Just answer the question!
Mr Kelly, my English Literature teacher, seemed unsurprised to see me when I appeared at his office to make enquiry as to how I could possibly have failed the Australian equivalent of my mock A-Level in English Lit. – the ‘Leaving’ examination as it was called back then.
“Examiners like people to answer the question, to get to the point,” he told me, lighting a cigarette. Teachers could do that in those days. Mr Kelly even smoked in the classroom. One day, his lighter stopped working and, after pacing around for a bit, came over to my front row desk, grabbed the lapels of my blazer and said “Come on, Hodgson, you must have some matches!”
“Sorry sir,” I replied, in a calculatedly cruel tone of wounded innocence, but it was true; I didn’t have any. I don’t think he believed me but the tableau was broken by the sound of a box of matches landing on Mr Kelly’s desk, expertly thrown by an anonymous hand from the back of the class. Our mentor’s addiction assuaged for the time being, we continued with our consideration of George Orwell’s writing style. Now back to the confrontation in Mr Kelly’s office.
“You’ll be sitting your Leaving English Lit. for real in three months’ time,” he continued. “Perhaps if you just wrote concisely, addressing whatever is being suggested by the question, in a clear, convincing way, which I know you can do, you’ll impress the examiners far more than by trying to show them how clever you are; without littering your answers with pedantic caveats – all this ‘assuming of course’ and ‘Lawrence has allowed himself to be led by his love of alliteration’ and this remark (here Mr Kelly pointed to a paragraph in my paper which had been circled round with red ink) about the Nurse’s mention of an earthquake in Romeo and Juliet – ‘The Bard is on shaky ground here’ – pointing out historical discrepancies has no place in a literature exam.” (Pity; I’d been rather proud of that one).
“And don’t be shy of curbing your use of double negatives,” Mr Kelly continued and again quoted from my paper; ‘I hesitate to differ from the not uncommon denial of Trollope’s anti-semitism’ – I ask you.” (Ditto for that one too). Mr Kelly rolled his eyes to the cloud of smoke above his head. “It would be better if you didn’t try to come across as a learned gentleman and try instead to show them you can use language with economy. Just answer the question.”
He was right of course. I took his advice on board and got a distinction in my Leaving English Lit. Mr Kelly later hinted to me that he had connived with the examiner to fail my mock paper, reasoning that a narrow pass would only spur me to more prolix and so do myself no good when it really mattered.
I hope there are still teachers like Mr Kelly around; teachers who take that level of interest in their students’ academic welfare.
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