By Adrian Tilley
‘Who’s there?’ is the first line of ‘Hamlet’. It sums up what I was doing when I embarked on the career of English teaching. Who was I, to go amongst young people claiming to know anything, let alone anything about English, that would be of any use to them? A head full of ‘great literature’, the tenets of Sociology, a vague grasp of Psychology – was this enough? Some vague sense of the ‘civilising’ nature of literature? Perhaps even a belief that teaching English could bring about social change in a palpably unfair, class-ridden society?
No. It wasn’t within the grand ideals that progress was made. It was in the joy of shared laughter, reading Spike Milligan to a class of forty twelve-year-olds with tears rolling down my cheeks. In patience, letting a deeply unhappy lad work that anger out kicking the class furniture over. Perhaps more profoundly, discovering how a domestic film camera could transform students’ thinking about ‘Animal Farm’ in making a three-minute film about student revolution to the soundtrack of Alice Cooper’s ‘School's Out’.
A year later, I had produced one of the first exam courses in Film Studies in the UK, fed by my love of cinema and too many hours spent in the picture house darkness, beguiled by the flickering images created by Ford, Hitchcock, Truffaut et al. Film Studies, or Media Studies as it became, offered a theoretical framework that underpinned the pedagogy and made some sense, at last, of the relationship between text and reader and the process of reading. Denotation, connotation, representation, auteur theory, narrative – here were the concepts that placed the reader as the producer of meaning, not the recipient, and this fundamentally alters the relationship between teacher and learner.
I had not forsaken English teaching as such for this ‘upstart crow’, Media Studies. Dickens became a teaching favourite. Who cannot be spell-bound by the opening chapter of ‘Great Expectations’? Students, thirty years on, re-met casually, enthuse about their memories of that opening. What larks! And of course, Shakespeare was at the centre of much teaching. Rex Gibson’s work in the 80’s produced huge enthusiasm among English teachers to make ‘difficult texts’ like Shakespeare available and accessible to all students. Active learning became the touchstone for all kinds of learning activities which opened up those plays heretofore regarded as ‘for bright kids only’.
Media Studies and its bed-mate, Communication Studies, however, took up more of my time and energy. A move, finally, to a large, rural comprehensive, brought the chance of more ‘professional development’, or advancement as some might have it. A county-wide English initiative in Devon (UK) to broaden the remit of English Studies to include Media Education, saw me incorporated into a small team of advisory teachers working in classrooms (a dozen schools each a year), teaching, creating work schemes with teachers, offering in-service training. Some of the work took us, not only nationally, but internationally, to Russia and the USA. Media Studies had become an international project.
Thus, I suppose, began my international teaching. The chance arose for a post in Hong Kong and my wife and I cast off the shackles of our rural life (our various children had flown the nest) for one of the most populous cities in the world.
The vast majority of the students at the school were Chinese. This was not an expat ‘ghetto’ as some sister schools were. The students were mostly fluent in English, Cantonese and some in Mandarin. I soon discovered how ‘linguistic intelligence’ offered them inroads into the complexities of challenging texts. Their ‘natural’ facility with language made Shakespeare, again, a joy to teach.
The International Baccalaureate allowed a freedom of text choice and approach which had been somewhat lost in the UK (and was to disappear entirely with the more recent nationalistic English curriculum, foregrounding British writers before all others). A rather random, ‘non-academic’ (really?) bunch of sixteen-year-olds could laugh uproariously at the gender antics of ‘Twelfth Night’. A whole cohort of seventeen-year-olds could spend a fruitful day enacting elements of ‘Othello’. Elsewhere, Film Studies students were honing their filming and editing skills as the subject grew within IB.
Four years later, another change of course. I was a NET in the neighbourhood state school and, again, at my prompting, Shakespeare was there as ‘enrichment’. A musical version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. A ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ weaving a strange Chinese magic. ‘Macbeth’ in a modern Hong Kong (how prescient!). And again, the poetry and the drama found an accord in the minds and the mouths of these young students.
I had become aware that the texts these young Hong Kongers were expected to absorb as their English Studies were mostly relics of an old English curriculum stretching back fifty years. There was nothing they studied that spoke to them about their lives and their culture and their ethnicity. They didn’t see themselves in any of the stories they read. I called a group of students together and asked them, ‘What would be in stories about you?’ Falling in love. Bullying. Suicide. Loneliness. And, interestingly, brothers and sisters. By the end it was a substantial list.
So I took to the task of writing about young Hong Kongers and ‘Cheung Chau Paradise and other stories’ emerged. I had a ready-formed group of editors to guide and correct the stories. In Hong Kong it was easy to self-publish: easy and cheap. A colleague had produced a fine set of accompanying black and white photos. It was a start, or perhaps the culmination, of years of writing as an English teacher (plays, poems, stories to supplement the students’ reading diet).
The morning that I formally retired, a dawn celebrated with Prosecco and bacon sandwiches in the back garden at home, I received an offer from a publisher in Hong Kong. Before leaving, I had posted a manuscript for a YA novel to all publishers in the region – a tactic generally regarded as pointless. And here was an offer to publish The Spider’s Web, a YA political thriller set in the city. A new element in my professional life had developed. A year later, the book was out. A second followed.
Along with that, came offers of extra work in Hong Kong, running creative writing classes in schools and academies. At the same time, a three-act play I’d written about the Japanese take-over of Hong Kong in 1941, was put on at the Lyric Theatre there. I was suddenly visiting Hong Kong regularly in various roles: as a writing tutor, writer-in-residence, video-making tutor, English tutor, university teacher. Three more books followed, ‘Cheung Chau Paradise’, now professionally produced, and two other sets of short stories aimed at the English exam curriculum.
At the same time, in England, I was working with a Danish school. Shakespeare was, once more, the source for students’ English enrichment. ‘Hamlet’ was a constant, given its Danish provenance. In ensuing years, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ joined the roster as student numbers increased. By the end, we were three drama staff delivering three plays in two weeks. Throughout, the fascinating feature was how second-language students accessed and assimilated Shakespeare’s language, a form native-English speakers find so difficult.
‘ Who’s there?’ I’m still not sure what sort of English teacher I’ve been. Perhaps a case of ‘The Divided Self’, an identity formed from many facets of function. Oh, and it wasn’t all roses and gasps, believe me. There were plenty of moments of despair, frustration, profound and gagging anger, disappointment – all the usual ingredients of being a teacher. Forty years into the task and ‘Who’s there?’ still can’t be answered. I’m just waiting for the next project to turn up. How about a punk, country and western version of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’? Filmed in the style of Hitchcock? Anyone?
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Adrian Tilley currently lives in Devon in the UK and has spent the last twelve years writing YA fiction, adult drama, running creative writing classes and tutoring classes in aspects of English. He is currently working on a proposed TV drama series set in Hong Kong during the 1967 riots, on a radio drama and also contributes regularly to a satirical on-line website, the-spreader.co.uk. He is currently working on three novellas set in Hong Kong: ‘Heat’, ‘Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee’ and ‘Tomorrow Will Be Mine’. Adrian Tilley can be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.