How literature taught me about life

While I was glancing at this newspaper's book review pages in December, my gaze snagged on a familiar name just as I was about to turn the page. I gasped. Could it be?

There, in bold print, was the name of my secondary school literature teacher. Ms R, the woman who introduced a class of squirmy, hormonal 15-year-old girls to Shakespeare and the dog-eat-dog world of Julius Caesar. I had been trying to look her up on Facebook, but because I didn't know her full name, I kept drawing a blank. But here she was, with a brand new book to boot.

After a bit of digging, I found her - now married and with a different last name - and sent her a hopeful, tentative message, one sent 14 years late, full of "I hope you remember me" and "thank you so much". Before Phyllida Lloyd directed her all-female, grim and gutsy Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2012, we had been doing the same in our spartan classroom, girls standing on desks yelling, "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!"

This story has a happily ever after, however. I met her for a four-hour coffee earlier this year, where we caught up on everything that has happened in the last 14 years, now as peers.

I have an enormous, ever-expanding space in my heart for all my literature and theatre teachers, the men and women who set me on the path of becoming a theatre writer. They were all intensely passionate, consummately dedicated to their students, more than just a little anti-establishment in the vein of the art they were teaching us - and had formidable memories.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Last Thursday, my junior college classmates and I - most of whom have remained in touch over the years - organised a get-together at a friend's house for a beloved literature teacher who had returned to his native United Kingdom six years ago, but was back for a brief visit. I had not seen him in 10 years.

The moment I stepped into the living room, Mr H said: "That's Corrie, isn't it?" I flushed, delighted.

We spoke in hushed voices, trying to keep the volume down for my classmate's one-year-old son sleeping in the next room, each of us taking turns to sit on the couch with Mr H, like an extended speed dating (or perhaps therapy) session, exchanging stories about our lives.

"I still remember you telling us about black bedsheets in Decline And Fall," I said, recalling Evelyn Waugh's darkly comic social satire about British society that Mr H had dissected with us in class. "I don't even know why I remember that specific metaphor."

I found myself quoting Julius Caesar back to Ms R as well. "Men at some time are masters of their fates", the sentences rolled off my tongue. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."

I savoured the words in my mouth, the shapes of the vowels and consonants, the way they had been taught to me - beauty and brutality strung together on a page.

Literature hadn't always come easily to me. I had always enjoyed writing, but perception, insight and analysis took time to develop. My essays came back from Mr H crumpled and stained with coffee rings, his spidery handwriting in the margins: "You've got a good point, but you need to go deeper."

I found a thick stack of my literature essays when my parents moved out of their long-time home last year and discovered that I had been a solid B student for most of my time in junior college, completely average. In secondary school, I had opted to take English literature at O level, much to the concern of the staff who felt my good grades were better suited to science subjects that were "easier to score in".

But I refused. Literature had offered me a taste of something beyond the rung-climbing of our education system. Through my teachers, I found whole, complex worlds that existed far beyond my own. As we examined how characters reacted to or against their circumstances, our teachers taught us empathy. They taught us how to be human. How to look at hidden - or buried - motivations. To question injustice. To question what we often took for granted.

We often dealt with difficult topics, everything from sex to suicide, but they were never too heavy to bear. In fact, I think they equipped us to handle the messiness of real-world living a little better.

My teachers encouraged us to read hungrily, beyond the curriculum, and we did. I read J.M. Coetzee and learnt about apartheid. I read Harold Pinter and learnt about despair. I read Kuo Pao Kun and learnt volumes about a country I assumed I'd known.

When I deal with difficult interviewees today, I often draw on the same observations taught to me by my literature teachers. How would a person respond in a set of given circumstances? What is it like to be in his or her shoes?

And when I revisit a text we studied in school, I hear my teachers' voices reading out familiar passages, an echo across time.

Late in the evening, as several of us were preparing to head home, a classmate asked Mr H if he would read us a passage from Decline And Fall, brandishing her well-thumbed book.

"What?!" he exclaimed. "Don't be ridiculous!"

But he was grinning from ear to ear.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'How literature taught me about life'. Print Edition | Subscribe