Saturday, 27 November 2010

Vanessa Gebbie is talking about

imagination over on Nicola Morgan's blog .
It reminded me, yet again, of something I was told when I was in my teens. My English teacher at the time told me that I would never really be able to write anything because I would never experience the world the way that everyone experiences it. "You might think you can imagine it but you won't be able to so you might as well get used to it now." The same teacher never gave me more than a "D" (a bare pass) for any work I handed in. She also taught me History and I was given the same "D" for any work I handed in there too.
Until then I had been given credit for what I had assumed was "using my imagination". I was used to getting "A+" rather than a "D" for what I wrote. That year however was the year we did our first "public examinations", a sort of sub-O-level in British terms - something we called the "Intermediate Certificate". The teacher made no secret of her dislike of me but I also assumed that it was because I really was stupid and incompetent and should not be there among all the obviously highly intelligent students in the "A" stream.
"She doesn't like you" was something my new classmates also kept telling me. I was living away from home for the first time in my life and this just made me more miserable than ever. The harder I tried the more I would be criticised. By the end of the year my self-esteem was almost non-existent. I assumed that this new teacher was being honest and that my previous teachers had just been kind.
I know now that the teacher in question probably should not have been a teacher at all. She was certainly not a good teacher and her attitude towards me was so abusive that she should have been reprimanded and counselled. It never happened. The only student she behaved even more badly towards was the girl who was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumour. Even to the rest of us it was obvious that this girl was ill but she would ridicule her as well.
For years afterwards however, even when writers I admired said they liked my work, I kept wondering whether this teacher was right. Could I imagine what I had not experienced? I decided that these people were being nice to me, that they just did not want to upset me by being honest.
I went to a children's literature in education conference and heard Jill Paton Walsh being severely criticised for writing about "wartime". People were saying she had not experienced it and should not be writing about it. (Apparently it was "all right" to write about "it" if you had experienced "it" or you were writing about a time or experience that nobody alive had experienced.) I listened. I said nothing and went on wondering whether the teacher had been right. These were professionals and they were saying what my teacher had said.
Of course you can write about something you have not experienced. You can observe. You can inquire. It is called research. You can also use your imagination. Without it we would not have fiction.


Anonymous said...

I had a teacher like that. He told me I was going to be "a total failure" and that I would end up "at the bottom of the barrel" and "probably in gaol". He "retired" early - I think he was kicked out - but he did a lot of damage first.

Miriam said...

Teachers can do untold damage without ever knowing it. I know of one who is proud of the things she said to me.

catdownunder said...

You just have to "love" teachers like that Miriam! They have no business to be in the classroom!