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Results, Ramses II and "Dead Poet's Society"

Today A Level results have come out. My A2 student texted me from LA to tell me she had got the grades she needed to go to NYU. I am delighted that she did so well in English and that she is going to the university she had set her heart on.

I am a teacher, now specifically an online tutor, and I am working in order to provide support, encouragement and the skills required so that those of my students aiming for certain grades or schools can achieve what they need. We all know that society is much more 'result-driven' than even ten years ago but it is easy to forget that education is more than getting a student into the top school, the top university, the top career. Results matter but so does education in the bigger sense of the word.

This week many of my generation are reflecting on the teacher figure - John Keating - created by Robin Williams in Peter Weir's Dead Poet's Society. I haven't seen the film for years and I know there are many aspects of it that I would find overly sentimental today but I do remember watching it aged 19 and wanting to inspire students like John Keating was able to do. And I learnt the phrase 'carpe diem' from that film and I have tried to use it (not always successfully) in my life and in my teaching.

I had English teachers like John Keating. Some of them came in to the classroom with armfuls of notes, some without even the novel we were studying that day. But they all inspired me with their energy and their passion and their commitment to the belief that results were not the only thing that mattered; that the experience of reading and learning and writing were something that would and should continue throughout life. Because of their teaching style, I got the results I needed but I also got much more. I have written about these teachers in my article in Summer 2014's Slightly Foxed. In a later blog I will write about another teacher who inspired me and you can see the effect that this particular man - Frank Dawson - had on others in a blog written by educational entrepreneur Pete Harrington.

This piece is not to undermine the necessity of achieving high standards at school and university - I would be doing myself out of a job if I made such a claim - but just a reminder that there is more. And I hope that when I teach I do manage the 'more' bit because that is often the bit that stays with you as you grow older.

To illustrate this I am going to end with a short anecdote about how something I learnt from a wonderful primary school teacher stayed with me. She believed that we ought to learn poems by heart. So at the age of nine I learnt 'Ozymandias' by Percy Shelley. I am not sure how much I understood at the time but I recognised it was about reaching too high (reaching high is good, reaching too high not always so good). Years later I found myself, on my first visit to Egypt, on the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor at the funerary temple of the great king Ramses II. I looked around and saw 'trunkless legs of stone' and the poem 'Ozymandias' flashed into my head. I asked the guide who told me that Ozymandias was the Greek name for Ramses II. Later I went back and read about the creation of the poem, how Shelley wrote it as a sonnet challenge with his friend Horace Smith and how he had never actually seen the broken statue.

It was a key moment for me: parts of my own life, literature and world history connecting up together. My nine year old self connected to my twenty-four year old self; my experience of literature at primary school meeting my adventures abroad in a country which was to have a profound influence on my life; the ancient King linking up to Shelley and then to me. It was Christmas Day 1994 and I had, at that moment, what Virginia Woolf called a 'moment of being' and I have never forgotten it.


I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away".

P. B. Shelley 1818


A good guide to the history of the poem and ways of interpreting it can be found on the Poetry Foundation website. What I find interesting is the fact that Shelley's poem survived the test of time; Horace Smith's did not. I have sometimes invited students to compare the two in order to understand what makes a great and memorable poem and it is worth reading Smith's sonnet in order to begin to think about these differences. Have a look at Horace Smith's poem 'On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.'


I know that I have already posted this poem on my Facebook page, English with Dr Breese, but as you have probably realised it is one of my favourites.

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