I discovered GJ Griffith’s book on Book Club Reading List. I was drawn to it initially as an educator myself, and a lover of school-stories.
This book follows young teacher Robert Jeffry through the entire course of his career teaching secondary school physics in England.
Teaching is never quite the experience people expect it to be when they go into it, and Robert Jeffry is not the same teacher on his first day that he is on his last.
During his time as a teacher he goes from idealistic to competent, capable, then disillusioned. This is probably not an unusual journey for educators of children to take. Jeffry’s job (all teacher’s jobs really) is time consuming, emotionally demanding, and somewhat isolating. And both educators and students will recognize the constraints of the public education system that he is stuck under.
This is an honest reflection on the perils of being a teacher. Robert Jeffry’s character vacillates between a deep affection for and a desire to help his students, and detachment, irritation, and genuine anger towards them.
The reader sees Robert Jeffry interact with his students over a period of roughly six years. Unlike in so many inspirational books and films on teaching where you watch a teacher bond with a single class and might be tempted to think that is what teaching really looks like, Robert Jeffry has a much more chaotic, realistic relationship with his students. He has isolated interactions with students who don’t particularly stand out against the sea of their peers, some of whom he slowly begins to form relationships with over time.
He spends the majority of his time concerned with disciplining students, maintaining strict order, and keeping himself from getting into trouble by inadvertently violating school regulations. But the serious side of his job is offset by moments of levity. The reader gets to see Jeffry sitting around the staff room with colleagues sharing particularly horrendous exam answers
“Right, the question is about nuclear fusion in stars, OK! And they’ve got to describe what could happen to stars as big as the Sun and stars even bigger than the Sun, OK!… Dean Manders has put: It could grow to become a superstar that explodes eventually as a casanova! Robert giggled and looked at Anthony who responded with, ‘Oh my God! That’s one of the best yet.'”
and girls who want to know
“Please, sir, what are those animals called with eight testicles?”
The structure of the book is hard to follow. Not because it’s confusing, because it lacks immediacy. This is not quite a story, but it’s not quite a collection of short stories either. It’s somewhere in the middle. It’s a series of reminiscences loosely strung together with repeating themes and repeating characters.
I don’t have a problem with experimental structures, as a rule – some of my favorite books are epistolaries, novels in verse, novellas that cross genres with prose poems… However, if I’m going to read something that isn’t plot driven it needs to stand out in some other way to hold my attention. Either there has to be wonderful character development, a beautiful writing style, maybe really revolutionary ideas being presented that challenge me in an exciting way…
There wasn’t anything extra like that to hold this book together, and I found myself reading it very slowly. I’d put it down for several days than come back to it. I’d get distracted in the middle of a scene and find myself making tea or answering emails before I noticed and picked the volume up again. There was nothing wrong with this book, exactly, I just wasn’t excited by it.
I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars. While it wasn’t my cup of tea there were a lot of things to like about the book and only a few issues. It was well written and well edited. The characters were drawn realistically. It was forthright without being sanctimonious and it used moments of insight and levity to get its points across.