Gone and Back Again

Since I write only about teaching & learning in this blog, I mention Hong Kong’s current political situation only because of one consequence it had: for a week last month schools were closed. What is more, my own school’s gates were closed at 2:00 in the afternoon on the days of the weekend and school holidays.[1]

The sociologist James S Coleman found that the single most important correlate of successful schools among those he studied was that they served as functional communities. It should be evident why this is so. As communities, schools provide more than just a place to learn the lessons of the curriculum; they act as a matrix of humanity within which their students can grow and develop in ways no curriculum can prescribe.[2] What the matrix can be is more evident when for a period of time it goes missing. That is what happened at the school.

But before discussing that, I want to treat another consequence of the school’s closure. I had to arrange for the 12th-graders to deliver their “ToK Presentations” using Skype. The work got done, but how minimally satisfactory it was! Instead of live students presenting to a live audience, they appeared, disembodied, on their Skype screens distorted and distended by their computers’ low-grade cameras—extraterrestrial foreheads, chipmunk cheeks, schnozzles, pop-eyes—into quasi-cubist talking heads. Lord knows what I looked like to them, but one shoulders on. The electricity that goes with presenting before a live audience was missing, as was the more natural by-play one usually finds in a classroom. Montag, the protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, finally escapes from his media-enclosed world and becomes suddenly and almost ecstatically aware of the little things that surround him: smells, sounds, feelings, sights on the periphery of conscious awareness that fill the non-mediated world. I felt during my week of mediated contact with my students as if I had made a reverse journey to the one Montag took.

I was therefore delighted when the school closure ended. One Saturday soon afterwards I met a graduate in one of the little gardens one finds on the school grounds, and we walked over to the building where I teach, and where he and other alumni, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, meet with students in ‘mock interviews’ to help prepare them for the genuine and live interviews to which the Ancient Universities have invited them this month as part of their admission process. (Some of my readers may think that these are private-school students, but the school where I teach is not a  private school.) After leaving the graduate to his interviews, I walked out the other side of the building to take a stroll through the repopulated grounds. Students appeared through the windows of the gym swimming and playing basketball. Across from them, alumni were meeting to play tennis on the outdoor courts. Down a little way among the buildings, some junior secondary (middle school) students played hockey on the multi-purpose courts. Up a few steps were the school’s Boy Scouts, gathered  on a lawn to prepare  meals for themselves on gas camp stoves (this is the Vertical City). Onward, on the field, primary-school students were playing soccer. On the other side of the field stood a forlorn erection called a ‘Jumbotron’ by some. As far as I can tell, the thing has not been used since it was installed.

Why should it have been? Why go to a ball game and then watch television? For that matter, why go to school and watch television? Give me live students and teachers, real bricks and mortar, gardens, courts, and the matrix of humanity.

[1] I originally reported that they had been open since the end of  World War II, but a colleague told me I was wrong: he remembered scaling them on his nocturnal explorations as a boarding student here.

[2] When I was a boy reading Herbert Zim’s Golden Nature Guide to Rocks and Minerals, I was intrigued by pictures of gems in matrix, that is, a surrounding or pervading element within which something takes form and develops. The origin of the word is the Latin for “mother”. I’d like to rescue this meaning from the oblivion that was a result of the matrix in the movie, a kind of totalitarian fakery.

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