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A Spice Island

Average: 4.3 (98 votes)

Our guest walked down the aircraft steps onto the tarmac and was greeted by a small band and a few dancers dressed in traditional costume.  I wondered if I should tell him that we hadn’t arranged the reception and that it wasn't for him. I mumbled an explanation, but I don't think I was heard.

A little later, our guest, the writer Romesh Gunesekera, was welcomed again, but this time it was personal. He was sat down in a small theatre, then the lights were dimmed and a group of 15 and 16 year old students performed a play they had written, based on his short story, 'Carapace'.  I was expecting this, but Romesh wasn't and I detected a tear in the authorial eye as he sat, spellbound. I was impressed by the technical skills of the students in converting the play from the original story, which was largely a dreamy monologue in the first person, to a swift moving, three dimensional sequence that captured, beautifully, the indecision of the tale's narrator.  This had been the students' idea alone, and they had written it, rehearsed it and performed it without any interference from the teacher.  The word 'interference' was the teacher’s description.  When the short play ended, Romesh was able to discuss the performance with the young actors, who were starry eyes, but articulate. It was a very intense half an hour.

Later, Romesh visited the school down the hill. Anyone who knows Funchal, the capital of Madeira, will know that the city is built vertically on muscle-straining hills and it is always advisable to have your second appointment downhill from the first.  Downhill it might have been geographically but not in any other sense.  The students had been studying a wide range of Romesh’s output, including working on a theatrical adaptation of his novel, ‘Heaven’s Edge’.  The whole school had been involved in one way or another, not just those in English department. Romesh had been adopted as the 'Author of the Year', part of a tradition going back some twenty years, though Romesh was the second living author to be nominated and was the first author to visit the school.  Charles Dickens, for example, had been unavailable. 'Heaven's Edge ' deals with "a spoiled paradise" and is clearly modelled on Romesh's native Sri Lanka, extended to a dystopian future with tragic consequences.  It was the Sri Lanka of the present that enthralled the school, and teachers of art, music, history, geography, philosophy, Portuguese and English all became involved.  The school had immersed itself in what it could of Sri Lankan culture, and Romesh's vivid descriptions of the lush landscape were the inspiration for paintings which formed an impressive exhibition.  Concerts of Sri Lankan music were heard, Sri Lankan food prepared and eaten (Romesh describes food in his work with mouth watering results) and students studied references to the Portuguese as the first Europeans to land on Sri Lanka – as mentioned in the epic poem, 'Os Lusiadas' by the 16th century Portuguese poet, Luís Camões.

To say that Romesh was impressed by his visit to Madeira would be an understatement.  As soon as he arrived back home in London he started to explore for himself the connection between Portugal and Sri Lanka.  To his surprise he found a direct link between Funchal and Sri Lanka and managed to trace a number of seventeenth century cultural influences which can still be seen to this day.  As a result of his research, and spurred on by the memory of his inspirational visit to the schools, Romesh wrote a series of new short stories, tracing the real life adventures of a 17th century sea captain who retired to Funchal following his trips to the Spice Islands.  These stories were published in a bilingual edition, called 'The Spice Collector', to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the city of Funchal.

So what had brought about this extraordinary burst of activity and energy from teachers, students and author?  Let's look first at the school down the hill.  What could possibly have galvanised the teachers into embarking on such a remarkable and exhausting programme of work that was clearly far and beyond the normal demands of a school curriculum?

The answer was even more surprising:  it had been simply business as usual; a continuation of work that the school had been involved in year after year. In earlier years the school entrance had been turned into a giant space ship for the year when Sci Fi writer Ray Bradbury had been author of the year, and into a giant rabbit hole for Lewis Carol’s year, a dark place where students could dream their own wonderlands.  The maths department had been involved in the Lewis Carol year, of course, and science, in the form of alchemy, had featured for Geoffrey Chaucer.  And so the list goes on.

I asked how many students got involved in the project over the course of a year and the two organising teachers looked a little puzzled and then I realised the question should have been how many students at the school didn’t get involved.  I then came across evidence that the activities involved parents and other members of the local community, including ex-students and ex-teachers.  It was at this point I sighed, “I wish I’d been to a school like this,”  and both teachers nodded in agreement.  But the degree of motivation that had led to all this also led to a difficult question:

“What about the syllabus?”

The Head of Department flashed me a knowing look.
“It gets the attention it deserves,” says she. “All the requirements are met.”  It was quite clear that the syllabus was treated not exactly as an unwelcome intruder but rather like a rather tiresome elderly aunt who has to be placated and comforted while the family’s real life goes on regardless.

The amount of work involved in such a broadminded and holistic approach to teaching is daunting to anyone who sees teaching merely as job of work.  I pushed the two dynamos behind so much of the school's success on this point, trying to find places where support hadn’t been given, searching for cracks in the scheme of things, and I was told in a very matter-of-fact voice that “There are, and always will be, two kinds of teachers.”  The point was not elaborated.  It didn’t need to be.  Teaching should be seen as a vocation, not just a job, was what they were saying.

Back up the hill we had witnessed other examples of vocational teachers. In terms of class management what seemed to have happened here was a classic case of what we might refer to as non-linear teaching or, to be more precise, non-linear learning.  The opportunity had arisen to respond to a series of apparently casual circumstances – the introduction of a new story set in a new culture; the challenge of the language itself as well as the cultural overtones; the advent of the author visiting and the decision by both students and teachers that they would not be merely passive recipients for this event, but active participants, exchanging, rather than just receiving ideas. Here was an almost perfect example of the interaction of language acting as both catalyst and means of communication between teacher and students.  While the dramatic offering at the school down the hill might have been grander in scale and more daring in scope, what had happened at the school up the hill was more intensely driven by the students, more personal – and more ‘owned’: the students' sense of value of the project was enhanced by the manner of their participation.  In both schools this sense of ownership and partnership was what made the efforts stand out though the ways in which this energy was released were significantly different.  While the tremendous work done at the school down the hill took a vast commitment of time and resources – albeit time and resources that were available to every school in the country – the impressive offering from the school up the hill was available through the work of a few short weeks, using snatched hours and stolen moments. Naturally this meant that a considerable amount of work was done outside of regular class time; which brings us back to our vocational teachers.

The point of this story is simply one of hope.  Wonderful work is being done in schools all the time, young minds energised into sometimes extraordinary amounts of creativity.  At the same time it reminds us of the dark, ominous shadow that falls over educational establishments for far too much of the time: rigid timetables and the demands of exams.  At the two schools mentioned above, teaching had been reduced so that learning could take place; that's positive news.

By Fitch O'Connell

Find out more about BritLit, including work by Romesh Gunesekera.