English and Anaesthesia

Mr Stephen Woods, Director of English

Teachers necessarily have powers of hearing that regular civilians do not. Over the course of my three decades in the classroom, I have developed preternatural auditory acuity. This has obvious advantages for someone in my line of work, but sometimes brings unexpected insights. The occasion I am about to relate belongs in the latter category.

On my way to class after lunch one day last year, I overheard some Year 12 girls sharing a misapprehension about the School Song — the one they had been singing on a fortnightly basis at Assemblies for the previous five years. They were discussing a lyric, the meaning of which had eluded them for the entirety of that period: ‘fledging’. For a few seconds I shared their confusion, until I realised that they had been mis-hearing the line, ‘our fledgling talents we shall see (breathe, it is a challenging line) mature, take flight, and live’.

In the interest of fairness, I will confess here that my vaunted hearing powers only work at school. Until embarrassingly recently, I had blithely held that the Bee Gees’ 1977 song, How Deep is Your Love, contained the line ‘you come to me on a submarine’. Imagine my embarrassment when last year — a mere forty years on — I heard the line correctly for the first time as ‘you come to me on a summer breeze’.

In classroom English, words that evoke a response — a thought, an emotion, or a visceral reaction — in their readers, listeners, and viewers are called aesthetic features. I point this out because ‘aesthetic’ is one of those words that wanders about, meaning ‘beauty’ to some and ‘look or style’ to others. In the English classes our girls inhabit, the word relates to the responses we might have to certain aspects of a film, advertisement or haiku. If the words in these texts elicit no response, they have no aesthetic effect. They are anaesthetic. The Senior girls and I, then, had experienced separate instances of literary anaesthesia.

Once the anaesthesia wears off, however, all sorts of new understandings flood in. The ‘fledging’ Seniors I overheard were at that very moment headed to a lesson with me. As everything is a teachable moment, and I am easily distracted, a goodly portion of the class was given over to an exploration of the literal and figurative import of ‘fledgling’ as it relates to adolescent talents. The next week, when we all sang the song on Assembly, I looked across at the Year 12s to find several of them beaming broadly as they sang the line, aware for the very first time, of its metaphorical aptness. They saw school as a protective nest, their teachers as patient flight instructors, and themselves about to fly off into the azure. Likewise, once I swapped my submarine for a cooling zephyr, I found new — and far more plausible — meaning in the Bee Gees’ classic.

We spend a lot of time in English exploring others’, and using our own, aesthetic features.  Our syllabuses instruct us to do so, and it is what English teachers do anyway. When we look at an advertisement, a poem, a speech, or a passage from a novel, we sift through the regular words and grammar to find and interrogate those charged with aesthetic duties. I am an old hand at this caper now, but I can still remember the seemingly impenetrable anaesthetics of my own fledgling literary analyses. I just couldn’t work out how my own teachers (and the helpfully omniscient authors of Coles and Brodies Notes) could look at a poem or a passage in a novel and discern the meanings they did.

And herein lies an important truth of aesthetics that disheartened girls can sometimes miss: it is a skill to be practised and developed through repetition. Nobody ‘gets’ a text the first time they read it, or even the second.  Our first readings are all about making sense of what happens to whom; aesthetic responses come later. A mind that is occupied trying to fathom the labyrinthine plotlines of Hamlet is just too busy to notice all that imagery. Aesthetic responses are not borne of any special aptitude or sensibility, but out of repeated exposure. Imagine then my chagrin when — on the morning of many an English test — my accursed ‘superhearing’ detects a girl proudly telling her friend that she has finished reading her novel, just in time. I know that essay is going to be an anaesthetising experience for us all.

My own relationship with The Great Gatsby might serve to illustrate this point. I first read it in Year 10 (yes, we country kids are precocious) among the ivory towers, bicycling dons, and cloistered quadrangles of Dalby State High School. Since then I have re-read it many times, but only last year did it occur to me that Daisy — with her alluring, golden voice — could be read as a Siren, and that Gatsby — literature’s best-loved criminal stalker — was a modern Tantalus, forever doomed to see his dreams recede as he reached out to grasp them. Once I saw it, it was bleedingly obvious; the hints and evidence were everywhere, like when you buy a white car and suddenly notice that everyone else has one too.

There are a couple of obstacles I see to aesthetic reading.  A big one is the idea that we can only get out what an author has put in. If I had a dollar for each time I’ve heard ‘Do you think that’s really what [insert deceased literary figure here] meant?’ I would require the services of a Panamanian accountancy firm. Aesthetics is not an exercise in clairvoyance, hence the stark absence of ouija boards from the W Block classrooms. Nobody knows what Jane Austen or Oodgeroo Noonuccal really meant — the wonderfully democratic point, and the whole intellectual point, is what we can make of it.

Sometimes I hear the similarly anti-aesthetic suggestion that ‘we might be reading too much into it’.  Of course responses vary from reader to viewer to listener, but aesthetics is not anarchy.  Were a student of mine to assert that the prevalence of ‘d’ sounds in a line of poetry was suggestive of the movement of a snake, she would be doing only that — asserting. Were she to argue that the repetition of ‘s’ sounds brought the hissing of a snake to mind, I would see some sibilant logic in it. The point is what the girls can make of it, and as long as they can point to evidence and make a logically coherent case, the answer to the question about going too far is ‘no, go on’.

Reading, listening and viewing exercise our minds and provide us with pleasure well beyond our fledgling school years.  My hope is that both the rigour and the pleasure are enhanced a little by the aesthetics training we do in English classrooms. Frequent readers will know that the authors of Insights articles like quotes. I haven’t used one yet, so here is one I liked: ‘there is a name for the moment between the anxiety of confronting something new and the satisfying click of understanding it. It is called an ‘aesthetic aha’ (Thompson, 2017).

I wish the fully-fledged young women who pass through our classes many such moments.



Thompson, D. (2017). Hit makers: the science of popularity in an age of distraction. n.p.