"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12
Saturday, January 28, 2012
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
This is a difficult passage: what am I to make of this? Demon possession? Really?
As a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I stood here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? What if I didn’t actually trust this man Jesus? What if I was a Pharisee? What if I was a woman?
I have to do this because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel stories and their lack of background detail: they seem so clinical and succinct. I want to know that there was someone there who kept coughing at inopportune moments, or that there were children playing nearby, or that there were cooking smells or that it had just rained or that there was a runaway donkey! (Oh how I love that runaway donkey!)
Of course, to what extent can someone like me, a product of my own times truly enter into the experience, the sights, the sounds, the smells and, most importantly, the theological and social conventions of the first century? I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and sometimes I am surprised by the insights I get.
So I am standing in this crowded room surrounded by men – it was a first century synagogue after all – and, pleasant surprise, we have a guest preacher. It’s hot, I’m hungry and I tend to have a limited concentration span: my mind wanders if I’m not gripped early on and I end up following the patterns of the cracks in the plaster or watching a beetle work its way across the floor.
But this man does grip. Oh yes, he’s good. He’s very good and he’s not just hooked me in: as I look around the room its clear that he’s holding every other man there in rapt attention, hanging on his every word. Oh yes, he’s very good. I would go as far as to say that I’m stunned – we’re all stunned, in fact – by what we’re hearing and seeing. Who is he again? Some carpenter from Nazareth apparently. Really? Such charisma. Such calm authority. What a wordsmith. It’s quite astonishing; I’ve never heard a sermon like it before. I truly feel as if the word of God is being explained to me in a way that I could never have imagined before. That’s not to say that the usual teachers are bad as such (although now that I come to think of it some of them are – and some of them can be a bit full of themselves) but they don’t speak to my heart like this man.
You could hear a pin drop.
And then it’s all spoilt: in comes some nutter shouting the odds and waving his arms about. How did he get past the ushers? (Apparently, he’d just let someone’s donkey off the leash outside.)
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.
These people are a pain. How dare they come in here making a nuisance of themselves? Someone should really do something about it: it’s not on. What a debacle. Is nothing sacred?
Nevertheless the reaction of the new man is quite interesting: there’s chaos and consternation all around but he seems pretty unfazed by it all. I can’t be doing with these people, they make me feel uncomfortable and I don’t know how to deal with them but this man Jesus points to him and says – but not to him as such – “Come out.” Just like that. Not “Get out” as in “Get out you nuisance. Push off you’ve spoilt my sermon.” But “Come out”, something quite different. Actually, now that I think about it, it was “Be silent and come out.”
Now, of course everyone’s watching to see how this is going to be resolved. I can see the elders gathering together, presumably trying to come up with some abject apology. “I’m terribly sorry that this should’ve happened in our synagogue. I can’t think how it happened. We normally have a very strict policy about keeping drunks and crazies out.” That sort of thing.
And then the man stops his ranting and raving and has a sort of convulsion thing which is really quite unpleasant and disturbing. And then he stands up – perfectly calm and returned to his senses.
I think I may have just watched something very profound – although I’m not entirely clear what happened, and, again as I look around the room it’s clear that everyone else is pretty gobsmacked too.
It’s a real turn up for the books this, because he was pretty impressive before, but now – it’s this authority thing again – that he could turn around a situation like that, without getting all heavy about it, or all hurt pride or whatever and maintain that persona. So impressive. That’s …. that’s a different sort of authority, and what’s absolutely certain is that the man is profoundly changed.
Everyone else is crowding around Jesus and I wanted to press the flesh too but then that bloody donkey came stampeding through …….
Demon possession. I don’t know about you but the rational me struggles with the idea. I remember hearing a sermon on “Powers and Principalities” from Ephesians and the preacher spoke with a real conviction of the realities of spiritual warfare. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
I don’t often think about spiritual forces of evil. Evil, yes, absolutely but I don’t tend to tie that in with a concept of spiritual warfare. My understanding of evil sits fairly and squarely within the doctrine of free will. Evil is what we do to each other and we don’t need any help with that from outside forces. Demons? It’s the stuff of Hammer Horror and I’m sorry, I’m going to have to defer. I’m not prepared to dismiss it out of hand but it’s outside my experience and I need to look into it more but the Jews of that day believed, without reservation, that human beings could be possessed by demons.
There is, of course, a body of thought which argues that there was no medical understanding of mental illness in the first century: no understanding of epilepsy, autism or a range of psychological disorders and I find that a very compelling argument. What modern medicine diagnoses fairly easily, the first century could only account for as demon possession. I don’t doubt that that’s true to a greater extent but it still seems too easy an explanation. But the point is: healing is healing. The man was healed. Does it really matter what his condition was? We know that it was acute and we know that Jesus healed him and maybe that’s the key element of this incident in the life of Jesus. However we understand exorcisms, those reported from the ancient world or from present day cultures unlike our own, something real is happening. People are being set free. Physical contortions and hugely dramatic moments will occur in many different therapies, whether the frame of thought is demonology or psychotherapy.
Notice that the unclean spirit begins by using public information to identify that it knows who Jesus is – knows Jesus’ origins: “I know who you are (socially)” – Jesus of Nazareth. But then it goes on to reveal hidden information, “I know who you are (spiritually)” – the Holy One of God. It’s this spiritual status that is the source of Jesus' authority.
The actions of the unclean spirit are actually provoked by the teaching of Jesus - they are an immediate response to his teaching with authority. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often but most of us have been in situations where the demonic in its broadest sense has manifested itself in some outburst or disagreement within the church family and that can be very disturbing and distressing as people we have known and loved seem to act suddenly completely out of character - to say nothing of the stranger who may invade our space and cause mayhem because of their personal demons: we may not count alcoholism, for instance, as demon possession in the first century sense but such people are just as surely bound by their addictions – as is Mick, the crack addict in “Rev”. I’ve thought a lot about him this week and the poignant episode where Adam - and a rather more reluctant Alex, almost succeed in getting him clean before he is overwhelmed again. Once again Adam, against all the advice of others tries to do the “right” thing by Mick and offer that unconditional love and support that might eventually lead Mick to healing, and those of us watching are rooting for Adam while probably secretly agreeing with the Archdeacon that his actions are probably not that wise. We want Adam to succeed because Adam is our Jesus in that situation dealing with his own domestic demoniac.
Is that the lesson for us today from this story? It might be for some of us but who wants to get involved with drunks and druggies? What was it that Augustine said? “Make me holy Lord, but not yet!” This Gospel story is inspiring: but the modern application, which we should be looking for, is very challenging.
I once found myself being interviewed by a man who insisted on using my name … no, overusing my name. It was very clever and very subtle and, actually, it had quite the opposite effect to the one he wanted. Rather than winning me over (to what I wondered afterwards) he made me feel uncomfortable and irritated by his overfamiliarity. It was a power play. Claiming knowledge seems to have been a power game then among demons – as it is now! Naming is supposed to allow one to control what or who is named. This demon got his Christology right but as I think most of have discovered he wouldn’t by any means be the last to think that getting the theology right is a fine way to silence Jesus – or in our terms, perhaps, authentic religion or theological discussion.
Is that our lesson from today’s reading? Are we to be on our guard for those who misuse scripture or twist Christian teaching for their own agendas? Perhaps so, for some of us. After all aren’t there plenty of people out there who preach a gospel we don’t recognise? And shouldn’t they be challenged? Have you listened to some of the street preachers, perhaps the ones outside Debenham’s on a Saturday, with their Old Testament Gospel of wrath and judgement which says nothing of the love of God? Inauthentic religion.
Or is today’s lesson for us related to the authority with which Jesus speaks? It’s much remarked on in the passage. This is the first episode in Jesus’ ministry following the call of the disciples. Following the conventions of such ancient ways of writing we would expect the passage to hold important clues about what is to come. Authority is also the first main theme in the collection of controversy stories that follow over the next couple of chapters of Mark.
It certainly looks as if the people’s amazement wasn’t so much in relation to the content of Jesus’ teaching as it was in relation to the authority with which he taught. (I missed that the first time round.) And it’s really frustrating that Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was teaching, preferring to tell us more about the effects of his teaching. Come on Mark. Get a grip!
However, we do know that Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom. We can only speculate about what Jesus taught on this occasion but maybe it’s not too fanciful to imagine he continued with the theme of the Kingdom with its emphasis on liberation and the disempowering of oppression. ‘And not as the scribes’ in v22 is an important clue. How did they teach? From Mark’s gospel we would have to conclude that much of their teaching was concerned with the finer points of religious Law. Could there be a connection between his teaching being "new" and its "authority"? The scribes taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means and his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scriptures or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes. The important thing is liberation, setting people free.
Am I speaking with that authority when I speak to others of Jesus? In the context of this passage my own attempts at witness sound pathetically apologetic. Am I offering something new when I speak of Jesus? There’s a big part of me which thinks, as I consider this passage, that Jesus’ teaching was prophetic in contrast with what must have seemed stale and formulaic. To speak with authority today shouldn’t we be moving away from the tried and tested and not be apologetic to speak to the people of our own generation about liberation from the structures of oppression? I just wonder how many of you, when you heard the news that the Archbishop of York spoke out against the legislation to pave the way for marriage equality, felt that he had spoken in the old legalistic way of the scribes, whereas our own Bishop has spoken in favour of disempowering oppression when he challenged the government over child benefit.
In terms of liberating the soul of the church, then: Archbishop Tutu or Archbishop Carey? Which is the voice of the old way and which the voice of the new? The Anglican Covenant: the legalism of the old way or the prophetic way of the new?
So, three ideas which struck me from today’s gospel:
• Is the challenge to meet and work with the demoniacs?
• Is the challenge to confront inauthentic religion wherever we find it?
• Is the challenge to be less apologetic and to speak with prophetic authority?
There may be others but three’s enough to be occupying our thoughts.
Oh ... and watch out for the donkey.
Friday, January 20, 2012
I picked up a small badge on the corridor the other day which proclaims "Gifted and Talented". I've seen a number of such badges and they usually say "House Captain", "Library assistant" or somesuch, but "Gifted and Talented"? We might just as well give the kids a badge that says "Punch Me!"
I was wearing the badge on my waistcoat when one of my Yr 7s, a little cruelly I felt, said, "I've been reading your badge and I don't believe it." Now I am very fond of Yr 7 and, unaccountably they love me. It is incredibly affirming to be greeted - nay, mobbed - by the little darlings on the corridor: they always smile and say nice things - so unlike the other year groups who rarely tend to acknowledge one's presence. There are half a dozen or so kids from other year groups who stop for a chat and a banter after lessons but most seem very keen to put as much clear blue water between themselves and me the moment the bell goes, so finding myself universally popular with a whole class is something of a new experience. However, they are Yr 7 and so I am not trying to get them to pass an exam, which may account for it.
My line manager, who does the whole pastoral thing in school, asked for staff to express a preference for form tutoring next year. I do not have a regular form. I tend to do long term absence cover in that respect but I suspect the writing is on the wall and so I volunteered to take a Yr 7 class next year.
I am not to have a Yr 7 class. There was much talk about how long I would be continuing in the job and concern was expressed that I might not stay to see them through their five years of High Schooling, (too right!) but the inescapable but unspoken conclusion is that I am judged to be too old.
I'm sure there's a law against that sort of thing.
We had a parents' Evening this week for Yr 10.
"My mum doesn't want to see you."
Maybe not, but I'd like to see her.
"She says she doesn't like you. You taught her and she doesn't like you."
But I don't want to discuss her behaviour I want to discuss yours. This isn't about your mum, its about you.
"She won't come. she doesn't like you."
Some of them never grow up.
Today Georgie said to me, "My Dad really liked ........"
I smile in anticipation.
"......your waistcoat and tie."
Saturday, January 14, 2012
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathaniel asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathaniel replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
As you know we’re in the season of the church year called Epiphany. This is the season when the spotlight is on Jesus, to show him more fully: to reveal, perhaps, aspects of who he is which we have not seen before, or which perhaps we have forgotten or not given due consideration.
In today’s Gospel this incident in the life of Jesus reveals one man's spiritual journey – Nathaniel’s: a man who went from a throw-away comment about Jesus being a nobody from nowhere to an encounter with that same Jesus that changed his life. The name Nathaniel, incidentally, means "given of God," yet Nathaniel didn't fully understand the implications of his name. His life had of course been "given of God," but he had no idea how true that was until he met Jesus. And when he did meet Jesus, he also met the Nathaniel he could be. It is as though Nathaniel never saw himself and his potential to be a different person until he confronted Jesus and I’ve heard other people say similar things about how they have become truly themselves since their own meeting with Jesus.
There are people we know who somehow draw out the best in us. Just being present with them creates a desire within us to be the best we can be. Most of us can remember a teacher who inspired us. We would give our best because this teacher was someone we wanted to do our best for. I remember such teachers in my own youth and I hope that in years to come some of today’s young people will remember me in that same way.
As we take a walk through this story of Nathaniel's call we learn more about what being a disciple is all about.
On the surface, it would seem as though the life journey of a Jewish man who lived 2000 or so years ago in a world radically different from our own, would have very little relevance for our lives today. We are from different times, a different culture, different lifestyles, different problems and different ideas about religion, life and living.
Yet, the story of Nathaniel contains some powerful spiritual concepts that can bring new meaning and renewal to our own spiritual lives but we have to make that practical application or the story remains just that, a story. It must have the power to touch us and to inspire the desire to change within us – a change that the Holy Spirit accomplishes.
We live in a world that has little time for religion. That’s not to say that people aren’t religious but modern expressions of spirituality no longer encompass what many of us would recognise as a Christian faith. My pupils are terribly cynical about religion. They argue that it’s not rational, that it can’t be proved; they dismiss what is certain, for instance the historicity of Jesus, as some age-old conspiracy. “They could have made it up.” they assert although they are less sure who “they” are or why “they” would have done that. Science and technology, they tell me, have all the answers. And yet some have a vibrant faith - of sorts, but it’s very much a-la-carte. “Yes I quite like Jesus but I also believe in reincarnation and karma.”
They don’t really work together. I tell them.
“I don’t care. It’s what I believe and I find crystals very helpful too. They channel my life-force.”
Good luck with all that then.
Life today is very individualistic and that’s true of religion too. I can reject it completely – usually, I have to say without really understanding or having got completely the wrong end of the stick. Alternatively, if I don’t like any bits of Christianity – judgement, for instance - I can edit them out and replace them with something more palatable. “We’re all entitled to our own opinion” my students tell me repeatedly.
No doubt you’ll have heard of the movement to have Jedi recognised as a religion. If enough people write Jedi on the census then the government will have to recognise it, so the received wisdom goes and so, every ten years thousands of otherwise sane citizens identify themselves as Jedi on an official form. The fact that there is no recognisable theology, liturgy, leadership or structure doesn’t matter in the slightest. I can be whatever I want.
And I’m not answerable to anyone.
“I’m a Jedi you know.”
Really? How interesting. What does that mean?
“It’s my religion.”
Yes but what does it mean? What’s it all about?
But I digress: there are three dimensions in the Nathaniel story that reach across the centuries and speak to us today of the true nature of discipleship rather than the mishmash of ideas that is so common today:
• We are Invited
• We are Known
• We are Promised.
We are Invited
Nathaniel wonders if any good can come from Nazareth because it is a place of no importance, perhaps a little like the portrayal of Bradford as a city that exists purely to make other cities feel good about themselves according to the American writer Bill Bryson in his book "Notes from a Small Island". In fact, historians tell us that the place is never ever mentioned outside of the New Testament until the third century. It was clearly a place of absolute obscurity. If Jesus was supposed to be the promised one, the one foretold in Scripture, it seemed to Nathaniel that the place of origin of the Messiah would be a more significant town, with more to commend itself, than a place like Nazareth.
But Philip didn't defend Jesus or his claims; he didn't throw up a lot of arguments. He didn't try to argue Nathaniel into his own confession that the Coming One had finally appeared and was walking among them. He simply said, "Come and see." He disarmed Nathaniel's defences and got his attention and Nathaniel's curiosity got the better of him and he let Philip lead him to this Jesus.
There is some wisdom here for our own attempts to bring people into the circle of Christian fellowship or to a faith in Jesus. We can’t compel, argue or shame people into a Christian faith. Remember these compelling words of Christ? "Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)
In Jesus the entire world is invited to share in the fatherhood of the God of Israel. Thus he says to Philip at the last supper, "He who has seen me has seen the Father." This is what Jesus means when he refers to himself as the "Son of Man." Jesus identifies himself with all of mankind and those whom the Spirit leads to faith he unites to God. So Jesus says, "Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." (11:26)
In other words, we are all invited.
We are Known
At Nathaniel’s first meeting with Jesus he discovered that Jesus already knew him. "Where did you get to know me?" Nathaniel asked.
I’m quite bad at names. I always remember faces but names are more of a problem. When I was at theological college my particular friend Richard was from Sheffield Diocese and at some function or other I was introduced to the then Bishop of Doncaster, Bishop Cyril. Months later, at Richard’s ordination, in a crowded cathedral, Bishop Cyril tracked my wife and I down and greeted us both warmly by name. I felt really special and my wife was charmed. Somehow it is always more impressive when some well known person remembers your name.
As soon as they found Jesus, Jesus exclaimed, "Look, an Israelite without guile!" Here is a man who is without deceit, one who is straight forward, honest and sincere. Jesus saw him and looked directly at the core of his character. Jesus knew him before meeting him; he saw through him, if you like. And how did Jesus know him? He had already seen him "under the fig tree." It seems such a throw-away detail but it is really significant because under the trees was where great teachers in Israel gathered students to study scripture and the law to grow wise in the way of God and to learn how to walk in his ways. Such a man knew the scripture, knew the way of the Lord, sought diligently to be his man and to be bound by his word. Indeed some have argued that Nathaniel had been a follower of John the Baptist. Nathaniel was without guile because he had come to Jesus. Jesus also called him an "Israelite." That is the name of the people of the covenant, those who sought to be God's faithful people. Nathaniel was without guile because he had left off the study of the Scriptures to come and see if their fulfilment had actually arrived.
Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit had led Nathaniel to come to him and that he would now recognize Jesus for whom he really is - is, not was - and make a bold confession of his faith. When Jesus explained that he knew Nathaniel from afar, Nathaniel was so amazed, he had an instant revelation. "You are the Son of God!" Nathaniel was overwhelmed by the power of Jesus' knowledge about him. He confessed that Jesus is – is, not was - the unique teacher of Israel the "Rabbi," that he is – is, not was - God's own Son, and Israel's promised king.
What a marvellous thing that we should be known by God! The Psalmist expressed it this way in Psalm 139 "…it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
This is the deeper meaning to Jesus' knowledge of Nathaniel and that Nathaniel now grasped: Jesus knows his own and those who will hear him, trust him and confess him. Jesus says later on in the Gospel,
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
Suddenly Nathaniel, sees the whole world, his life, his own self and all of the scripture he had studied so diligently in a new and different light. Suddenly he perceived that his life, his present and future, were bound up together in the life of Jesus - as are ours.
We are Promised
When Nathaniel expressed his amazement at Jesus’ knowledge of him, Jesus said in effect, "Nathaniel… you’ve seen nothing yet!" He would see much more as he joined the band of disciples who would follow Jesus for the next few years: Jesus turning water into wine (2:1-11), healing a man from afar (4:46-54), healing a lame man, (5:2-9) feeding five thousand people in the wilderness (6:1-14), walking on the stormy sea (6:16-21), healing a blind man (9:1-7), and raising Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44). There is an interesting word picture in Jesus' words to Nathaniel. "...you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
This picture would be absolutely clear to a Jew like Nathaniel who knew the ancient story of Jacob and how he had a dream one night. Genesis 28:12 describes the dream this way, "And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." The ladder in the Old Testament is the symbol of the means by which heaven is reached and the angels are the welcoming, celebrating company of God.
Now Jesus reveals to Nathaniel that he, Jesus, is the way by which heaven is reached. The welcoming, celebrating angelic band now welcomes the one who responds to Christ in faith. Nathaniel will experience more in his life as a follower of Jesus Christ than he would ever have dared to imagine.
The next time we hear of Nathaniel, he is with a few other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee once again. He is a party to the most incredible experience any human being had ever experienced. It is the Easter breakfast encounter with the Christ who had been crucified, but now appeared once again to his followers.
Like Nathaniel, you and I are invited to be a part of the company that follows Christ. We are known by the Lord more fully than we even know ourselves. And the greatest joy of all is that we are promised the eternal presence of God.
Let’s be like Philip and share it with those we know and love and let’s be like Nathaniel in the way we recognise and respond to Jesus ourselves.
Friday, January 6, 2012
Today is the feast of the Epiphany. With a sense of foreboding I looked at my timetable for today. Yup, I have "that lot".
"That lot" are a group inherited from a dear colleague who retired last year. She must have had the patience of a saint to have kept her hands off them because whenever I think of them I have murderous thoughts, but more of them anon.
Since we returned to the Knowledge College after the Christmas festivities I have been trying to inculcate some sense of personal responsibility in my various Yr 11 classes (16yr olds) following their recent mock exam for R.S. This has been something of a lost cause for a number of reasons.
* The kids who care work hard, do well and take advice.
* They are the minority.
* Revision is a chore. Why would you do it?
* "It's only R.S. Chill Sir, it doesn't matter."
* There seems to be a belief that R.S. will attract Divine intervention which obviates the need for doing any work.
* "I thought I'd just turn up and see how it went." is a common maxim.
Well I've marked the bloody things and I know how it went.
As it would if you didn't bother to do any preparation.
Of course I should know better because this is an annual trauma.
"But Sir, mocks don't count. No one revises for mocks. As if!"
I try with exaggerated calmness and patience to explain what mock exams are for. They are a diagnostic tool to enable teachers to see where the weak points are so that we can take some remedial action in time for the real exams. That only works if you do your bit and do your best.
They remain unmoved. Bryony is so concerned at her poor showing and its implications that she is showing her new black nail varnish to Aimee.
All week with my various classes I have been looking at the exam paper and the mark scheme provided by the Exam Board in an attempt to analyse where things went wrong (apart from a singular lack of effort) and how answers could be improved.
They sigh a lot.
How many of you went on to the virtual learning environment to look at past exam papers? This is very disingenuous of me. Many hand go up as they perjure themselves.
It's odd then that since the exam no one has been up to me to say, "Hey Sir, I recognised the paper immediately I looked at it what with it being on the VLE together with the mark scheme." Funny that. I thought at least one of you might have noticed.
Their defences begin to crumble and they start to look shifty. By the end of each lesson the vast majority have admitted to doing no revision. I ponder the reprographic costs, both financial and environmental, of the six page revision booklets I had printed for over 300 students.
I also ponder the consequences when my Senior Line Manager asks how I can account for so many students who have high target grades bombing in the exam. (The response about leading a horse to water and so forth cuts no ice.) Another senior colleague has informed us that we are "responsible for them getting their grades."
Which student shall I go home with tonight to ensure they sit over their computers working hard I wonder?
(There's a battle still to be had there and, believe me, I'm just in the mood to lead the charge.)
Yesterday there was a minor revolt in one class.
"If we all did so badly, it must be your fault." I'm told.
Charlotte looks distainful. "I didn't do badly. In fact I met my target grade. But then I worked hard."
Unbowed they persevere. "I was in Mrs. Singh's group last year and it was better."
Ah that'll be why you got exactly the same (bad) grade with her then.
"Yes, but if it's everyone it must be your fault." (I'm beginning to dislike Dan.)
"It isn't everyone." Charlotte intercedes mildly. (I knew I liked that girl.!)
So you don't make the link between a bad grade and not revising?
"No, but, right: we do too much writing." There is general assent.
Writing is one of the things we do in school. It's known as an educational tool for communicating thoughts and ideas and for recording information.
"But we do too much of it."
Dan, I'd have thought writing would have been right up your street what with it being a kinaesthetic activity and you being a rugby player. So you're telling me that you don't learn visually or kinaesthetically. You must be an auditory learner then. IT'S A SHAME YOU TALK ALL THE TIME IN CLASS THEN ISN'T IT?
Charlotte puts down her pen with exaggerated precision. "The problem with you Dan is that talk shit but you don't give a shit." Dan is stunned. Mere women don't talk to Dan like that, but then Charlotte isn't a mere woman: she's a future Prime Minister.
I look at Dan and point at Charlotte. What she said.
So, back to the group I inherited from Miss. They are a funny lot and they don't gell at all. In fact most of them seem to hate most of the rest of them and its hard keeping a grasp on the mercurial nature of the allegiences.
I start my speil on the imprtance of study and revision.
"Like I want to work in a church" Sometimes the stupidity burns. Josh sits there all butch and hormonal, full of bravdo and acne with one of those supercilious grins, rocking on the back two legs of his chair in expectation that his admirers might appreciate his wisdom.
Dear God, if you exist make him fall over backwards and bang some sense into his head. (For a moment I feel like Adam Smallbone from "Rev." during one of his melt downs.)
I say something arresting and confronting about the nature of stupidity. Josh is deeply affronted.
"It's not going to get me a job" offers George. I'm not sure I recognise George from the front. Most of the time all I see is the back of his head as he talks to the boys behind.
So which subject on its own will get you a job? I ask, all innocence.
"Well, maths and English."
That's two subjects.
"But you need them to get a job."
I didn't say otherwise. I asked which subject on its own would get you a job.
"But those are important. You need them."
Again, not disagreeing. Let's start again. You said R.S. wouldn't get you a job. That's true. But its true of ALL subjects in isolation. No subject will get you a job on its own.
The boys see where I am going but won't be seen to understand the point.
"But you need Maths, right?"
Yes, and if you go to a job interview with just GCSE Maths you won't get the job. The employer looks at the whole C.V. and its full range of subjects.
"Yes but R.S. won't get you a job." (I'm not sure why the film Groundhog Day flashes through my mind at this point.)
"Anyway, it can't be that important when its only one lesson a week. You get three lessons a week for History and hundreds for Maths." There is general assent. "Yeah, the school don't think its important." Out of the mouths of babies: I couldn't have put it better myself - and believe me I've tried. I don't think I will ever rise above the invidious and institutional inequality of time allocation for different subjects on the curriculum. When History, Geography and R.S. have the same recommended minimum time allocation as set out by the exam boards and History and Geography get more while fewer students take them to exam level, and R.S. gets less when all students take it, there is something deeply unjust and seriously wrong. I am told that there will be no more time allocation for R.S. but I must still achieve to the highest standards.
"But I did well in all my other subjects." This may be the first time I have ever heard Hayley speak. She prefers to spend the lessons stroking Adam's hand.
And did you revise for those other exams?
But not for this one?
There you go then.
Hayley looks perplexed as if she is struggling with one of the great existential questions of life. Then the eureka moment passes as something shiny grabs her attention.
"Anyway, my Dad left school at 15 with no qualification after spending all his time messing about."
Ah, its hereditary then Adam? Sarah smiles. It goes right over Adam's head. We spend a pointless few minutes discussing the legions of wasters who left school with nothing and rose to run multinational corporations. Does it not occur to you that for every one of those people there are thousands who don't make it and spend a life in relative poverty in a series of low-paid, low-status jobs or unemployed and you are in danger of joining them? I go to the board where I have have some statistics about unemployment amongst 16-25 yr olds displayed. One in five is out of work. Every school leaver is competing with school leavers from all over the place for a limited number of jobs. Who get's the job? If two candidates are equal in every other respect it will go to the one with the better qualifications. That's why ALL your GCSE subjects count and why you need to make the effort with all of them. You're just complacent if you think otherwise.
"Yes but R.S. won't get you a job."
Today is the day the three wise men appeared. What do I get? Josh, George, Bill and Adam, four boorish, brainless dolts.
There is a shout. Angeline has had enough. She is very red in the face and her voice is trembling. "Why can't you just admit that you're wrong? Why is it so hard to understand that in order to do well in life you need to make the most of school?"
"Who asked you? You can shut up!" Ah the voice of someone confident in his argument.
"Anyway, I've got a job."
Really Bill? Tell me.
"I'm going to be a waiter. I'll be getting £6.80 an hour at 16 and I don't need R.S."
Suddenly I feel very sad. And how much will you be earning at 26? 36? 46?