I once tried to teach the poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant" to a class of juniors. In it, each of the men runs his hands over a different part of the elephant and so they all reach totally contradictory conclusions as to what manner of creature it is. "And life's a bit like that, boys and girls," I said eagerly, wishing to elevate the class discussion to the philosophical plane. But they were having none of it. I'd brought up the subject of elephants, so it's elephants they wanted. Elephants are not my strong suit.
But that was in the Dark Ages, before I had access to the Internet. I could now ask classes to choose any conceivable subject, in the sure and certain knowledge that I'd be able to bombard them with information until they'd be screaming for less.
I've just used Veronica one of the Internet's clever search utilities to find the files on-line that contain the key word "elephant". The first trawl, which only took a couple of minutes, has produced a menu of 224 items. Some of these, admittedly, are duplicates, and some (rock elephant shrews, for instance) are irrelevant, but that still leaves hundreds of items just waiting to be downloaded. I could harvest digitised photographs, and recordings of elephant roars. There are jokes, cartoons, stories, poems, newspaper articles and learned essays covering everything from a memoir of an elephant hunter, to a recipe for elephant trunks which are, apparently, oatmeal cookies.
I could now use Veronica to search for "ivory" or "zoo" or "Hannibal" and the collection of materials I could use in class would grow to elephantine proportions. Simply, the Internet is the store cupboard that every teacher has always dreamed of having.
All this may sound euphoric, so it's always worth remembering the lesson of "The Blind Men and the Elephant": everybody who tries to describe the Internet will tell you something different.
There are people who can't stomach the nerdy "humor". They cringe at those cute adornments to e-mail prose. For instance, :-) means "I'm being light hearted". And then there are the ghastly acronyms: ROFL (Rolling on the Floor Laughing) or NLPKT (Not a Lot of People Know That).
Many users are disappointed to find that the Internet isn't nearly as encyclopedic as the cyberdudes like to pretend. If material is in copyright and capable of earning book and CD-Rom publishers a few bucks, it's not surprising that they don't make it freely available. So, however many times I used Veronica, I wouldn't be able to locate George Orwell's moving essay on Shooting an Elephant, or D H Lawrence's Two Performing Elephants. What's more, if access to the Internet is by modem and a humble BT line, downloading graphic and sound files is infuriatingly slow. As you wait for your elephant's roar to materialise, you gloomily reflect it must be quicker to nip along to Whipsnade.
Some people moan because the Internet is anarchic and unreliable: being able to find elephants in abundance today is no guarantee that any one of them will come obediently on parade tomorrow. Sometimes gremlins, sheer ignorance or too many Americans on-line stubbornly stop you from moving from one site to the next - suddenly the Internet seems not so much a superhighway, more the M25 during a particularly virulent outbreak of cones.
If you're one of those people who like knowing you're in control, this can be deeply frustrating. Some of us, however, are happy to be rogue elephants, running amok, with no preconceived plan of where we want to go or how to get there. We get lost down intriguing by-ways, stumble across amazing Eldorados and then get hopelessly lost trying to remember where the Eldorados were. Adopt this serendipitous approach and you can while away fruitful hours discovering things you never knew you wanted to know.
If you are a teacher, you'll also want to treat your pupils to the delights of this vast intellectual playground. It might not contain the sum total of all the best that has been thought or said, but it will certainly have something to excite curiosity. For instance, if it weren't for the Internet, how would I be able to tell you that Sassy, a two-ton elephant addicted to chilli, once broke wind with such force that she blew her trainer through the side of the bigtop and cracked 15 of his bones. NALPKT.