Last night my wife and I went to the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta to watch Waiting For Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett. Before hand we waited for the play at a Thai restaurant with glorious food and better conversation. We talked about what the play might be like, predicting various parts and sharing snippets of reviews we had read. An image was already forming in my mind. Despite one of the two lead actors being my father-in-law and the director being a new teacher friend who I’ve known since last year, I’d never made the connection. It was only about a week and a half ago that I saw a specific FaceBook post by Cameron Malcher – of TER Podcast fame – which outed him as the director to me. Small world.
The premise of Waiting For Godot is that two men are, funnily enough, waiting for a man called Godot. At least that’s what they think. There is confusion, misinterpretation, misunderstanding and circular arguments about everything from the nature of existence to the origin of some old boots. Song lyrics are sung but cut short by dodgy memories, the retelling of yesterday’s events is fuzzy and fleeting. Godot, as you can imagine from the title, takes a long time to arrive and even when he does, it’s not him.
It’s a difficult play to watch in some ways (and I can’t imagine what it’s like to remember all that stumbling, bumbling and yet sometimes inspiringly eloquent and complex dialogue). When it comes down to it, not much happens. It’s like a busy restaurant filled briefly with a crowd of strangers. Sure there might be some great conversations but, in the end, everyone leaves and the experience has been somewhat alien. Luckily Cameron is an extremely able director and made it so enjoyable that I actually think I liked this one more than the Sydney Theatre Company’s version. Controversial, I know.
So that experience of existential madness was in stark contrast to the lesson I had with my Year 9 History class earlier in the day. The new NSW syllabus (don’t you dare call it the Australian Curriculum in my state) states that students are to learn about the big ideas of the Modern World – or the “isms” as I call them – such as capitalism and socialism. In an hour-and-a-half double lesson? No worries.
I was all ready to go with diagrams of supply and demand, how companies work, examples of farmers under both systems, images and things. This wasn’t just going to be a textbook lesson (though I have to admit, an easy, compartmental double-page spread on capitalism was oh-so-tempting to give out) as I wanted the kids to think and discuss as well as read and use ink.
So the first question of three posed on the first slide was:
Do we need governments and laws? Explain your answer.
What ensued was one of the greatest discussions of individual rights and responsibilities, government control and censorship, societal fragility and fear as well as the true nature of man, that I have ever had. 28 14-15 year old girls decided to floor me with their pinpoint insights into the problems and issues with a purely capitalist model of society, with a purely socialist form and with everything in between.
We spoke about how people have a responsibility to behave and not hurt other people: “You shouldn’t just be able to walk down the road and bury an axe in someone’s head!”
We spoke about government services and what they should provide: “But water, like, from the tap, isn’t really free is it?”
We spoke about the difference between premeditated actions and reactionary self-defence: “So, if someone took a knife in their bag because they were afraid of someone, is that OK?” (They were appalled at some of the stories I told them about Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and other stories).
We spoke about economics: “So is it really fair that ALDI can import whatever they want and not make us buy Australian” (S1) – “Yeah but as if anyone should be FORCED to buy Australian!” (S2)
The point of all this being that whilst the conversation ebbed and flowed and moved from topic to topic (and, of course, not all the girls got to have their say despite encouragement) the girls were forming and shattering and reforming their ideas about society and how it should function. They’re adopting new language and ideas at an incredible rate and I’m sure a lot of it washed over them, never to resurface. Despite planning a fairly solid lesson looking at both capitalism and socialism in specific ways with great examples and a solid outcome, this kind of messy learning actually made a bit of sense to me.
Regardless of how clinical and ordered our curriculum documents seem (or have to be for the sake of school inspections and other reasons) I hope I can make more time for this kind of Godot-esque learning, where we’re throwing ideas around at each other and seeing what sticks and what – like Estragon’s boots – finally come off and remain dormant on the stage once the lights go out.
Apologies go out to anyone with a different interpretation of Godot, to Samuel Beckett and to educators who love following curriculum documents to the letter.