Light of hope in the germ-term's darker days

15th January 2010 at 00:00

Who decided to call this the "spring" term? Spring suggests bunnies, blue skies, light hearts and lemonade, flirty dresses and hope. This is the winter term, the germ term, the crawl-towards-the-light term.

Yet in the parallel universe of school terminology, winter does not exist. We go straight from autumn to spring. It's a nice idea, shattered only by the sound of ice being scraped off cars in the dark.

This is the midwinter trek, with mock exams like black ice for many. While marking, I see the same mistakes tramp across the page, waving cheerily like ramblers who don't know they're lost. Will they ever learn? They are not the only ones. I've scraped my car on the same bit of wall every morning this week as it's dark when I leave home. Squeak, crunch. Will I ever learn?

Repeating the same mistakes is the weary middle part of the journey. How many times does little Jenny need to be reminded to write a story in paragraphs instead of a single three-page sentence? Similarly, a friend of mine recently calculated that she had told her daughter not to talk with her mouth full at least twice a day, every day, for the past two years. That's one thousand, four hundred ... actually, it's better not to think about it.

Aaron the alligator understands this. Remember him, from The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary? He's on the first page, under "A", looking happy because he's about to fly "above the clouds" in his yellow "airplane". Sadly, Aaron is "always having accidents". His tragic green figure recurs in this wonderful book. Children find his doomed struggles hilarious. I wonder, though - does Aaron carry a hidden message? "You're going to find this hard, kids. Trust me: you won't get it first time."

At least we're not cartoons. But repeated mistakes and cold, dark weather can really bring you down. Somewhere, a teacher is trying hard not to cry because her pupils appear doomed to fail, like Aaron. It's tough, going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark, and spending the time in between with children who are still in the dark. Bright days and bouncing lambs seem a long way off.

Yet the shortest day is past. We are heading for the light. Perhaps there is also a winter solstice of the mind, when you are at your furthest away from understanding something. The word "solstice" comes from Latin for "the sun stands still". We know it doesn't, of course, but it seems to. Learning never stands still, either. It just feels that way, and it's a test of endurance for everyone involved. Slowly, the mind starts to tilt the right way and, one chink of light at a time, the meaning becomes clear. It's a process as gradual and unseen as the days getting longer in January - but it is happening, all the time.

Teaching is a noble trudge, and these dark days are a test of spirit. Scraping my car again, I think of Aaron in his yellow aeroplane, "always having accidents". The day will come when I remember where the wall is. The pupils now sneezing over their books will bounce in the sunshine with their results this summer. The spring term may not have bunnies and blue skies, but it runs on one very spring-like thing: hope.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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