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O Captain, My Captain: A Reading List for World Teachers’ Day

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Many booklovers—perhaps most of us—have fond memories of a teacher or two. I’m grateful to a teacher who loaned me books from her own children’s bookshelves, another who pushed me to read classics which I thought looked too difficult, and the many teachers who just by twitching with enthusiasm for Hamlet or A Room With A View showed me that literature can be a life-long love affair.

You’d think writers would feel the same way, but actually teachers get kind of a bad rap in fiction. Shakespeare’s Holofernes is a tedious pedant, Joyce’s Father Dolan is a bully and Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie may be in her prime, but she’s also a literal fascist.

So to honour your favourite teachers on World Teachers’ Day—it’s October 5th of course, you stupid child!—here’s a reading assignment. Five novels featuring inspirational, or at least non-fascist teachers.

Villette

The eldest Brontë sister is most famous for Jane Eyre—readers with keen memories will remember Lowood, the girls’ boarding school which features early in that novel—but the later Villette deserves to be more widely read. George Eliot thought it ‘still more wonderful’ than Jane Eyre, and Virginia Woolf judged Villette to be Brontë’s ‘finest novel.’

Lucy Snowe is pushed from misfortune to misfortune until she ends up on the staff of a girls’ boarding school in the fictional French town of Villette. She settles into the isolated world of the school, where not only Lucy but also the girls in her charge must handle the flirtations of male teachers and visitors.

Lucy is a stalwart friend and adviser to her favourite pupil, Ginevra (despite Ginevra’s judgment that Lucy has ‘no attractive accomplishments’ and ‘no beauty’) and she is able to secure Ginevra a happy future—but her own story is headed in another direction altogether. Villette is an unclassifiable novel, and its blending of Gothic tropes with minute psychological observation make Lucy’s story unique in literature and, in George Eliot’s assessment, ‘almost preternatural in its power.’

Based on Charlotte Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in a school in Brussels, Villette is also a fascinating document for anyone interested in how education was done in the nineteenth century.

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Goodbye Mr Chips

The English public school has a distinguished literary pedigree. When she created Hogwarts, J.K. Rowling drew on many of the tropes of the public school novel: japes and bullying in the dorms, life-or-death struggles on the sports fields, and above all teachers lovable, curmudgeonly or both.

No fictional teacher more completely embodies this genre and its ethos than James Hilton’s Mr Chipping. Despite exercising firm (and corporal) discipline, he is beloved of the boys in his charge. He is an inspiring teacher even though he regards the subjects he teaches (Latin and Greek) as useless. Above all, he stands for continuity. His career has spanned the time from the Franco-Prussian War (1870, you stupid child!) to the rise of Hitler.

Nostalgic, horribly sentimental and imperially stuffy though it is, Goodbye, Mr Chips is absolutely guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye.

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Speak

A formally innovative ‘YA’ novel that also has a great deal to say to adults, Speak has been showered with praise and awards for its unflinching portrayal of the effects of sexual assault.

Just as she is about to start high school, Melinda is raped by one of her classmates. Unable to tell her story and equally unable to repress what she had suffered, Melinda stops speaking altogether. Her peer group ostracises her, and her exasperated parents decide that Melinda’s silence is an attention-seeking strategy.

Throughout this ordeal, Melinda is able to express herself through the work she creates in her art class, and when Melinda arrives at the point where she is ready to speak, it is her art teacher, Mr Freeman, who listens.

Speak is Melinda’s story, but in the character of Mr. Freeman, Anderson illustrates the vital role that caring, responsible teachers can play in young people’s lives.

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Spud

English colonists implanted the boarding school—and the boarding school novel—in South African soil, where it has had a rich life of its own. Spud is set in 1990, at the dawn of the New South Africa. Mandela has been released, Apartheid is coming to an end, but none of that is of much concern to thirteen-year-old ‘Spud’ Milton. His concerns are more immediate, starting with his dorm-mates ‘Rambo,’ ‘Mad Dog’ and, worst of all, ‘Boggo.’ You don’t want to know about Boggo.

The teachers aren’t much better. Mr Edly, the headmaster, seems to believe his subject is Swearing, and Mrs Wilson the drama teacher is sleeping with Rambo. Spud is a satirical romp with a caustic edge, but at its heart it’s a traditional boarding school novel, and like any great boarding school novel, it revolves around its beloved, infuriating, sometimes nurturing and occasionally downright psychotic teachers.

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Thief Of Time

Lots of Pratchett’s fans, including me—and more impressively, A.S. Byatt—get upset when he is written off as ‘just’ a fantasy writer. His work tackles complex subject matter with bellyaching humour and breathtaking originality, but during his lifetime none of Pratchett’s novels was even considered for a mainstream literary award. Byatt reckoned that Thief of Time, which features not one but two inspirational teachers, should have been nominated for the Booker.

Susan is the granddaughter of Death—that’s the fellow with the hooded cowl and the scythe—but she prefers being a schoolteacher. Discipline is easy when you can make your voice ring with the certain mortality of all living things. Unfortunately a cosmic plot is afoot, involving the fabric of time itself, and Granddad wants Susan to help him foil it.

Meanwhile, Lu-Tze sweeps the floors at the monastery of the History Monks, who specialise in fiddling around with time. He’s been charged with the education of a novice, Lobsang, who can’t understand why ‘the Sweeper’ is so highly regarded. Lobsang doesn’t want to learn correct sweeping technique. But when the Monks get wind of that cosmic plot, Lobsang begins to realise that you can pick up quite a lot while you sweep a classroom.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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