This week’s flash fiction prompt posted by Charli Mills posed a challenge for me.
How do I respond to her prompt to:
In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about exhaustion.
and maintain my focus on education?
Do I ignore the prompt and post about education?
Do I respond to the flash fiction prompt in isolation?
Neither of these alternatives appealed as I have been enjoying the camaraderie and support of the flash fiction tribe as well as the opportunity to experiment in a genre that, while not an immediate writing priority, I may move towards in the future. On the other hand, as my intent with this blog is to share ideas and thoughts primarily about education, I don’t want to become distracted from my focus.
As do many, the idea for this prompt attached itself to me when I wasn’t thinking about it. Ideas tend to pop into my head when I first awaken in the morning, when I am showering, or during any other moment when my thoughts are free to flit and fly without the constraints of achieving a particular outcome.
This one descended when I was out for a drive appreciating the beauty of the pure white clouds, like puffballs, on the bright blue sky of a glorious winter day. It plopped down, ‘Barrrump!’ just as the space-bat-angel-dragon from The Iron Man by Ted Hughes had plopped down on Australia.
As mentioned in a previous post, The Iron Man is one of my favourite books. It is a great story told in beautiful language. On the back of my copy a quote from the Observer declares that it is ‘Reckoned one of the greatest modern fairy tales.’ The rhythm and poetry of the language begs for it to be read aloud. Because it has just five short chapters, ‘a story in five nights’, it is perfect as a first chapter book to share with younger children, and can be read to a class in a week, a chapter a day.
The chapter I wish to share with you in this post is #4 ‘The Space-Being and the Iron Man’.
The previous chapter has seen The Iron Man happily ensconced in a huge scrap-metal yard. It could have finished there with a happily ever after ending. But no. It was only chapter 3. There were two more chapters to come! What excitement was in store?
The chapter begins
‘One day there came strange news. Everybody was talking about it. Round eyes, busy mouths, frightened voices – everybody was talking about it.
One of the stars of the night had begun to change.’
We are immediately reeled back into the story – What is going to happen? What will the Iron Man do? – and propelled along by the giant star that grew ‘not just bigger. But bigger and Bigger and BIGger’ as it came
‘rushing towards the world.
Faster than a bullet.
Faster than any rocket.
Faster even than a meteorite.’
Thankfully it stopped before it hit Earth. But wait – it’s not over yet, for ‘a dreadful silhouette, (came) flying out of the centre of that giant star, straight towards the earth.’
After several days it (‘a terrific dragon’) landed, with its body ‘covering the whole of Australia’ and it ‘wanted to be fed. And what it wanted to eat was – living things.’
‘The people of the world decided they would not feed this space-bat-angel-dragon … they would fight it.” But all the forces of the world were no match for the dragon.
As you may have guessed, this is where the heroic Iron Man devises his plan ‘to go out, as the champion of the earth, against this monster from space’. The dragon was very surprised to be challenged to a test of strength.
The Iron Man, you may remember, is taller than a house, but the space-bat-angel-dragon is bigger than Australia. The dragon thought that, when the Iron Man had finished, he’d ‘just lick him up.’ He didn’t figure on the ingenuity of the Iron Man. The Iron Man’s challenge was for the dragon to ‘go and lie on the sun till (he was) red-hot’. (The Iron Man was small enough to be made red-hot on Earth.)
After the second journey to the sun the dragon again ‘landed on Australia. This time the bump was so heavy, it knocked down certain sky-scrapers, sent tidal waves sweeping into harbours, and threw herds of cows on their backs. All over the world, anybody who happened to be riding a bicycle at that moment instantly fell off. The space-bat-angel-dragon landed so ponderously because he was exhausted.’
Have you ever felt that exhausted you just wanted to flop down and never move again? An article in my local newspaper1 recently declared that ‘We belong to the Spent Generation – the most overcommitted, overscheduled, overconnected, and therefore overtired, in modern times.’ The journalist Frances Whiting listed a number of professions including ‘doctors, scientists, social commentators (who) the statistics tell us (are) working longer, sleeping less, not resting enough and taking on too much.’
Teachers weren’t on this list, but they could have been at the top. Anyone who lives with, or has a friend who is, a teacher knows the long hours they work. Because it is a caring profession it is impossible to leave work at the gate and pick it up the following day. Content-driven curricula and unrealistic expectations imposed upon both teachers and learners place extra stress upon all stakeholders. Long before a school terms end teachers are tired, stressed and in need of time to recuperate and recharge in preparation for the next one.
At the moment most teachers in Australia are conducting assessments, evaluating their own work and student learning, preparing report cards and conducting teacher-parent interviews. This is in addition to their ongoing tasks of preparing and teaching lessons and is mostly expected to be completed in out-of-scheduled work hours.
When I was teaching I worked between 50 and 70 hours most weeks. I used to say that even with our ‘enviable’ holidays we were still owed time. In my current out-of-the-classroom role as writer of curriculum materials, I now feel the difference as I don’t have to think about it away from my desk.
I still get tired, but not the same heavy exhaustion that comes from giving all; physically, mentally and emotionally, to a class of 25 active learners while trying to stay afloat amidst ever increasing expectations.
So my flash this week recognises the teachers who, buried under a pile of paperwork and lost in a maze of data collecting spreadsheets, still struggle to be everything to everyone, endeavouring to make every child feel special and valued, while often feeling that their own work fails to achieve any real recognition. Enjoy the break, teachers. You deserve it!
A Unicorn at School
‘Miss. Marnie has a toy in her bag.’
‘Uh-uh,’ I responded.
‘You’re not allowed to have toys at school,’ he insisted.
Trust him! Always dobbing.
‘Miss,’ he persisted, tugging my sleeve.
‘What is it?’ I sighed, dragging myself out of the confusion of marks and percentages that now seemed more important to telling a child’s story than their own words and actions.
I looked at the little fellow pleading for my attention. They were all so needy; so demanding; but time . . .
‘It’s a unicorn, Miss.’
‘Unicorn! Let’s see!’ I was back. A child in need!
I welcome your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of the article or my flash fiction piece.
1 QWeekend 14-15 June, 2014