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Bohemian Rhapsody and Why I Teach.

October 21, 2015


A few weeks ago, I was driving the boy to school and the radio was on, tuned to a station that mixes contemporary chart hits by today’s beat combos with nostalgic ditties of yesteryear.

Suddenly we hear the piano chords of Bohemian Rhapsody strike up and I say to the boy “you know, you should really listen to this – this has been a huge huge hit ever since your Daddy was… well…. very small indeed”.

Glancing briefly and safely in the mirror I see that the boy has dutifully pricked up his ears and started to listen.  But about three minutes into the song (i.e. – not very far) he starts to exclaims with some urgency:

“Daddy, please switch this off – I can’t stand it?”

“What’s the matter?”  I ask, thinking some fundamental generational taste gap has been discovered.

“It’s all too much Daddy.  He’s found out his mother’s committed murder.  He feels his life is already over.  He wishes he’d never been born.  At all.  It’s really upsetting.”

And I thought…

“Oh dear God – he’s been, I mean, he’s been, actually listening to the words.  I haven’t listened to the words of this song in decades.  That’s to say I could probably recite them all from memory (while including the deliberately hilarious mistake of saying that Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard) but these eclectic swoops of nonsense haven’t actually impacted on me emotionally since I Don’t Know When.  That’s to say – the whole song is just pomp-rock gibberish – just as Queen was just a joke band who never aspired to anything more than a display of their own virtuosity.”

That someone could be emotionally engaged by the lyrical content of a Queen song reminded me of why I teach.  You can read something over and over again and (unlike a Queen song) be emotionally engaged every time.  You can find something new in a text that’s worth reading, while your familiarity with it can enable you to trace continuities and discontinuities that a first time reading will never reveal.  Indeed, Joyce’s Ulysses is far more enjoyable on a fourth or fifth reading.  I’ve tried advising students to skip their first three readings of Ulysses altogether and go straight to their fourth.

Ah, the sullen glum faces you get to see making that joke.

What you can’t quite get from all these readings however, is the unique reaction you get from a first reading.  The sense of fresh discovery.  The sense of authentic and salutary fear.  For that I need students.  I would no more want to work in a “pure” research institute than I would want to work in a research-free accreditation factory.  Without constant exposure to and dialogue with people who are absorbing certain books for the very first time, I’d feel I was missing out – that I was being deprived of a very specific and precious kind of critical insight.

Of course, there is a school of thought which says that teaching shouldn’t be about what I want.  It should be about what’s good for the students.

But I’m a selfish selfish man.


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