Bounced off Steve Wheeler’s post, “Blimy its a blimage” and thought I could be a nay-sayer or a player (more on which somewhere else maybe). The image was of old school desks shot from above.
The challenge — for the Blimage is a challenge — is to write an education-related piece about the image. Two thoughts hit me about this. I’ll go off for a bit on one and then close with the last.
First it strikes me that there is much synthesised nostalgia about school days, despite many people not recalling them with joy. I expect these desks are in an antiques yard waiting to be picked up by parents who will put them in their children’s bedrooms as sweet little learning spaces all their own. I sat at desks like that. In my early school days they even had holes for ink pots, though the ink pots themselves had long gone. The desk was was a safe space in which I could seek to be ignored between the much more challenging negotiations to avoid being hurt in the times when we weren’t sat at the desks. But when I see them in my friends’ kids’ bedrooms I do come all over fuzzy with kawaii. The fact that my children appear to be happy in school and there is not a school-desk in sight slips from my mind. I am not saying that the desks are causal, or even necessarily instrumental in themselves in the emotional abuse that old-school sometimes colluded in but they are symbols of order and authority as well as something more insidious: deception. The liftable lids enabled any amount of clutter and contraband to be swept away. As long as the surface could be tidy and the content hidden or deployed tactically and even surreptitiously all would be fine. The covered desk taught as much about what you could get away with as any other lesson. Carving your name in the desk was a rite of passage even if being caught doing it merited a punishment. Even if our subversiveness was unoriginal: smuggling comic books inside exercise books, even if we never read the comic books in class, I remember the frisson of hiding things in my desk and getting away with it more than most (any?) more substantive or intended lessons. I remember the feeling and that is the thing. The feelings that are a deep part of me were inculcated at desks like that and I am afraid I do not remember many feelings of joy from my school days. I am sure I learned other things but even to this day the struggle between authentic learning and just getting away with it occupies me more than I would like.
The second thing those desks reminded me of was this:
The dark, hardwood stain, the association with a disordered and anachronistic, rectilinear formality in learning and in their own way authority reminded me of the often repeated iconic image of punts lined up on the streams that flow past the two oldest universities in the UK. I saw a thread through the desks to Oxbridge. But again it is not the substance of learning that was drawn to my mind but something other: something about context, deception and subversion, something about the importance of a superficial order even if all was disordered beneath the surface; something about mastering that surface at all cost and if something deeper drifted by so be it.