Sunday 15 September 2019

Novel? What novel? What's a novel? Bringing teenagers to book

By David Medcalf

HI did a quick tot as we bowled along the road. My best estimate, more of a guesstimate really, was a grand total of 3,122. Rough reckoning mental arithmetic to divide up this number produced the following scoreline - Rocky 0, Zeb also 0, Eldrick a whopping 2 (though he only admitted to 1) and Medders 3,120. Worst fears were confirmed: I was travelling home on the school run with a bunch of unlettered heathens…

In an effort to make conversation, being in the company of three intelligent, engaging young scholars with high hopes of impressive careers, I raised the topic of the Leaving Certificate curriculum.

The first subject tackled was mathematics, with mention made of quadratics, of axes (as in X axis or Y axis, not as in hatchet) and of something called cosine. Though in the actual driving seat, I was relegated to the metaphorical back seat for this segment of the discussion, deferring to the superior technical knowledge the teenagers.

As we crawled along behind a tractor hauling a trailer load of straw, the focus switched to the rival merits of technical graphics and construction studies. The comparison was approached with particular reference to the staff employed to assist the lads explore these two fields of human knowledge, concluding with an assessment of the prospects for points in the race to college.

With a final defiant puff of evil black diesel smoke, the tractor pulled on to the hard shoulder to allow us pass and, as we accelerated, I enquired as to the state of English as a subject. The initial response was encouraging to my ears as the trio unanimously expressed incomprehension as to why they were being asked to take an interest in the works of John Montague or, indeed, of any poet. Their casual scepticism reminded me of my own dismal boyhood grappling long ago with the metaphysical (whatever that means) waftings of another John - John Donne..

Then the conversation took a lurch into a dark place as we skated around the roundabout on the ring road and I enquired as to which novel is on the course this year.

Novel? What novel? What's a novel?

They had not a clue. None of the three was aware of any novel on the curriculum. None mentioned the title of any novel. It dawned on me that none had any aspiration to engage with novels, whether for academic study or for casual entertainment. Easing my foot off the accelerator, I asked each passenger in turn how many books he had read for pleasure and elicited the discouraging returns - Zeb nil, Rocky nil and Eldrick two.

My son recalled enjoying a novel recommended by a teacher while he was still in primary school. And I reminded him that he also completed an American thriller a couple of years ago. Though both fairly pleasant, neither experience prompted him to make a habit of it.

Rocky claimed brightly that he has every intention of reading a book some time in the future once his vocabulary improves. In the meantime, he said prefers to pass his leisure hours exploring 'Game of Thrones' on the television. I suspect he was just trying to please me. His vocabulary already seems fine at least for everyday purposes. If he genuinely wishes to strengthen his word power, time spent with a few good books would surely help him on his way. Zeb made no bones about it. He has no intention of ever delving into the world of literature if he can possibly help it.

These young men gave me the impression that, whichever novel is prescribed for the Leaving, they may actually be able to avoid ever actually opening the actual book. As we limped through the suburbs on the last leg of our journey, I was in such a state of numbness that I may have misinterpreted. But I understood them to say that any decent teacher of English will circulate notes averting the need for anything as drastic as perusing a work of literature from start to finish.

They fetched schoolbags from the boot while I remained slumped behind the wheel in despair. What about Dickens, I wanted to shout. What about Hemmingway? James Joyce may be a step too far but please give Lee Child or Harper Lee a chance. Please.

Wexford People