Fantasy, school and the importance of balance

Placed inside a drawer by my writing desk is an old school exercise book. It is like a million others, the staple A5 that litters desks the nation, if not the world over. Closer inspection shows this one has my name scrawled across the front preceding the word ‘biology. If you were to scan its contents, your eyes fleeting over the writings and formula penned by what was then a twelve year old boy, you may smile as you see the crosses placed by another’s hand (a teacher’s) as errors were pointed out and instructions written ‘See me’; ‘No, this isn’t right’; and ‘Are you even listening?’. But, by and large a normal textbook with little to offer, the knowledge contained within its pages either muddled, incorrect or more often than not amusing in its failing. Yet, although it is a poor example of my academic prowess it is the only such book I have kept in all my years of schooling. And the reason it has held such a prestige’s place and escaped the fire can be found by turning the first dozen pages or so and looking to the right of a diagram that fills the page. The picture (crudely rendered by my twelve year old hand) shows what can only be described as a rotting zombie and the words (written in red by my teacher of the time) next to it read ‘Richard, if you spent as much time with your studies as you did in your fantasy world, you may actually get somewhere.’

Now, the teacher was only doing his job, and he did ask for a picture of a man to be drawn with labels indicating bones and muscles, not a zombie, so I suppose he had every right to mark me down. But, it was his observation, that I was so engrossed in fantasy that hit a  nerve with me. Not so much that I was spending too much time in realms of fiction, but the assumption that because of it, I was deemed to fail. Well, twelve I may have been, but offence was taken (rightly or wrongly) and so; standing on tip toes, I confronted the teacher. What followed was a debate that quickly descended into the kind of one minded logic that only children (and certain reality TV stars) possess. ‘If he had anything interesting to teach I perhaps wouldn’t day dream so much’ I remember saying, and ‘what good was knowing the life cycle of a fly when everybody just seeks to kill them anyway?’ Biology held no interest for me, just as my fantasy worlds held little sway for him. He said my mind was full of nonsense, and I in return told him that the pursuit of science was futile without the rainbows to back it up. To this day I have no idea what I meant by that, but at the time it sounded like the sort of thing Lewis Carroll would have said after a long stint on  opium, and that was good enough for me. We were at logger heads. Battle lines were drawn and the war began.

The year that followed was littered with detentions and trips to the head masters office. Whenever I sat in the biology lesson I would take every opportunity to try and belittle my teacher or failing that (as I often did, a twelve year olds mind is rarely equal to the task of besting a an adult mind) I would turn to disruption: something that children are incredibly adept in. Oh, how I loved it when he addressed the class to ask ‘Are there any questions’ only to see his smile slide as I raised my hand. ‘How do you know that you can only have organic life where water is present, what about life in other dimensions?; just because you see the sky as blue it doesn’t mean it is, perhaps your just being humored by the rest of us who know it to be pink’. All ridiculous of course, and looking back, I wasn’t doing myself or anybody else for that matter any favors (although my theatrics did get me a date with Nikki Smith who was the best looking girl in the school). My victories were small and seldom, my defeats, crushing and frequent and like all wars they had to come to an end.

I was called to the head masters office and on entering was greeted by the head (naturally), my enemy; the bespectacled biology teacher and horror of horrors: my parents. What followed was the biggest dressing down of my life up to that point. My mother was crying and my father paced angrily whilst the head shock his head in that solemn look that only old men who have spent a life time teaching children can read. The biology teacher should have been ecstatic I remembered thinking, but no, he was quiet and reserved, perhaps as far as to say, morose looking, and as I studied him, I watched his eyes redden in sadness. I had been mistaken, I hadn’t lost. I had won. And this was the result: a tired man who spent his days in the pursuit of helping those like me only to have the depths of his studies and knowledge laughed at and thrown aside as worthless.

I walked home slightly ashamed. And the dreamer in me quietly packed its bags.

The following year I knuckled down. Sitting quietly in science classes and studying hard. I learnt as much as I could, forsaking the more artistic lessons that had once been my want, instead channeling my energies to the factual and the known. The biology teacher’s attitude towards me changed during this course; from wariness to acceptance, then onto happiness and pride. My results improved and for the best part of that year I became what some would call ‘a star pupil’. As the months passed and the seasons changed I noticed another change in him though. Perhaps like many a veteran he missed the war. Whatever, when for months he had made time to nurture my thirst for knowledge, now he had little time to give. The curriculum was laid out with detachment, assignments marked in a flurry of blue ticks, the incitements that once littered my page noticeable by their absence. My teacher, it appeared, had fallen out of love with his trade.

He left during the summer break. Many reasons were sighted: a broken marriage, a move to another school. One rumor was that he had run off to start a commune in Russia, another that he had taking up sailing and was traversing the oceans. I suppose I will never know the real reason for his departure but part of me likes to think that wherever he is, he is having adventures, seeking out the impossible having exhausted the natural. His questions for science answered by the very fictions he so easily dismissed.

A tale that you may think has little bearing in regards to writing or the fantastical. Perhaps you’re right. But to me it was a lesson well learned. There is a time for fiction and a time for fact. During the time when I studied hard I lost a little of who I was. The light ignited by the books I read and the films I watched diminished somewhat in the pursuit of cold facts. And whilst the acquirement of such things is to be admired, let’s not forget the things that make those natural wonders or the more special. Whether you believe they were breathed into being by a supernatural God or not; discoveries are made by stretches of the imagination, by reaching for the impossible and by letting out minds wander off the beaten path. Fact and fiction, each in moderation. Bed partners for each side of us. It took me a while to find the balance, but when I did the monsters I had forgotten during my thirteenth year welcomed me with open arms and the dreamer in me returned, richer and all the better from his travels.

Oh, one more thing; regarding the textbook that lies within my drawer. On leaving the biology teacher had written me one last piece of advice. On the final page, written in an opaque fashion are the words ‘Richard, never stop dreaming’.

Teach, I never intend too.

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