This long, mostly valueless post is about the value of things, my day, and the passing of Ted Kennedy.
The Value of Things
As I buttered my toast this morning I thought about the value of work, and what it tells us about the values of society. I thought about how much value a good teacher is to a society. A teacher who works hard everyday with students who are under-educated, and unwilling and sometimes aggressive, but somehow finds a way to move one or two students forward a little bit, or at least not let one or two more students slip away, or fall between the cracks and disappear eventually into a life of despair, and hopelessness. And then I thought about the comparative value of a middle management corporate executive, or a first term, backbench, list MP, to the betterment of society. And finally I thought about the other measure of value which is your pay packet.
I was not happy about my conclusions regarding these reflections, feeling that perhaps value to society and value of pay packet were somehow inverse to each other. It was quite a divisive thought. The kind of thought that makes me bitter, and diminishes my fellow feeling.
It was quite a thoughtful piece of toast.
Then I went to work.
The problem with my job is that when someone asks me how my day was I have no way of explaining it that seems both adequate and accurate. Of course I’m not a complete idiot, and I realise that most people want me to say, “fine.” I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about wanting to tell someone like my wife what my day was like in order to share the experience a little.
This is what my day was like. (It’s long and boring so you can actually skip this whole bit and read the bottom bit about Ted Kennedy if you like. Just imagine you said: “How was your day?” and I said, “Fine.”
Meeting with the form teachers in Year 9 in staff room. I am the Dean for Year 9. Batting back and forth about a couple of students – were they in Maths, English or whatever? Saw them wagging by the creek, he was at the doctor, etc, etc. Anything else? No. Go back to office and take in and hand out daily report sheets for the nine students who need to be monitored every day. Tell them off for bad comments, praise for good comments, tell them to change their shoes, or put on their tie, or “see you at detention after school”. Go to cover a form class for a teacher running an exam. Class room has been shifted, take three boys loitering down the hall and usher them into class, badger one about shoes until he changes them. Do you want me to look after your skateboard? No – he’ll carry it around all day. Fine. Where are the girls in this form class? Go for a wander and find them outside usual form class. “Hey P-diddy-dog.” Pained smile. Back to form class. Finish roll. Bell rings. Try to go back to office. A harried teacher asks me where the art exam is for the hall. The Art exam? Am I in the art department? No, but she pleads. I go looking for the art exam. Find it in a locked office. Finish marking senior History exam. Person at my door: “can you call that student’s mum and ask her to fill out report so we can get learning needs assessed?” Grimace. Spoke to her yesterday. Long phone call, slightly angry, slightly despairing conversation, trying to be calm with her: “I’m not attacking or blaming you for his behaviour….” At the end she laughed and said, “by the end of the year we’ll be best mates.” Ok, I’ll call her again. Go and find a boy who has had a fight with a teacher about a school book. Teacher, boy and I sit down and talk. Sulky exchanges skirting around the issues and resentments, grudging acceptances and a handshake. Teacher leaves and boy still seems unhappy. I sympathise, briefly: “In life we don’t always get along with the people we work with,” I say. He looks at me. We go back to class. His buddies want to complain. I listen, and say I’ll talk to the teacher (”but how?” I think), but warn them I don’t have a magic wand, “If I had a magic wand I’d have a flash car.” They laugh… sycophantically. Meet with student teacher who wants to discuss lesson plans. Meet with boy who was kicked out of class. “Why?” Student shrugs and slumps in the seat opposite me: “That teacher is a dick.” He wants to change class. Go for a walk to get some fresh air. Next boy wandering around out of class. He begins to argue, march him back to class, “do you have a note for those or are slippers part of the school uniform now?” He has a note. Staffroom to try and make some toast. Teacher comes to complain about a Year 9 class and their behaviour. They eat, they call out, they’re rude, they don’t do any work, I listen and realise I’m supposed to be in a meeting and setting up a Classics exam in the hall. Slip sideways. Eat bread. Gather students for the meeting with disgruntled teacher and others. Similar to the first meeting today. Boys sulkily in chair: “yeah… nah…” Teacher talks. Dishonesty besmirches the air, skulks about the notices pinned to the walls, and the books on the shelf. When the adults leave the room I feel like telling the students that sometimes adults act like children and children like adults. We leave. I run to the hall with sixty exam papers under my arm. What does Antigone and the architectural features of the Temple of Athene Nike have to do with all of this? Run from the exam to another classroom before the bell for lunch. Keep the class in and tell them we are concerned, we are worried, we want them to learn. A barrage of sniping and hostility from the unhappy class. One boy notices my tie: “Are you pimping today, Mister?” I shrug. Outside sounds of kids playing basketball, running about, inside the students of the naughty class complete their work without enthusiasm. The teacher looks discouraged. After the last boy leaves, the classroom door flapping open, I say, “don’t let the buggers grind you down.” He smiles sardonically. Bell. Lunch ends. Go to class. Man manage the students in, barking orders, sarcasm and good humour, but fifteen minutes of this rubbish just getting them in, and sitting down, with their books out and ready to begin the lesson. Back and forth, back and forth. Help, Mr! Gotta pen? Got some paper? I don’t get it. Why are you late? Put that down. Pick that up. Check the answers. Do you get it now? Students biffing screwed up paper back and forth. I feign anger. Class hushes. Guilty paper-throwers pick up their mess. We edge further along. Pack up. Chairs up. Bell. “Bye Mister.” A rush of bodies for the door. Back to the office. Four for after school detention. Library. Smallest detainee for the after school detention pipes up: “got any nail polish remover mister?” shows me his pink finger nails. Take them to the library. “Do your homework.” Girl disdainfully regards her French work and asks for a pen. A group of Maori boys play chess; their leader approaches me and announces with bravado: “If it’s a war you want… it’s a war you’ll get!” Sure, sure. I ramble off to bother someone about something leaving him to talk about war and destroy his opponents on the chess board. Talk to a mother on the phone about one of the meetings I had today. Talk to the bus company about the two field trips coming up. Give maths work to a mother for her son. Why is it always mothers I am talking to? Go and complain to boss about two students who wag my detentions. Go back to the library and let the detainees free. Someone dumps sixty Classics papers on my desk to mark. Ha! Email: can you do this? Can you do that? Can I cover two Japanese classes tomorrow? Can you think of ten Pasifika students for a trip next week? I log out. Pack up my laptop. Write notes for myself that cover the desk: class daily, bus company, field trip letters… notes, notes, notes. What about the boy I saw wagging fifth spell? Note: call mum of wagger. Turn off the light. Lock the door. Go home.
On the way home a lady on National Radio was reflecting on Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for Robert Kennedy and how it always makes her cry. It always makes me cry too. When I got home I played it. It made me cry.
Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. That is the way he lived. That is what he leaves us. My brother need not be idealised, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. To be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him, and take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us, and what he wished for others, will someday come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and those who sought to touch him: some see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not.
The words alone are powerful and sad, but the beauty of the speech is in Ted Kennedy’s delivery. The first waver of sorrow comes in his voice when he says the word suffering, and it breaks my heart every time I hear that tremor.
For me Robert is the Kennedy I most admire. I feel he travelled the greatest journey of the three, and that his liberalism was developed over an entire career, and was hard won, robust, and passionately advocated. I am an idealist, and something in Bobby Kennedy’s speeches makes my heart ache for the possibility of man.
Your generation, this generation, cannot afford to waste its substance and its hope in the struggles of the past. For beyond these walls is a world to be helped, and improved, and made safe for the welfare of mankind. And what a world it is.
And what a world it is. Yes. With all the bad and the good that is in it. Robert talked about the bad when he spoke after the death of Martin Luther King while the cities of America erupted in violence and riot. In a strange way it’s sort of what I wish I could have said to the naughty class that seethed resentfully in front of me this lunchtime, because it is at heart a speech about the humanity of community.
Whenever we tear at the fabric of our lives, which another man has painfully, and clumsily woven for himself and his children, whenever we do this then the whole nation is degraded.
Too often we honour swagger, and bluster and the wielders of force. Too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of other human beings.
[But] There is another kind of violence, slower, but just as deadly and destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions, indifference, inaction and decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin is different colours. This is the slow destruction of a child because of hunger, and schools without books, and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him a chance to stand as a father, and a man amongst other men. And this too afflicts us all.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
I will go to bed, and take a little sleep, and rise to try again to make one or two see the value of a world that the Kennedy’s spoke of. Even if the Kennedy’s did not achieve even one percent of what they so eloquently spoke of, the saying out loud of such ideals is worthwhile. That’s what the Kennedys mean. To me. My days at school are long and confusing and never resolved. I tend to take note of the failures, and dwell on the insults and indifference, but what I had better do is get on with it, and hope that I am right, and that out of all this some small good is made.