A squint at student life

12th October 2007 at 01:00

There they sat on a desk in the deserted classroom the strangest looking pair of glasses I had ever seen. And right from the start there was only one message going through my brain: wear them!

The thick lenses somehow managed to be neither square, round, oval, nor rectangular. And the frames were made out of some weird material that I had never come across before.

Seeing no sign of the owner or indeed of anyone else I quickly put them on. My first thought was that they were exactly what I had been looking for. Up close, everything was enhanced the objects around me were all clearer, sharper, better, brighter.

But then I noticed that the effect faded with distance. And when I glanced out of the window I could see (or rather couldn't see!) that beyond a certain point it was like peering into a thick fog.

For a moment, I thought about taking them off, but then it dawned on me what amazing powers these glasses had conferred: I was seeing the world through the eyes of a student! Indeed, the next thing I noticed was that, in addition to seeing things, my new eyewear could give me an insight into how students perceived time in particular how they saw the past.

Yesterday was as clear as you like full of vivid events in primary colours. Last weekend, too, looked pretty bright (though in some respects duller than you might imagine) but already it was beginning to go fuzzy at the edges. Beyond that was chaos a great jumble of images and events, with no clear chronology and much confusion as to what happened and why.

This, I suddenly realised, was what students mean when they talk about "back in the day". The phrase often comes up when you ask them to place historical events such as the Battle of Hastings or the First World War. A sort of amused look of the "now you're asking" variety comes into their eyes. "Whoa," they say, "that was back in the day!"

Now, with the glasses on, I could see exactly how this worked. To the student, history looks like this: a big bunch of things happened; then there were the Nazis; then a much smaller bunch of other things happened mainly to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Then, bingo! You're in the present.

Students know about the Nazis because that's what history lessons consist of these days just like it was with the Tudors "back in the day" when I was in school. I knew the names and method of demise of Henry VIII's six wives. They know the same about Hitler's ministers.

The Nazis were a bad thing for the Germans and for everyone else the glasses showed me. And they were defeated by an old guy named after an insurance company who went round sticking two fingers up at the world which was what you did to win wars "back in the day".

Tired of the confusion of the past, I managed to tune back into the geographical dimension. "Back in the day" faded and in its place came "out there". The two clearly have a lot in common. Faced with an outline map of Britain, London students like mine always have huge difficulty in knowing where anything goes. It's a bit like playing "pin the tail on the donkey" except in this case they're not actually blindfolded. So to the London student geography is simple. There is London, and then there is everywhere else.

Peering tentatively "out there", I could just make out in the distance the edge of the civilised world, otherwise known as the M25. Previously, I had thought of this as a road or rather more accurately as a circular car park where movement of vehicles is occasionally possible. Now I saw that it was actually a moat, designed to keep at bay those known as "norvernors" people who curiously also live to the east, west and south of the centre of the universe.

Beyond the moat lies the real "out there" a strange, unknown land inhabited by bumbling, doltish people, who have curious and comical relationships with one another. Another common word for "norvernor" is "imbred", which tells you all you need to know about how London students view those relationships.

If you want to know a man, then walk a mile in his moccasins. And by the time I put the glasses aside, I realised that I had learnt a lot. My new window on the world might have been vague and unfocused, but some things had certainly become clearer.

For one, I'd better stop keep putting off that optician's appointment.

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