WHATEVER it takes for us to see, feel, hear, taste, smell, and above all, understand, it would be part of his class, not some go-look-it-up-yourself initiative dedicated for a later hour—at home, in the library, at MacDonald’s, or none of the above if you happened to be just plain lazy, like P. and K., the two students who gave us all the honor of learning the word “indisposed”—the word Mr. Dore would invariably utter when he looked up from his attendance register and not find their shadows. The Dore philosophy, then, was simply this: “Explain, explain, and leave nothing to chance.”
That’s why it pains me to see how students could study a poem in school, say Billy Collins’s On Turning Ten, for instance, and come away not knowing what mumps or measles or psyche means.
Hello, Sir! Hello-o-o-h, Ma’am!
The students need to know those three words in the first stanza. It’s Collins’s way of portraying turning ten, the big ten, as being akin to yet another breakout of one of those dreadful childhood maladies, except now it’s an assault on the psyche. It’s how the poem begins, it’s how the poem would develop—yes, and by develop, I mean those theme, tone, language matters, the very stuff you’re trying so hard to get the students to digest, students like J.J.
That’s why it’s heartbreaking to see her coming away from yet another poetry class, not having had words like “lithe” explained to her, or “lisp,” or the “salt coarse pointing of those boys” in Stephen Spender’s My Parents Kept Me From Children Who Were Rough.
OK, you would think she ought to know “lisp”—mumps and measles too—but she doesn’t. And if she doesn’t, surely there are others in class who don’t either. Now, what about “salt”—yes, we all know what “salt” is, but that’s where the beauty of language lies: the multiple meanings of words, the literal and the figurative. Alas, it is beauty for some, but nightmare for many, J.J. included. Which is why you can’t just let students flounder and figure things out on their own, let alone just toss them yet another assignment after having only skimmed through pointers that just about meet your KPIs, yes, those: Key Performance Indicators.
And KPIs shouldn’t just be about giving answers and answer keys to students after a test or an exam. For goodness sake, get them to read the poem—aloud. If not, at least, read it to them, for them. If the poet Angeline Yap has featured Bizet in her poem In Modern English (A Song of a Singaporean 1975), tell your young charges that’s the French opera composer, and by the way, it’s pronounced be-ZAY, not be-ZET. Please, tell ’em! And if anyone in class doesn’t get the phrase “spoken with uplift of nose or brows,” tell ’em that too! And why are they butchering Beethoven’s name? BAY-toh-ven, not BEE. Tell ’em, please, tell ’em! Because if you don’t, who would?
Call that spoon-feeding? I don’t think so. It’s getting to the bottom of understanding; it’s diving into its glorious depths; it’s honoring the one sole duty we, as teachers, have: to open closed minds, and to shake off the din and debris of mere do! do! do! What students at poetry classes need aren’t one more assignment, or one more “Go look it up on your own” directive, but a Dore-like handhold, his patience, his steady and unhurried pace, and yes, I’m going to use that overrated, overused word: passion.
In the hands of Mr. Dore, words tend to stick, concepts seem to gel, and images somehow come together. Even Time feels like your friend: it neither rushes you along nor trails sluggishly behind. In the hands of Mr. Dore, our Literature classes always feel like snug little spaces where time could be savored the way it should be savored: in its glorious present.
Imagine if we had merely received Owen’s bitter cud lesson from a dictionary without the benefit of Mr. Dore’s performance:
partly digested food returned from the first stomach of ruminants to the mouth for further chewing.
Yes, we get it, but Mr. Dore put a sound and taste around cud. More than anything else, he didn’t just double up as a cow, he made the war scene come alive for us. We could see the writhing of the soldier’s eyes; we could hear the gargling noises as he drowned in the frothy, foaming fluids from his very own lungs.
That’s why Mr. Dore was a star.
Written in September 2015, this five-part essay is a toast to Timothy Dore, the Literature teacher who taught Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and the million mysteries and joys of Literature to the class of 1986/87 in Raffles Junior College.