Dear Mr. Sisyphus, put down your rock

When I began teaching, nearly fifteen years ago, I wanted to change the world. I thought I would be that teacher that had the conversations with students that changed their lives. I thought I would be that teacher that would connect with the bad’uns and turn them into good’uns. I was also an idiot.

This idiocy has caused me a great deal of pain and disappointment.

I have spent most of my teaching career working in PRUs and with students in danger of exclusion, and I have also spent most of my teaching career feeling pretty angry – angry with the government for allowing massive inequality to exist, angry with my SLTs for pandering to stupid government requests, angry with parents for ignoring their children and for being drug addicts, angry with psychologists for not having the answers, angry with therapists for talking shite, but mostly angry with myself for not having a clue what I was doing.

It took me a long time to resolve this anger. This is what I would like to explore here.

The Sisyphus, in the title of this blog, is probably most famous as the subject of Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to forever repeatedly push a huge rock to the top of a hill, only to see it roll down to the bottom  again. Camus uses this punishment as an analogy for the human condition. He portrays Sisyphus as the absurd hero who hates death and realises the futility and meaningless of life, but is nonetheless content. ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’, Camus writes.

I think Camus is wrong. Sisyphus is, in fact, the archetypal idiot. In the Greek story, Sisyphus was a king of Ephyra, and by all accounts was a pretty dreadful human being. He was avaricious and a terrible liar. He killed people merely to maintain power. His punishment wasn’t simply the whimsy of the gods, it was a perfect reflection of his life. Sisyphus was pointlessly pushing rocks up hills long before he was condemned to do so. I read Sisyphus, not as a sad story about the absurdity of the human condition, but as a warning for us not to make the human condition absurd. Take one example from the myth: Sisyphus attempted to cheat death by chaining death up. Can there be a more absurd aim than to cheat death? Sisyphus’ life is a catalogue of hubris, a series of attempts to impose himself upon the world in defiance of everything that he truly knows. The simple truth is that Sisyphus was responsible for his own pain.

And a similar (though less murderous) hubris was the source of my idiocy. Throughout my teaching career, I condemned myself to rock pushing: despite what I told myself, I wasn’t actually working to emancipate anyone, or for the benefit of others; I was working to impose myself upon the world. My frustration stemmed from my not feeling that I had changed anything.

In my last blog post, I described how I thought that the Neo-Aristotelian logic so prevalent in current philosophy of education was mistaken. It isn’t the case that my obligations stem from my purpose, which in turn stems from my identity. I argued that the opposite was true: my true identity is derived from my purpose, which is in turn derived from my obligations.

My anger stemmed from the fact that I was unable to form the identity that I wished to form, because I was unable to achieve the aims that this desired identity required. To dissolve this anger, all that was necessary was that I recognise my true obligations, and thus live according to my true identity.

And the thing I find most wonderful is that it was the most difficult student that I have ever met who explained this to me – not directly, of course, but in her own way. Although she wasn’t the most violent student I’ve taught, it is no exaggeration to say that Joan (not her real name) rarely made anything that could be described as ‘sense’; she would throw her mobile phone at the wall, smashing it, because I wouldn’t let her use her mobile phone; she would threaten to buy me a dog, so that she could kill my dog, so that she could spit on my dead dog; she once said that, ‘—If my son was a paedophile I will tell you something for free: he would not be a paedophile no more .. he would be a dead paedophile! No seriously I would get Jimmy Saville to paedophile him .. I would bring Jimmy Saville back from the spirits to paedophile him to teach him a lesson’; she thought that her uncle had been beaten up by a black man, because her uncle had a fat lip – yep, she said that too. But Joan was truly wonderful. Because Joan followed no rules of logic whatsoever, I was completely helpless in her presence. She just could not connect a punishment to a crime, however hard we tried.

Perhaps there was some solution to the ‘problem’ of Joan, but no-one ever found it: she was kicked off anger management courses for being too angry, off counselling because everything she said to the counsellor was a lie (‘I thought that’s what I was meant to say!’); she never made it to any doctor’s appointments.

Of course we always did our best: we continued to enforce our behaviour policy as we did with every other student; we gave her timeouts for her bad language and suffered the abuse, but I’m not sure there was any point to it as such, other than simply to spend time with her, to pay attention to her. But that was the point. This was my obligation.

Maybe one might argue that there was something Sisyphean in this obligation, but I would disagree. It was certainly no punishment. I didn’t have to force or ‘imagine’ myself to be happy. I simply was happy, revelling in the delights of spending time with someone so extraordinary. I thank God for Joan. She showed me my limits, but more importantly, she made me accept them. She told me to put down my rock. I was weary and burdened, and Joan gave me rest.

Mercy and truth are met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he must take. We know that fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened. And we come to realise at last that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence, and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And see! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we renounced has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we threw away. For mercy and truth are met together. And righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Babette’s feast (the film)

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