Tuesday, 5 June 2018

A Simile is like a...

Similes.  I love them.  I love them like a mild Mayday

bank holiday by the coast.  I love them [controversial statement coming up] much more than I love metaphors.

Metaphor gets all the good press.  And yes they are the summit of poetic achievement.  A good metaphor will open the imagination and let the writer march through carrying the flag of literature high.  A good metaphor can contain new worlds, new universes, new infinities.  A good metaphor will get you bags of marks from the cynical GCSE examiner marking online paper after paper - praying for something original to appear on the thumb marked screen in front of them.

But I prefer a simile.

I'm thinking about them because I've been looking at ways of improving my GSCE pupils' original writing - and immediately I thought of similes.  They are, in some ways, the most efficient way of making your writing stand out.  They can be a simple way of making something look less than simple.

The strange thing is that - in my experience - pupils learn more from looking at the crazy similes than the good ones.

"the effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick"   The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

A good simile can make you happy in a way that metaphors can't.  It may lack the emotional intimacy of a metaphor, but I've never been all that big on that touchy feely crap anyway.  I want a sentence to make me smile; and no smile is as effective as a simile smile.

"She's a charming middle age lady with a face like a bucket of mud" Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Even a bad simile will give you a feeling like the joy you get from eating an ice cream while watching the mid-summer sun setting over Portstewart Prom.  And if you're Raymond Chandler, a bad simile can even make you a heck of a lot of money.

Don't believe me?  Let me prove it. Here are some student penned similes that teachers have submitted online (and a couple I spotted myself over the years).  Tell me they don't make you feel you feel good about life.

Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the danger of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

She had that look on her face, like when you disagree with the judges on BGT.

The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools. 

She gave me a disappointed look, like a nun who was very disappointed in me.

He moved slowly and painfully, like a C2K computer loading an "educational" maths game.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

He was the size and shape of a man much bigger then him.

He feel for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River,

The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law George.  But, unlike George, this plan might just work.

He was as lame as a duck.  Not the metaphorical duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

Mostly stolen from the winners of the Washington Post Style Invitational Bad Simile and Metaphor Contest, Mentalfloss.com, and the Huff Post.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

time to breathe

I’ve been fairly quiet on here for a while now – I’ll be honest, not through choice.  For the past seven years I have been quite busy.  Partly that is because I went and got myself some twin sons, but also because my job has taken over my  life more than I thought it would.  For the past seven years I have had a job – my first permanent job – on the north coast of the island.  It has been a full-on-non-stop-no-time-to-breathe sort of a job.  You may have noticed that teachers occasionally… or maybe, often… or quite possibly, incessantly… complain about being under paid and over worked; well for the past seven years I have actually been under paid and over worked.  Today that ends.  Well the job does anyway, maybe not the work or the pay thing – the job ends.  Today is my last day in this school before I move to a school in the city; and I can honestly say I’m going to miss the place.

I don’t know how education is valued where you come from, but here in Northern Ireland I can safely suggest that there is a bit of a crisis in our school systems.  Education in Northern Ireland is under immense pressure and has been for some time now.  Years of under investment have led to headlines such as “NI schools need extra £240m just to stand still”, “NI principals demand urgent meeting over budget cuts”, “NI schools in the red: Education system faces £350m funds gap”, with principals threatening to put their schools into serious debt rather than compromise the quality of the education provided to their pupils.  There’s a lot of buck passing going on and, to be honest, the politics of the whole thing would require a long dedicated post of this own, so I will move on.  Suffice to say that the job has changed completely since I started out.  We now have to fight for every outing and justify the cost of every programme; we have to use out dated classroom technology; we now have to print double sided pages (I know, right?)     

For me personally this has led to teaching larger classes, with ever widening ability ranges;  I work to tighter deadlines and spend more of my life doing paperwork; I have to think more carefully before I use resources knowing that repairs and replacements will be coming out of a school budget that is straining at the seams.  I have not had a pay rise in years (either in real terms or actual terms)  My take home pay is significantly less than it was when I started teaching in this school.

Today I am working harder than I did seven years ago, I have less non-teaching time than I did seven years ago, I have more paperwork than I did seven years ago, I’m under more pressure professionally than I was seven years ago, I feel less valued professionally than I was seven years ago, and I get paid less than I did seven years ago.

But what hasn’t changed in those seven years is the feeling I get from teaching a class something new – something they didn’t know before, but do now; the feeling I get when a class just get something – and that they get it because of something I did.

I’ll really miss this place.  I loved teaching there.  I have so much time for the kids that go there.  There’s also a genuinely unique atmosphere in the place – it was so different to anywhere I had ever taught before.  But most of all I will miss the staff; they are amazing.  I don’t know if it is despite the challenges they face or because of them – but they are some of the best human beings around. 
So if you are connected to that wee school by the sea –as a teacher, a pupil, a classroom assistant, a caretaker, a cleaner, a cook, a clericalist- please consider this post as my heartfelt salute to you.  I admire you more than I can say and I will remember you for a very long time.

For the rest of you, let’s see if my new position allows more time for blog writing.  I doubt it; my gut feeling is that it’s not just my old school facing the pressures I described.  I suppose I’ll find out tomorrow.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Life changes you

Twelve months ago today I became a father for the first time… and the second time.
In one year I completed my teacher training – in that time I qualified to teach your children how to use semi-colons, I qualified to educate them in the ways of the oxymoron, I qualified to affect their future career prospects in a tangible way that few people can ever have.  Surely a year is enough time to qualify me to teach you all how to be a dad.
Except it isn’t.  And I can’t.
What I am able to do is describe a little about how becoming a father changes you.  Because it changes you – so everyone tells you.  “It’ll be different when you have one of your own.”  “You’ll forget what it was like before you had them.”  Or as one fellow teacher remarked twelve months ago, “Welcome to a world of wanting to kill anyone who hurts your family.”  He’s seeking professional help now.
Twelve months ago I changed.  For a few seconds I got to hold the hand of each of my sons, carry out a ceremonial cutting of an already cut cord, and watch as they were taken away to be examined.  In those few seconds I changed.  But if you were to ask me how, I’m not sure I’d be able to give you a satisfactory answer.
There’s something there about how I acquiescently I sacrificed my personal life.  It’s a well-known fact that parents say goodbye to their social life when they have kids; we’d been warned about that by many smug been-through-it types.  We were expecting it.  Add to that the loss of sleep – including getting up an hour earlier to get the boys up and ready before work; and the inability to go further than the corner shop without military planning.  I knew all that was coming.  What I didn’t expect was that I’d not really care when it did. 
Maybe there’s the pressure that comes with being the perceived “provider” and all that that entails.  Being a father is an odd situation.  Biologically we aren’t set up to care for children the way mothers are.  We modern fathers are supposed to be frustrated, or even intimidated, by our gender limitations.  Trust me on this; I read it in an actual book.  Apparently we feel crushed by the responsibility of taking on a job that we feel utterly unqualified to carry out.  We are meant to be terrified of doing the wrong thing.  I do the wrong thing on a daily basis.  I’m the king of doing the wrong thing.  I have to say that the pressure I feel from my 9-5 work is harder to deal with than the pressure of having a family. Somehow the pressure I feel at home is more rewarding.   It is less, yet greater.  That, my friends, is an oxymoron.
I really can’t tell you how we change when we become fathers.  If you came here expecting to hear answers I’m sorry.  All I can tell you is that we change.  In my job I have taught many a teenage boy who has passed around his partner’s latest scan.  My initial reaction is generally shock, followed by an internal shaking of the head in sadness.  I worry for the child, I worry for the parents, I worry about society in general.  I question how someone who doesn’t have all the answers to my comprehension tasks could have all the answers to fatherhood.  But then I’m more than twice their age and I don’t have the answers either.  I look at them, and they’ve changed.  They may not have suddenly become literary geniuses, they may not have suddenly become wise beyond their years – but they have a look about them that says “I’m going to be a father and I plan to be the best father I can be.”
And that is the only answer I can give you.  That’s how we change.  Suddenly we want to be the best fathers we can be.
Twelve months ago today I became Dad, the only Dad they have, the best Dad I can be

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

It was all so much better

I live in the past - as several of my friends will tell you.  They may go on to say I live in the past to an unhealthy extent, to the detriment of the present and the future - but don't listen to them; what would they know anyway?

Today I was working away in front of the TV.  I've been getting a bit behind so I was doing my best to resist the procrastination demons singing boy band harmony in my ear.  But then a promo came on for some production-line-saccharine US teen "drama" series, Dawson's hills 9021 tree hill or something. I don't remember much about it except one of the characters saying to another, "if you could chose to revisit any day from your life..." and that was that!  Immediately any chance of finishing work escaped out the window as my mind jumped back a decade.

I got out an old box of letters from my university days and spent an incredible half hour wallowing in the words of ex-girlfriends, acquaintances long since forgotten, family members bringing me news of home across the continents.  
It wasn't all rosy.  Some of it brought back some quit painful memories - and there was a genuine sense of remorse for relationships long gone and hitherto forgotten; good friendships which meant the world to be ten years ago that have withered and died through lack of attention and care.

It made me sad.  I vowed to get in contact with each and every one of them; but I knew I wouldn't.  Time has passed, water has traveled under the bridges; I
would be scared that the Oprah-reunited-long-lost-family moment in my head would become a "Sam?  Sam who?" moment in reality.

But then I spotted something I hadn't noticed before: a letter from a dear friend who clearly didn't know my address.  The address which was printed on the envelop was about as vague as the directions you give to someone you don't really want knowing where you live.  Off the side was written "If all else fails please leave at Ballywatt Church."  It's sort of a lovely declaration of faith - more faith in God than in the Royal Mail. It made me smile.

This sort of thing always makes me smile; and this particular friend does stuff like this all the time.  Perhaps that is one reason why distance and lack of attention never withered our friendship - he was the best man at my wedding three months ago - or maybe he just has more patience than most.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Gym Stories (part 1)

I am old.  I know I am old because I have reached the stage where going to the gym is a case of slowing the natural decline in my physical condition rather than actually improving upon it.  I know I am old because my hip tells me when it is time to give the treadmill a rest rather than my lungs.  I know I am old because my pupils regularly point it out to me.

The gym I attend is in a town full of schools in which I have taught.  For this reason it is a rare session that doesn't involve bumping into at least one past pupil.  In my mind they are thinking, "Ah, this is how he keeps himself in such good shape"; but something in their eyes shows me that they are lumping me in with the rest of the oldies - the ones you see power walking in groups round shopping malls before going for a social cup of tea and a scone.  

You know when you look at an elderly couple who are holding hands?  You know that "awww" feeling you get at the idea that, at their age, they still make an effort... but that you don't really want to think about the details?  THAT's the look I see my pupils give me at the gym.  And that's how I know I am old.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

what a gloriously miserable day

Let me put this post in context for those of you who don't follow Northern Irish weather patterns.  It rains.  A lot.  It's one of the reasons the country is so green - that and the painted curbstones in Dunloy.

Of late, however, we've been have been experiencing a bit of a high pressure system.  For the past three weeks we have been bathed in glorious sunshine.  People have been flocking to the beach, wearing sunscreen, buying ice cream... all the things we normally only get to do after enduring an hour on easyjet. 

A quick side note here.  Good weather doesn't make people any less lazy.  I've had several lovely beach walks during this pleasant spell.  Portstewart Strand, the White Rocks, White Park Bay...  all very different experiences.  Portstewart (which you can drive on to) was bunged, the White Rocks (which has a convenient car park) was busy, White Park Bay (which requires you to either climb over boulders or walk down a steep path) was fantastically empty... on the hottest day of the year!  Take a look at these two photos.  

The first was taken at the entrance to the strand - where cars are allowed to park.  The next one was taken from the barmouth - at the far end of the strand.  Now I understand people probably had things to carry from their car and they didn't want to be too far away from it.  They probably love it dearly and wanted to look up at it occasionally.  It's just that personally I hate the idea of being crammed together with hundreds of sweaty people - I can't understand why they wouldn't just walk a hundred yards up the beach to where they would have space to spare.  

But back to the weather... or actually not.  This is not an article about the Northern Irish weather.  It is about the Northern Irish people.  Because even when the sun was at it's peak and the temperatures rose to, a not unbearable, thirty-ish degrees centigrade, people were still complaining about the weather.  They were having to think a bit harder to come up with something, but they were managing.  "having to water the flowers about three times a day... can't get comfortable in the heat... have to work inside when it's so beautiful outside [as a teacher on summer holiday I love hearing this one in July]... roads are bunged up with day-trippers... sweaty all the time... I've run out of summer clothes [that one was my fiancee - I think she just wants an excuse to buy clothes]... it's Northern Ireland; it'll never last..."

Then today the met office forecast was for a change.  Heavy rain and thunderstorms to start in the afternoon.  Suddenly it's as if we haven't had the last three weeks at all.  I woke up, looked at my phone and there it was - the first post on my facebook feed complaining about the rain, "Eugh it's gonna be wet and warm today that's the worst! — feeling sick of northern irelands b******t weather." Ah, back to normality. Things had been a little surreal with everyone walking round in shorts and trying to think of something else to complain about.

 I had to laugh when we were walking along East Strand at Portrush one day.  They have put in a paved promenade around where the Arcadia ball room was.  It's very popular with elderly people eating soft ice cream.  As we were making our way to the beach we caught a snippet of a conversation between two old men, "...of course I wouldn't much fancy being here in a caravan when it was raining.  I'd rather be at home in front of the TV..."  He was walking along in the sun, the warmest weather for several years, and he was imagining what it would be like in the rain...  That man was no amateur moaner - he had years of experience and I had no choice but to be impressed.  There's none so easily pleased as those who like nothing more than to grumble. That's an original - you can quote me.

I got to thinking about how much complaining people do when it rains here, and I realized something.  It's not actually the rain they're bemoaning; it's got nothing to do with the weather at all - they just need to keep complaining - in case they forget how to.  But I have decided we need to go the other direction.  We need to start finding and vocalizing the positives, even when there are none.  When I look at that forecast I think the farmers will be pleased - the grass will grow faster; I won't have to water the lavender my brother-in-law planted when he was over before his wedding; the north coast roads won't be filled with crazy Belfast drivers;  the rivers could probably do with a freshening...
  But the bad weather hasn't hit yet; so I'm going to pull on my shorts, go out, lie on the lawn, and enjoy the last few rays of sun.  I suggest you do the same.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Porting in June


Sometimes I wish I had my DSLR surgically attached. But I suppose an iPhone can be handy. Taken on the prom at Portstewart on a hardy Sunday night.