When I was a teacher, it was my constant delight to be able to impart the finer elements of German grammar to a constantly changing and evolving succession of young people.
I loved it and above the whiteboard in my classroom were emblazoned the words “Grammar is Next to Godliness,” a quote from a long-deceased Bishop, who combined his religious devotions with a healthy respect for grammar.
Some years passed before I realised that not all of my young charges shared my enthusiasm for relative clauses or the finer points of the subjunctive. Some even found the subject tedious! Incomprehensible, I know, but what can you expect from a generation brought up on electronic gadgets, designed to turn you brain into mush and a constant diet of carefully manufactured, pre-planned and scripted ‘reality’ television.
( I recently met a woman who took part in a nation-wide TV general knowledge quiz show. She fought off all of the competition until she reached the final and was within one question of winning the prize of a year of travel to all sorts of exotic places.
Prior to the final episode, the TV company asked her to record her ecstatic reaction as she won the glittering prize. Unfortunately, they also asked the other finalists to do the same thing. My friend’s daughter was drafted in to add to the excitement with lots of delighted squeaks and ” Oh my god, I can’t believe it!!!”, as they ran along to corridors to the waiting taxi that was to take them to the airport. Then my friend got the final question wrong and came second. Close, but no cigar, and no foreign travel either. Reality television, my eye!)
Anyway, back to my stoical pupils and our unequal affection for grammar.
Part of my strategy to make my lessons more interesting was to occasionally ‘go off on one’, to launch a rant on whatever came to mind to be worth ranting about. I was never short of subject matter. Kids using the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘defective’ or ‘of no value’. That was always worth reacting to: Kids using the word ‘like’ to punctuate every sentence. “So I was like standing there and he like told me like he was like totally going to like dump me, right. And I was like totally like shocked yeh, and I said like….” With this one, I used to tell the kids to think the word ‘poo’ whenever they said the work like. It soon cured them.
But one of my favourite rants was about the kids’ use of make-up. In retrospect, I should probably have been fired from the teaching profession for crushing the psyche of generations of young girls as they started to experiment with applying ‘products’ to their young faces.
With great relish, I would tell them the words of the CEO of Revlon, one of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies, who once said “In our factories we manufacture cosmetics, but in our shops we sell hope!” I would ask why they thought that plastering themselves with paint and powder would make them more beautiful than they were in their natural state. Why did they feel the need of a mask to hide behind? And what happened when the person they were trying to impress saw them without the mask? Who were they then?
Being a language teacher, I couldn’t help making the semantic point that in English, the verb ‘to make up’ is used to describe the action you take to address a deficiency. You ‘make up’ for lost time. You ‘make up’ with someone if you feel you have wronged them in some way.
So what deficiency were these girls assuming they suffered from when they painted their faces? Why had they swallowed the cosmetic industry’s lavish advertising that was all geared to convincing them that they were not good enough, with their natural good looks; that the world would judge them if they dared to venture outside un-adorned and didn’t spend their money on the endless arrays of over-packaged gloop and gunk and potions and lotions that the glittering shop counters and baby-doll shop assistants were constantly pressing on them.
My students used to have great fun locking horns with me over my rants and telling me all the reasons why I was an out-of-touch, old fuddy-duddy, who didn’t understand anything about the modern world. They were always very happy to put their pens down and hope that the rant would last until the end of the lesson – which it often did. Great fun and a welcome break from German grammar!
But perhaps I should have kept to my lesson plans and not burdened my young charges with such off-the-wall observations. Perhaps they were right that I was just too out of touch with the world of today to make any meaningful contribution to the debate.
That was certainly what went through my mind when I saw the latest cosmetics industry advertising campaign plastered on 6-foot high posters on the sides of all of the bus stops in Brighton.
Is it just me, or has the whole world gone mad?