What were you doing thirty-nine years ago this evening? It was a Sunday evening and the weather was warm and pleasant. Tomorrow would bring the beginning of the GCE A-Level examinations at Strode College. English Paper I would be from 9.30-12.30, among the texts on which there would be questions would be William Shakespeare’s five act tragedy, Hamlet.
Five acts, why did it have to be five acts long? If you were standing in the cheap part of the Globe Theatre, didn’t three hours seem a very long time? Reading Hamlet for tomorrow morning’s paper, it seemed the longest play ever written, though what point there was in last hour attempts at learning was unclear. Only after the need to read literature for examinations was a thing of the distant past did there come an appreciation of the writing for its own sake. Poetry was less compelling than drama, the set texts were The Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gerard Manley Hopkins’, The Wreck of the Deutschland, and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, none of which has been revisited in the years since.
Thirty-nine years later, picking up a notepad and pen again to pursue studies, the subject has changed, mathematics instead of English. There is no looming examination, just a course through the coming weeks leading to the beginning of teacher training course in September. The past week has been challenging: quadratic equations, something not included in the Certificate of Secondary Education mathematics studied at school. There is an awareness that the brain has not the capacity it once possessed to absorb material.
Reading lines from Tennyson’s poem Ulysses broughta smile, never someone who moved earth or heaven, nor someone who had the slightest trace of a heroic heart, there is an expression of optimism in the words:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
“Though much is taken, much abides,” often that which was lost was that which should have been remembered, and that which abides is the trivial and inconsequential, but sometimes the important stuff sticks. Lines from Shakespeare read this evening thirty-nine years ago still linger; one hopes that lessons on equations will similarly endure.