Unearthing the past: in search of stasis, simplicity and Mrs Simpson

This article was originally published in Cherwell on 13 January 2017.

Aside from my usual vac routine of PlayStation, reading any book other than my course texts, watching Peep Show, and procrastinating, I spent some of this vac sleuthing. Specifically, I have been searching for a teacher. My old school didn’t know where she went. Neither did the infinite wisdom of Google. And while I still believe that somewhere in the vastness of the internet some golden information as to her whereabouts exists, Mrs. Jo Simpson—my former English teacher—remains ever-elusive.

I sense your scepticism, of course. Over many years we meet numerous teachers, all of whom have a different impact on our life’s direction. I lack the delusions of grandeur to speak for every Oxford student, and I know that not everyone here has always had such a positive relationship with their chosen subject. But for me, choosing English (and French to study francophone literature) was never motivated by pragmatism, or by my realistically non-existent career prospects. Rather, it was motivated by a love of the subject, emboldened by an unsuspecting, yet truly skilled, teacher.

In listening to me ramble about how much I loved Of Mice and Men, lending me a variety of books to widen my literary horizons, or even just giving me more support than any student could expect during the stress of coursework and exams, she proved invaluable.

I would venture to say that this is not atypical. For everyone who loves their subject at university, and especially for those like me, for whom applying to Oxford was a bit of a leap into the dark, the latter years of school often have, as they did for me, a catalysing and formative impact. Our interests within our subjects are often shaped by our experiences at school, and I know of many people who struggled to adjust to the shift in pace from school to Oxford, overwhelming and bewildering as it often can be.

I would go as far to say that perhaps, for even those who detested school, as I did, its finer points are apparent when settled in a calmer, post-Prelims perspective. While I don’t miss it and I would never wish to go back, I do sometimes feel a pang for the feeling of a comforting stasis—that feeling of always knowing where you are and what you’re doing—and with those now all-too-rare high grades to match.

I feel that many of us fail to realise the impact of that stasis in school. Much is made of the disconcerting slide from being top of the class to having to battle with all-nighters to average a 60, but there’s something to be said about the finality of school. Approaching the end of seven years of dreary Catholic comprehensive education, I knew that my application to university, and to Oxford specifically, was an end goal. It was what all my years of secondary education had built towards, knowing that university was where I wanted to take my future.

After getting into Oxford, suddenly the path I had so clearly laid out for myself faded away and I was left directionless. I now attribute much of my questionable eff ort and variable attitude towards work in first year to that feeling of disorientation. In school, everything leads towards a certain point. At Oxford, certainly after the concrete goal of Prelims, direction becomes much more nebulous. Often, much more terrifyingly, it is oriented around the most elusive of Oxford concerns: the ‘real world’.

So I do wonder if there is more than just a desire to get back in touch with the finest teacher I’ve ever had. I wonder if, deep down, there is a yearning for a more innocent and insular time long-gone, where value is defined by effort stickers and where academic validation is far more prevalent.

Mrs. Simpson gave me the confidence to embrace my passion for literature and take it to the highest possible level by applying to Oxford. Where she has gone after her move away from my Chesterfield school to one in Nottingham, I may never find out.

I can only hope that somehow our paths will cross once more. Until then, I’ll keep reading literature, and my immeasurable gratitude towards Jo Simpson will go unvoiced, but held with a firm affection.

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