sensation: I feel an urge to express myself. I want to make my own things, out of my own ideas. TV shows, articles, poems, novels, films or just sentences – anything. I want to create.
Until now, I haven’t known where to start.
Thanks for bearing with me. Other writing which I come across will also be examined for possible blog postage. And I’m really disappointed that I don’t have my old Thrushes essay. I was really proud of it. Oh well. If I ever find it, I’ll post it here.
- Perhaps more at a later date. ↩
- At that time I didn’t seem to be doing much serious writing on this blog. ↩
- “Thinking, Ideas & Creation” is the original title; I don’t like it any more but it stays. ↩
- 2010: Actually, I think I could imagine this pretty well now. ↩
- 2010: OK, yes, a bit over the top I agree. ↩
- 2010: I always found this the hardest part. ↩
- 2010: I’m really disappointed now, because I can’t find that essay. When I finished Higher English, I threw out all of my notes and jotters, but I might remember typing up my “Thrushes” essay. Maybe I’ll find it one day in this digital maelstrom of a world. ↩
- 2010: I’ve already forgotten what malaria does to you. ↩
- 2010: I want to make it clear how my feelings on this stand, right now: although I do still eagerly devour content and regard it which a much more critical eye, I don’t think it has diminished my ability to enjoy a story – although it’s made it easier to sniff out bad ones. ↩