On September the 26th 1992, my life changed forever. It was the week before my 11th birthday, and the West Coast Eagles had just won their first premiership.
Football – that’s Aussie Rules for international readers – had always been a big part of my life. But with that 1992 victory over the Geelong Cats, footy went from an obsession that I entertained morning, noon and night, to a mania that I also snacked on between meals. Winning an AFL premiership was now my life’s mission.
But while my heart was so desperately in it, the big problem was that – to steal a line from Paul Keating – I was mugged by reality. Speed had never been a strong point of mine. My hundred yard dash has been described as being only a few paces quicker than a lame echidna. Alas, as the years progressed, I came to realise that shy of the echidna being an amputee twice-over, that description was probably a little too generous to me.
As the reality of my athletic limitations dawned on my adolescent brain, and I started contemplating a future that didn’t involve a trip to the MCG in late September, my mind turned towards academic pursuits. And that’s where I met another reality check: while I had been perfecting a celebratory pose for my after-the-siren-Premiership-winning goal (hands in the air, followed by a few bicep kisses), school work had actually started to get bloody hard.
English was my worst of all subjects. Through years of diligent avoidance, I had convinced myself that reading was a bore, and writing was a chore. How in the world, I would ask myself, could a bunch of stories written by people of whom I’ve never heard prepare me for my adult life? And why did I then need to write 2000 words about their inane ramblings? Madness!
Of course, it wasn’t the English syllabus that was the problem. Nope, the problem was me – I just wasn’t very good at it. And the simple yet oh so complicated issue that got my knickers most in a twist, was the question of ‘theme’.
What was the theme of the text? The classic essay question would ask. My main strategy in answering this dreaded question was to umm, to ahh, to chew my pen-lid, to umm and ahh again, and then to simply rehash the plot.
What was the theme of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Umm, ahhh, chew chew, umm, ahh. Oh, I know, the theme is a man who went to a psychiatric hospital in order to avoid jail. He had a fight with a feisty nurse, and he then had a lobotomy. Bada-bing, bada boom. That will be 20 out of 20, thank you very much teacher.
Indeed, this was the scenario that I faced midway through Year 10. The English class had just started and the teacher was moving down the rows of student desks handing out our essay marks. The teacher was Mrs Russell, a veteran English teacher, who had tamed the jungle of the all-boy classroom through a mix of discipline and genuine compassion for the welfare of her students.
Mrs Russell plonked my essay in front of me, and kept walking. I turned the papers over, scanned my eyes to the top of the page, and saw ‘C-’ written discretely on the right-hand side. C- ! This was by far my worst mark yet.
It was then that I contracted a severe case of what Andy Field has called ‘itchy eye syndrome’ (IES): that debilitating condition affecting males when an unpleasant event causes small particles of dust to gravitate towards their eyes and makes them water spontaneously.
Sensing the onset of an acute case of IES, Mrs Russell back-tracked and told me that she’d like to see me after class. Head down, I nodded. We met after class, and we both agreed that I was missing a few pieces of the English puzzle. She would be extremely happy, she said, to help me find those pieces through some after-school tutoring. It was an offer that horrified my adolescent sensibilities, but which my grades told me I simply could not refuse.
The next Tuesday I shuffled towards an agreed upon classroom and knocked on the door. ‘Come in’, Mrs Russell beckoned. ‘We have much to learn.’
I sat myself down, looked at the clock, and started the countdown from 60 minutes. Mrs Russell got up from her chair, walked the three paces to the blackboard, and launched into a blow-by-blow description on the full armoury of literary techniques: characterisation, foreshadowing, imagery, point of view, symbolism – all words that had the uncanny ability to make my stomach drop to the floor.
With 15 minutes to go, we were yet to touch on my bête noire, and I plucked up some courage. ‘Mrs Russell’, I squeaked in my recently broken voice. ‘What’s a theme?’
She looked at me with a face mixed with incredulity and sympathy.
‘Well, we really should have started with that, shouldn’t we? A theme is an idea. It is the idea that the author has discovered and wants to share with you through their book. It is the idea that washes over you as you thumb through the pages. It is the idea that you mind stumbles across three days after reading the book.’
That’s it? An idea? It’s that simple? Bloody hell, why didn’t someone tell me that?
‘Oh’, I said in the all-knowing adolescent tone that I had somehow managed to perfect. I raised my left nostril in the air. ‘An idea?’
Her shoulders manoeuvred like a swivelling tank as she turned from the backboard to face me. ‘Andrew’, Mrs Russell looked me in the eyes with an urgent appeal. ‘Never forget the power of an idea.’
I didn’t think much of the comment at the time. In fact, it’s a good bet that my mind was more focussed on counting down the final 10 minutes of the lesson, as I would then be free to head home and kick the footy (old habits die hard). But for some reason, I never forgot the comment, and I never forgot her sense of urgency.
It’s now more than half my life ago since I sheepishly knocked on the classroom door that Tuesday afternoon. I haven’t seen Mrs Russell since I left school, and I doubt that she would remember me among the thousands of pupils that she taught over her career.
This story popped into my head at a random juncture just last week. I wasn’t doing anything special, nor feeling any particular feeling – all of a sudden, it was just there.
But when I thought of it this time – at this point in my life – her comment, which I had stored for half of my life, finally made sense to me. Ideas reshape the world in which we live. They have the ability to cure disease, compose symphonies and conquer mountains. Ideas are our single most powerful weapon for fighting prejudice and injustice, and can alter the course of a life in an instant.
Quite simply, ideas change the world.
And teachers, who dispense this urgent message without any fanfare, do too.
Click HERE if you would like to be on the mailing list for this column.