Beyond Great Expectations

On the way to Nepal this time, I watched movies since the flight was too bumpy to sleep. One of them was Great Expectations (Helena Bonham Carter is a fabulous Havisham, by the way). And watching it dredged up this memory.

We were about a third of the way through the laborious class reading of the longest novel I had ever read. Maybe a bit more than a third, but not yet half. Still, the class had become comfortable enough with our teacher, Mr Meacock, and several of the more sassy boys had taken to mimicking him as he cleared his throat, clasped his hands properly, faced the room and declared, “Roight, now!” In a very authoritarian tone and British accent.  It was our cue to quit jabbering and fidgeting and listen up. Instead, “Roight, now,” would echo back at him in insufferable exacerbated accents, and he tolerated it, but just barely some days. I was quiet. I was terrified of English.

Not a reader in my younger days, I had completed exactly two novels of my own accord before entering 7th grade that year. They were thrust upon me gingerly, in advance of my first year’s attendance of this new school. I’d moved from a small, family-like Montessori, my graduating 6th grade class of twelve students, to a prep academy with 100 in 7th grade. The contrast was stark, primarily in expectations for things like, well, reading. I was expected to struggle a bit, but homework took two to three hours every night, and that was after I got home from almost three hours of gymnastics practice.

Mom spent almost every night sitting up with me, reading through history and English in an attempt to keep me up to pace with the class. She’s always loved history, particularly the Civil War, since she was raised in border states, south of the line. After we struggled through Dickens’ required chapters of Great Expectations, she kept me awake and on target by reading my history text to me, remembering the names and dates herself and often interjecting her own stories.

Then one morning in English, we entered the room to find a Union Jack hung properly sideways across the blackboard in the center of the room. One of the boys tossed out a comment about this being America, and waving a dismissive hand toward the front of the room. Just then, a ruler hit an empty desk with a smack and everyone fell silent.

I’ll never forget the graceful explanation he gave to us that day. Pride oozed out of him as he explained very matter-of-factly that his heart was heavy because his country was about to go to war with Argentina over some islands off the coast of South America (the Faulklands). I think I almost cried then. I’d been reading about death and war in history for months. It made an impression, to say the least.

Mr Meacock didn’t have to clear his throat or say anything else before he started the lesson that day. I remember that he spent most of class explaining misreadings. Someone in an earlier class who read aloud had braided words from three different lines together, which not only hinted at a touch of dyslexia, but also completely changed the meaning of the sentence in question. I remember the huge relief it was to see those words circled out of order on the three lines on the board next to the Union Jack. I did that kind of thing all the time. I was so glad someone else did, too. And knowing that someone else was struggling through this God-forsaken story about a kid a hundred years ago who got rich somehow, that made it better.

I survived 7th grade English. I survived Great Expectations and passed most of the pop quizzes. I think I even got a B in the class. Until I saw the movie a few months ago, I had almost forgotten crux of the story completely. But that man who made me read Dickens at twelve years old… I’ll never forget him.