Andrea's dilemma: finding a voice
Andrea and I were both taking our first steps into the world of ELT, she as a nine-year old pupil and I as a teacher freshly out of what passes as ITE in Greece. I’d noticed her on occasion, waiting alone at the lobby, generally keeping to herself, sometimes reading a list of irregular verbs or, just as often, looking at her shoes and waiting for her teacher to call the class in. But I didn’t talk to her: I was a teacher, you see, and teachers don’t make friends with the students, because that would be the thin end of the wedge. Except, on that occasion, Andrea seemed to be quite distressed, and there was nobody around.
‘How’s everything?’ I asked as casually as I could. ‘I don’t want to do it!’ Andrea sobbed, ‘I don’t want to change!’ Apparently, her parents and teachers were telling her that she should be more sociable, try to make more friends, engage in the activities that other children found enjoyable and all that. But, as she argued in reasoned eloquence that amazed me given her age and emotional state, she didn’t like the other children, and while she wouldn’t mind being friends with them, she’d rather not do so if it meant becoming like them. She knew she was different; she liked being different; and she wanted to remain different. Back then, I didn’t quite frame it in these exact terms, but the fundamental dilemma set before me by this nine-year old was whether one should strive to retain one’s identity or conform to the expectations set by others. How do you manage this tension? Is it even possible to do both successfully? I never quite managed to answer that question, but it would come back again and again in the future.
Fast forward several years. I am getting feedback on a number of papers I have written over time. The context is quite amiable (coffee at Christies), and the person I am talking to is putting a lot of effort to phrase his points sensitively. ‘You get the feeling, reading your paper, that it is the voice of an older, you know, established scholar, like, Guy Cook, or Henry Widdowson.’ I sense that this is not meant as a compliment. ‘And while there are many readers who will read this and say that, OK, this is good writing, for others it can make them think, sometimes, why is he writing like this?’ It is a valid point he is making: my style is often dense, occasionally pedantic, with a preponderance of prepositional clauses, a liberal sprinkling of Latin, and rhetorical constructions such as tricolons and chiasmus (tricola and chiasmi?) which have been woven in the text for no other reason than because they satisfy my sense of aesthetics. Why do I write like this? The only answer I can give is that this is who I am, this is how I think, how I feel, how I make sense of the world and myself. In this sense my writing is not just a voice, it’s my identity. I know that I am different; I like being different; and I want to remain different. But, going back to Andrea and her dilemma, how can I do that while catering to the expectations of a world that wants ‘more matter and less art’? Is it even possible?