Image credit: Generation Bass
Sometimes when I’m teaching […] I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself. – Charlotte Brontë
Classroom teachers with a Mr Chips–type of vocation are rare birds indeed. They may go on about how much they love the children, but like the children themselves they’d rather not be in the classroom. I was a teacher once, and the increasingly irresistible urge to leap across the desk and throttle the next kid who gave me cheek forced me to realise that children would be far safer if I resigned and took up freelance journalism instead.
Many teachers, however, simply sell their souls until the superannuation package ripens and they can take a trip around Australia. I’ve seen plenty of other teachers leave the profession via the nuthouse or, more ignominiously, the courthouse. Then, of course, there are those who decide to write their way out of the classroom by producings a best seller. Well, Stephen King did it.
Stephen King, now a multi-millionaire and former addict of every drug known to mankind, used to be a teacher. In his memoir, On Writing, he tells us how he graduated from the Univesity of Maine’s College of Education with a teacher’s certificate ‘sort of like a golden retriever emerging from a pond with a dead duck in its jaws’.
His first regular appointment teaching high-school English in the early 1970s paid him a miserable $6400 a year. He and his wife would send off short stories to take the edge off their poverty. He writes:
The problem was the teaching. I liked my co-workers and loved the kids, but by Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain. If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows […] in my desk drawer, six or seven unfinished manuscripts which I would take out and tinker with from time to time, usually when drunk.
Stephen King, of course, was saved from a fate worse than simply teaching. One day at school he was told there was a phone call from his wife – a rare event as they only used their neighbour’s phone in emergencies. He thought there might be a crisis. Or maybe, he thought, just maybe it had something to do with his latest manuscript.
The walk from the teachers’ room in the lower wing to the main office seemed long even with classes in session and the halls almost empty. I hurried, not quite running, my heart beating hard.
That day King learnt that he had sold Carrie to Doubleday; his future as a best-selling novelist was in the bag and his days of teaching over.
According to my inventory, classrooms (and I mean primary- and secondary-school classrooms as distinct from the academy) have harboured would-be writers since the nineteenth century. And teaching, for most writers, is usually a matter of expediency. This was the case for Stephen King and it was the case, some 120 years earlier, for the Brontës. The daughters of a scholarly but poor clergyman, Patrick Brontë, the three sisters had little choice but to offer themselves up as governesses and classroom teachers. Their letters, poetry and novels reflect their loathing for the job.
When Emily, she of the dark brooding soul, took on teaching, Charlotte was positively alarmed: ‘My sister Emily is gone into a situation as teacher in a large school of nearly forty pupils, near Halifax […] I fear she will never stand it.’ And she didn’t. After her first tour of duty was completed, Emily made a swift, final exit to the moors; but not before telling her charges that the school dog was far more precious to her than they were.
After the industrial revolution, and with the introduction of the 1870 Education Act, both public and private schools proliferated in England, as did the number of teaching vacancies. Teaching wasn’t quite what Evelyn Waugh had in mind when he left Oxford, but it was all he was equipped for. His peers at this time were starting to publish and in order to settle to some writing himself and repay his debts, Waugh took up teaching in a preparatory school, Arnold House, in Denbighshire, Wales. The school’s owners were just as desperate to find suitable teachers, and they employed him.
According to one of Waugh’s biographers, Martin Stannard, Waugh’s writing soon stalled, and rather than teach another class he took himself to the beach one night and threw himself in the drink. Driven back to the shore by an attack of jellyfish, he had no recourse but to go back to bed and face the classroom the next day.
Of course, all was not lost. Like Stephen King would do in 1973, Waugh wrote a hugely successful first novel, Decline and Fall, which was inspired by his time at Arnold House. Among the book’s many outrageous characters, the school pederast, Captain Grimes, simply shines – and was based on one of Waugh’s colleagues at the Welsh school. In his autobiography, A Little Learning (1964), Waugh says of his fellow teacher: ‘Every disgrace had fallen on this irrepressible man […] scandals so dark that they remained secrets at the scenes of his crimes. Headmasters were loath to admit that they had ever harboured such a villain and passed him on silently and swiftly.’
Waugh wasn’t the only writer of his era to spend time in the limbo of the classroom. H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, James Joyce, W.H. Auden and D.H. Lawrence were all, at some stage, schoolmasters.
D.H. Lawrence’s father was a collier and his mother had been a teacher in a private school. This was not a matter, as in Waugh’s case, of a dissolute son stepping down in the world but rather a gifted boy working his way up. If there was a way out of the coal pit for her son, Lydia Lawrence knew it would be teaching.
Lawrence went to Nottingham High School on a scholarship and then to the Ilkeston training centre as a pupil- teacher. It was there that he taught the sons and daughters of colliers. Just how grim and nightmarish he found this experience is reflected through the character of Ursula in The Rainbow. Ursula has just started a new position as a teacher:
The prison was round her now! She looked at the walls, colour washed, pale green and chocolate, at the large windows with frowsy geraniums against the pale glass, at the long row of desks, arranged in a squadron, and dread filled her.
The metaphor of the classroom as a prison is common in the stories of teachers who yearn to write. The classroom bars the teacher from the world. The world is out there. It is where you can hear the man in the truck, pushing through the gears as he drives up the hill. The world and its abundant opportunities are outside.
The contemporary Irish writer David Park said in a recent Guardian interview that he is enjoying a new sense of freedom having finally retired from teaching. He unequivocally says that teaching wasn’t a vocation for him. ‘I just got my degree and stayed on the bus, and the next stop was teaching training. It was an economic necessity.’ Park said he first started writing in order to find a text his students could relate to.
‘I had a classroom in an inner-city Belfast secondary school – it was tough. I was supposed to be reading 101 Dalmatians with them. But there weren’t any Dalmatians on the Newtownards road, as far as I could tell.’ After quelling yet another fight, Park went home and wrote ‘Killing a Brit’. The students loved it and the story was published in Oranges from Spain.
As the Guardian article points out, the frustration of being half-writer, half-teacher is manifest in Park’s novel The Rye Man, where a head teacher is depressed by his own achievements and the stultifying bureaucratic requirements that weigh him down.
There is a fear in these locked-in teachers that they will never break free, that their dreams will stall, and they will find themselves crouched on another, secret level of Dante’s Hell, doomed to watch generations of children grow into the world, while they must stay behind, half grown.
The author of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, taught in New York City high schools for 30 years while time ate away at his personal ambitions. In Teacher Man he writes about the insidious panic that built up in him: ‘You’re getting older, and aren’t you a two-faced blathering mick, prodding and encouraging kids to write when you know your own writer dream is dying.’
These feelings of being imprisoned and cut off from the real world are compounded for the teacher by the fact that society does not respect them. In Teacher Man, McCourt goes to some lengths to explain the nature of this disrespect:
In America, doctors, lawyers, generals, actors, television people and politicians are admired and rewarded. Not teachers. Teaching is the downstairs maid of the professions. Teachers are told to use the service door and go around the back […] They are spoken of patronizingly and patted, retroactively, on their silver locks.
It wasn’t until McCourt wrote his first book, Angela’s Ashes, after his retirement in 1996, that he became ‘a media darling […] a geriatric novelty with an Irish accent’ who went on to meet presidents and the Pope, and who won the Pulitzer Prize.
According to Charlotte Brontë’s biographer, Mrs Gaskell, when one of Charlotte’s charges put his hand in Charlotte’s and said, ‘I love ’ou Miss Brontë’, the child’s mother reproved him and said, ‘Love the governess, my dear!’ This admonishment was something Charlotte Brontë was never to forget.
In the academy, of course, teachers are actually paid to write and they’re given distinctions and kudos for their books. As Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University, Nabokov was feted for writing Lolita, while the Irish writer John McGahern was sacked from his primary school after the publication of his second novel, The Dark.
Published in London in 1965, The Dark is about a boy’s abusive sexual relationship with his father. The book was seized by customs and banned in Ireland. McGahern’s headmaster told him he was no longer welcome back to his Dublin school where he had been teaching for several years. The archbishop himself had decreed it so.
The classroom may have harboured McGahern, as historically it has done for many nascent writers, but in the end, by nature of its parochialism, it ejected him. Seven years after McGahern was sacked, so too was Australia’s Helen Garner. She was fired by the Victorian Education Department for giving an impromptu lesson on sex education to her Year Seven class. Garner was to write afterwards of this time that ‘it was a great stir, but I was obliged to acknowledge that getting the sack was the best thing that could have happened to me. It forced me to start writing for a living.’
Teaching today still provides a steady income for aspiring writers and indeed there are some writers, such as Philip Pullman, Melina Marchetta and John Marsden, who have been happy to accommodate both professions. But the usual case is that teaching forces the writer’s hand. If teaching were not such an undervalued profession, the literary canon would contain huge gaps.
There is much that teachers and writers have in common which explains the intermingling of the two professions: a desire to share knowledge, to explain the world, and to pass on stories. The teacher confines this responsibility to the classroom but the writer wants more. She or he wants to reach a bigger audience, and acknowledgment and respect for their work.
Secret, thrilling writing brings with it the possibility of fame and fortune and finally, release. With a bit of luck and a timely publication, a good writer can fly out of the classroom once and for all. And the mediocre ones? They’re out there now, thousands of them, tapping away at home or surreptitiously in the staff room on their laptops, and they’re all waiting, waiting for the Stephen King phone call.