Plant some forget-me-nots

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Memory is big business. Especially your memories of those you have loved and lost, or at least vaguely tolerated and cheerfully escaped. In fact, along with everyone else's, by the end of this month, your memories may be worth well over pound;120 million pounds.

As I write this, Friends Reunited is on the point of being sold to ITV: I love it, a bastion of our transient visual culture is about to buy a big machine for cranking open the gates of the past. You can go further, and trace your family tree with Genes Reunited. Some might rather do that than face the question posed by the eerily named What if no one replies? Eek.

It's a question with special resonance for a teacher. Teaching has a relationship to memory unlike that of any other profession. Everything we do is aimed at being remembered. But will we be? And for what? In November, this dark month of long evenings and remembrance, these questions haunt my mind. Fortunately, unlike politicians, teachers do not tend to be remembered for the last things they did. As an English teacher, I want to be remembered for throwing wide the doors of time, letting children race through them to pick the unfading flowers of the past. Hmm. A fellow English teacher once met a former pupil and was excitedly told, "Oh, we all remember you! You once wrote 'Fart' on the board!'" Like my friend, I can't find my best version of myself in their memories of me. "You once gave out 14 detentions in one lesson!" "You let us eat our lunch in class one day when we were really hungry!" Well, yes, I suppose I can see myself in that.

You'll get clobbered by the rules in my class, but at least you won't starve. It's not quite "You showed me the ineffable glories of Spenserian stanza form!" but it's something.

We have no control over what our pupils will remember because we have no control over what they need. If you are giving a child something they really need and are not getting from anyone else, they will drink it in.

And they may, perhaps, remember you. Memory is profoundly personal and cannot be commanded. It doesn't have to be written down, either. Nor do words which are memorable have to be said by a popular, charismatic teacher. Any teacher can be the one who says the right thing at the right time. In the brash, over-regulated chaos of today's schools, the right words can comfort a child for a day, perhaps even for years. Words can give a face to a vague fear, so that it may be fought. They can give a voice to a vague dream, so that it may be pursued. Words well chosen can create an almost magical event, one that happens unrecorded somewhere in schools every day.

The Curriculum Daleks of central government have no understanding of this at all. It is spontaneous, unique and unmeasurable, so their eye-stalks can't detect it. It's a connection that is strengthened when you hear that a teacher you loved has died. When I heard this about my favourite teacher, some of her words came back. She had never pulled her punches with me: "You have become inebriated with your own vocabulary and are now lurching around in circles..." She had a stirring, almost heroic view of literature as "the world filtered through the furnace of imagination".

I've remembered those snatches of conversation for decades. I was struck by the very same thing in the tributes to Ted Wragg. He is remembered for what he said as well as for what he wrote. A Greek poet called Callimachus compared this to birds singing in darkness: "Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake; For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take."

But what if you're still alive, and still teaching? And what if your pupils aren't very good at remembering what you've said? Your influence as a teacher can still be felt in what you represent: in the academic, imaginative or moral world that you come from. If you show a child a world where it feels at home, that child may not necessarily remember the actual words that revealed it. But if they find a place where they belong, then that's what really matters.

The success of Friends Reunited shows our need to remember the people who have made us who we are. Some of them are teachers. They don't need cyberspace or written exams to be remembered, though. Our culture still has an oral tradition, and teachers are the unsung keepers of its flame.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today