Bread. Staff of my life, fire of my coeliac guts. At a push, trope for the metamorphic power of education – if you substitute pupils for flour, knowledge for water and inspiration for yeast. Follow the analogy and the baker becomes a teacher: encouraging the absorption of water by introducing it carefully to the flour; repeatedly stretching the resulting glutinous mass; adding the yeast and then patiently waiting for it to rise.
So yes, there’s a Breaking Bad-shaped void in my life that I’m trying to fill, unsuccessfully, with a half-baked (ha!) homily about the genesis of a crusty bloomer. Thanks to its eclectic intertextuality, Breaking Bad‘s treatise on the possibilities and horrors of transformation has, like little else in recent times, enabled me to declare it the best version of Macbeth I’ve seen in ages AND bang on at my long-suffering other half about the metaphorical import of chemical equations. “How is that covalent bonding? It’s ionic. Obviously: just look at his sodding hair.” Which is not really that scientific at all. There is, nonetheless, more – much, much more – where that came from. Just so you know and can exercise the option of crossing the road if you see me.
Unexpectedly, I find myself in mind of Walter White at this frantic time of year, made more so by requests for help from KS4 students at other schools. From the bits of their eldritch keening audible to these forty-something ears, it emerges that every one of them has been given half a term’s notice of entry for the IGCSE in English Language. Should they not pass with adequately high grades in November, my private students will have to forego preparations to sit the English Literature paper in order to focus their attentions on one more summertime shot at the Language exams so integral to their school’s headline figures. Lest you’ve been duped by its reputation, reports of the exam’s intellectual rigour have been greatly exaggerated: with more spoon-feeding than lunchtime at a kindergarten, and an exclusion zone around imaginative activity, its questions resemble the kinds set at KS3 a decade ago.
The principal at the school attended by one of my private tutees is a former colleague. I don’t know whether he’d remember me or would care that I recall his involvement with NATE, the National Association for the Teaching of English. NATE used to – and, apparently, still does – advocate the centrality of literature to the English curriculum, as a vehicle of creativity and wider thinking. Yet students at his increasingly-lauded school are robbed of all of the above by a culture so focused on 5A*toCgradesincludingEnglishLanguageandMaths that little else matters. Certainly not the fact that, in literature, we find an extraordinary record of human thought and feeling with which it may be worth cultivating an acquaintance.
So, where does Walter-on-his-Heisenberg fit into all of this? Forget the fact that he starts off as a teacher. It’s more that, having embarked on a journey with a specific destination in mind, he finds himself very far from home, in a bleak and sometimes hostile place. And that, mostly, by his own hand. A long time ago, when I knew him as a ‘senior teacher’ (remember them?), the aforementioned principal was a thoroughly decent man, with a passionate interest in his subject and a rock-solid commitment to passing on to his students what he had been fortunate enough to receive from others of similar magnanimity. I suspect that person is still there, somewhere beneath the sharp suit and the hair transplant. But, over the years, it seems that he’s been compressed into a very thin sheet indeed by accumulating layers of expectation and political appeasement.
I wonder if, like Walter, he got caught in the momentum of doing what was needed; whether, having achieved his initial goal, he found that he was compelled to go further – which is what happens when pursuing someone else’s definition of success. Does he catch himself, on those long dark nights spent tweaking the latest school newsletter, musing for a moment on how far he’s come, perhaps with some justifiable awe or congratulation? I hope he also wonders at how very distant it all is from whatever prompted him to get involved in the first place. Does he still relish the taste, or does it pall now, lying dull and slightly metallic on his tongue?
Last summer, on the day of the final GCSE, I walked past my ex-colleague’s school which had been a construction site for months. The buildings erected to accommodate its expansion were complete and a new name-board charted the principal’s professional odyssey through a series of post-nominals: BA (Hons), PGCE, NPQH, FCollT. No sign of NATE, though. Perhaps it was beneath one of the fistfuls of dough that Year 11s had lobbed at the board, as they celebrated the end of the exams that have dominated their school lives for the last couple of years. And, because I know it can be a tenacious mixture, when the chemistry’s right, I watched with a little surprise as a lethargic lump of the stuff rolled slowly off the board.
Maybe someone forgot to add the yeast.