On the Transient and the Permanent

I have recently finished teaching Ovid’s Ars Amatoria III to my Lower Sixth pupils, a text that is, like so many of Ovid’s works, riddled with reference to the poet himself and to his enduring significance.  In the didactic context of the Ars, his self-characterization is, of course, as teacher, and the text culminates:

ut quondam iuvenes, ita nunc, mea turba, puellae
inscribant spoliis ‘Naso magister erat.’

As once young men, so now let my crowd of girls
inscribe upon their spoils: ‘Naso was my teacher.’

While Ovid teaching the art of seduction to the women of Rome may ostensibly have little similarity to the Classics teacher educating Sixth Form boys in Classical Civilization, I was nonetheless struck by the way in which Ovid desires for his impact as a teacher to be recognized, for his name to be ‘inscribed upon the spoils’. As it is also the season in which teachers across the country say goodbye to pupils and send them out into the adult world, there is surely a part of many of us that hopes our teaching will leave a mark upon those whom we have taught.  And, perhaps, that we shall be a teacher whom they remember, whose name, or at least influence, will be carried on with them as one who directed their minds and shaped their youth towards adulthood. 

Ovid writes of inscribing a teacher’s name upon one’s spoils, but the extension of the metaphor takes us to the inscribing of learning and ideas on to the mind and personality of the pupil.  The image is one I find striking in the context of teaching and learning, and of human concern with the permanent.  If one were to seek a similar image for the modern day, I should offer the metaphor of tattooing (though I acknowledge that inscription is no more a practice forgotten by the modern world than tattooing is one unknown to the ancient).  Tattooing is a practice that invites one to contemplate the permanent and what it might mean to inscribe upon oneself.  Even in the face of laser treatment options and temporary alternatives, a tattoo represents an act of marking an image permanently upon a person, in a way that has an outward impact upon others, when they encounter and interpret the tattoo, and upon the person whose body carries the image, which they see upon themselves as an inseparable part of their own skin.  Even though teaching can often feel a bit like chucking a lot of spaghetti at a wall in the hope that some of it sticks, rather more than it does choosing the most significant ideas to leave with one’s pupils forever, I don’t believe it to be naïvely optimistic to aspire to some permanent legacy from the classroom.

As a person with tattoos, I find that I am often told that I will regret them when I am old:  ‘What you think looks good now, on a young woman’s skin, will not look good once that skin wrinkles and sags’.  However, it is precisely with the ambition towards permanence that I have chosen to be tattooed, and the knowledge that one day the ink will start to fade and fuzz on an aging canvas is part of that.  My tattoos are markers of significance upon my body, a way of inscribing upon myself the ideas that mattered within the moment, a message to carry into the future beyond the memory.  In my case, the ash cross on my back marks a fresh start with God at the point of a new beginning in my life; the text of Sappho on my arm makes sure I never forget the significance of my voice (as written about on this blog).  I may get more in the future, or may not, but either way, they are one outward way of inscribing my learning about myself upon my body.  When they and I grow old, I shall want to look back upon them as certain significant markers in my own development, highlighting the way in which every significant event shapes and develops a person into whom they become.  The older version of myself will have been as much marked by the events that led to the tattoos as by the needle that drew them.  It matters to see the skin age and change, still marked by those images, because I too will have aged with those moments inscribed upon my inner self, just as they are on my outer self.  It matters, too, that others may see either the tattoos themselves, or the marks of these points of learning upon my character.

Ovid, as is well known from the Metamorphoses, desired from his writings to achieve more than the inscription of his teaching upon transient individuals, cursed with mortality.  He wanted his words to deny the transience of memory:

cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius
ius habet, incerti spatium mihi finiat aevi:
parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis
astra ferar, nomenque erit indelibile nostrum,
quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris,
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.

When it will, let that day, which has no power except
over this body, end the uncertain span of my years:
yet, in my better part, I shall be borne above the lofty stars
immortal, and my name shall be indelible,
wherever Roman power extends over her conquered lands,
I shall be spoken on the lips of the people, and through all the ages,
if the prophecies of the poets hold any truth, I shall live through fame.

This, I posit, is not the hope of many teachers.  Ours is not a role that offers fame or permanence.  Even those of us in the most traditional of public schools have largely moved beyond the days when a teacher might spend a lifetime at a school, teaching, living, coaching the rugby team, until they retire and the new geography block is named in their honour.  There is plenty of evidence to say that teachers and schools have far less impact upon the development of young people than we might like (a fact that a senior colleague often cites, unhelpfully, to those of us aspiring to influence our pupils away from the baggage they bring with them from their home environments).  However, I, at least, try not to be cynical yet, when I plan, as this academic year draws to an end, how I might do better next year, teach better, inspire better.  There is, of course, with almost every job, an element of monotony, and teaching is no exception:  however different each school, each class, each child, the fundamentals of Latin grammar remain the fundamentals of Latin grammar.  And yet, in every class, there is another chance for a teacher to contribute something that will be carried forward, beyond my retirement and even beyond my lifetime.

And so, however small, there is a part of me that hopes that every year I might teach better, and leave just one important mark, whatever it might be, on the person of each pupil who appears in front of me.  Not, I hope, solely because I want my name to be inscribed upon the characters formed in my pupils, but at least in part for that reason.  Teaching is, to return to our metaphor, the writing on to the people we teach the ideas we, as teachers, offer in our classroom.  If we let go of the fact that we may, at any moment, tattoo upon their characters a lesson that lasts a lifetime, we lose all sense of the important of what we do.  Those marks upon the pupil, however minute, are permanent and will remain there, however faded and fuzzy, throughout their lives.  And it matters most that we remember this, because the lesson that marks them may not be the lesson in the satisfaction of Latin grammar, or the cleverness of the Virgilian simile, or the power of the emotion in Sappho’s lyric.  It might be the lesson about how shouting is an acceptable means of control; the lesson about how the pupil who struggles in the classroom will never succeed; the lesson from a classroom conversation that it is okay for prejudice over race or gender or sexuality to go untackled.  Or, preferably, it might be the lesson in patience, in kindness, in generosity modelled by a teacher; the lesson in how joy in learning is acceptable; the lesson that every single pupil has something to offer when they head off from school into adulthood.  We do not have to have Ovid’s sense of self-importance to admit to ourselves that it is no small responsibility we hold:  while every cohort of pupils is only ever passing through, in the transient part of the teaching life in which we see them arrive, grow, and go on into the world, some element of our influence leaves with them, inscribed upon the spoils of their education or tattooed upon the people they become.

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