On getting grades ‘U’ in Biology, ‘F’ in Chemistry and ‘G’ in Physics in 1987, one could be mistaken for being a scientific failure. Being canny, I managed to convince my mother that the ‘U’ in Biology stood for ‘unfinished’ and she was very sympathetic towards me. Then my father, a teacher by trade, got home and my ruse was revealed – just like his temper. Little did I know then that these dismal grades were actually ideal – and quite normal – for anyone with a passing interest in the Arts. What did I need the sciences for anyway? I was going to be a film critic! I had already been practising film criticism with my best mate, watching low grade horror and science fiction on VHS, as well as flirting with ‘the classics’ (Taxi Driver, Blow Up, Don’t Look Now……er, Kelly’s Heroes), and I considered myself quite an authority on the films of Donald Sutherland and Dennis Hopper. I sensibly considered any aspirations around the sciences as well and truly dead in the water. And good riddance too. Was my class the only class to have Biology taught to them in a dusty library? Thought not, it was the eighties after all.
The shock of discovering that there wasn’t an ‘A’ level in Film Criticism left me shocked to the core. So I immediately went for all the English courses on offer alongside Communication Studies which sounded like Media Studies, and finally, Music. Ah yes, the Arts were my home. I wrapped myself in their protective arms. I would have done Theatre Studies had my father not threatened me with an apprenticeship at the local butchers if I took that particular path. In the words of Withnail’s Uncle Monty, ‘As a child I used to weep in butcher shops,’ so that was never going to be an option.
Imagine my surprise when I found myself recently talking genetics with a group of undergraduate medical students from University College London. I know nothing about genetics – well, maybe I know a little, just like everyone else. I have also continued to enjoy horror and sci-fi movies so have picked up some broad specialist knowledge from them. H.G. Wells’ Dr Moreau, in a variety of film incarnations from Charles Laughton to Marlon Brando, has been playing god for years. I’m sure genetics were mentioned there somewhere. I’ve also heard about it on the news.
Science and Fiction. I like the sound of that. Taking the science into the imaginative. Applying the science to a fiction….applying the fiction to real science. Film makers, playwrights and authors have been doing that for years, haven’t they? Perhaps we can take a leaf out of their book(s). It sounds a bit more exciting than copying pages 47 to 53 out of the text book, that’s for sure. In When Worlds Collide, how could we catapult the last of the human race into space? In The Road, what would have happened to make the earth begin dying slowly? In 28 Days Later, how long does it take for a violent virus to take over the population of the UK from the original carrier? In Apollo 13, what would you need to get a spacecraft back to earth safely? Okay, the last one is science-fact because it actually happened, but this idea of linking science with the imagination is there, and it’s nothing new. Not to real scientists anyway. They deal with ‘what ifs’ all the time. I think they call them hypotheses. We didn’t do them in my school, we just did ‘the way it is’, or as I like to call it, the Bruce Hornsby, where nothing could be questioned, it just was, and that was that, and if you carry on, I’ll give you a detention.
It’s different now.
My four year old son and I were watching the moon from his bedroom the other night. I could almost hear the cogs spinning in his mind as he attempted to create the many questions he wanted to ask. Can you remember thinking about the moon for the first time? Eventually he asked me how cheese was retrieved from the moon. Before I reached for the parenting manual to get to the chapter titled ‘Shatter Their Illusions: Reality Bites’, I chose to pause. To think. And I became the parent and teacher I want to be: ‘How do you think they get it?’
Suddenly I’m wrapped in his imaginative world. A world of the fantastique. I’m thrown back to that image of the pioneering George Meilies film where the space rocket is eaten up by the man in the moon. A visionary filmmaker whose child-like imagination hadn’t been battered out of him by the transition from KS2 to KS3.
‘A ladder,’ says my son, gawping at the moon.
Good answer, I think.
‘But only a small one,’ he continues, ‘the moon isn’t that far away.’ And he points to the beautiful globe in the sky.
Fair enough, I conclude.
We then draw the machine that looks after the ladder. We should have been reading bedtime stories, but this moon stuff was gripping. And we both like cheese.
Anyway, back to reality. Me leading a Y10 science class as a visiting teacher alongside three medical students in a school located in deep Tower Hamlets. My working geography of our beloved capital is sketchy at best, but even I know that in educational terms, they pay you more to work there. Out of the window as the Y10s bound in, I see the looming structure of a new Olympic stadium as my foot kicks a bucket designed to catch the leak from the classroom’s flat roof. An irony isn’t lost, just noted. I get a wet sock as I turn to address my crack team of medics.
Medics. Now these cats know their whiskers. There’s Boris, Clare and Joe. All of them as bright as buttons and have each volunteered to do this outreach work as part of an option block that makes up their course in medicine. Now in the movie that they’ll one day make about our exploits in Tower Hamlets, Boris will be played by Al Pacino (circa The Godfather) brooding composure and quiet menace; Clare will be played by Julia Roberts with short hair and Joe will be essayed by chiselled action hero Jason Statham
channelling Brannagh. It’ll work.
The teacher addresses the class and knows how to handle them. This’ll be what that inner London allowance is for – it up-skills you in terms of child-whispering. She’s impressive – her expectations are clear and the youngsters respond well to her. I later discover she’s the head of science. She’s about 12.
She introduces us as a Drama troupe and I am absolutely mortified. Sixteen years of classroom teaching, AST status, leadership experience and everything else I’ve managed to achieve in my humble life are blown apart in the fact that my professional odyssey has seemingly led me to being part of a troupe – and a drama one at that.
I glance at the medics. If I feel bad, they must feel awful. Troupe. Boris maintains his gangster-stone-frozen state of un-emotion, Clare smiles in a ‘I want to die’ kind of way whilst Joe just looks like he wants to kill someone. When I was 15 my ambition was to become Hawkeye Pierce as portrayed by either Donald Sutherland or Alan Alda. I absolutely worshipped MASH and this was probably the principal driver behind me unsuccessfully following the sciences. The actors played the Pierce-role very differently: Sutherland’s Pierce was a fun loving nihilist, whilst Alda (having the advantage of having an eight year character arc to develop) got to the moral heart of Pierce’s place in an increasingly morally heartless war. Both actors are awesome and a million miles away from me as I look back from the medics, to the head of science, to the hoodie-clad Y10 mixed ability GCSE class. Drama troupe. Bring it on.
I’m in. Summoning up all that engagement prowess I’ve built up teaching Drama in the North of England, I metaphorically hit the learners with today’s pitch around genetics. The presence of the medics gives me real confidence. I can get away with scientific ignorance as they will be my trump card. The aces up my sleeve. I set the scene and frame up the fiction. There’s a boy and his Dad. His Dad’s acting strange. He’s turning different. Like he’s possessed. He’s stopped being the Dad he used to be. The man just goes to the Doctor’s on his own and comes back with pills. They are detached when once they were one. The boy feels odd and wants to know what to do. He bunks off school and Dad finds out. There’s a head to head. We hear what Dad is going through. The nightmare. The boy asks if he can go to the Doctor’s with his Dad. Dad agrees………
All this is played out using resources created and facilitated by the medics. My role and that of the not-as-yet-mentioned troupe leader Rebecca (from the university), is to play out the story with shaping suggestions from the young people. So, in Drama terms, we have improvisation, hot seating, thought tracking and a couple of monologues. In other words, we have the human emotive bones on which to dress the science curriculum. The fiction that will make the science real to the youngsters who are participating in its creation and its unfolding narrative.
When we break out into medic-facilitated group work, we are bombarded with questions about the boy and his Dad. Although all the learners are aware of the fiction, they still need a resolution to the story.
‘What happens to Richard and his Dad?’
‘What do you think might happen?’ comes the reply. This is a rolling fiction. The future is most definitely unwritten; however in the world of Huntingdon’s disease, the outcomes are sadly realistic. And the young scientists can handle that. They can feel that essence of loss even if they have never experienced it in their own lives.
‘Poor Richard,’ a girl says shaking her head.
We are on journeys toward empathy and social understanding here. Science and society bridged by theatre. Fiction + Science = Understanding. I like that formula. And so did the youngsters. After two hours, it was time for us to make our exit stage left. The medics had been an absolute hit. They were very credible to the Y10s. They had stood and basically been inspirational role models for them. The boys were very intrigued by good-looking crowd pleaser Joe, who was offering career guidance at the age of 21 whilst Claire and Boris were mobbed for being generally brilliant. The three of them were generally surprised at being so popular. I do believe that this popularity was borne out of the story we had told and which they had participated within, as well as them being extremely bright and inspiring individuals.
A hooded girl comes to me and asks me where I’m from. I reply the North. Barnsley. ‘I knew you were Scottish!’ she exclaims, laughing. I realise I want to hug a hoodie just like that politician had suggested. The story is over. Back to real life. She legs it to the exiting throng at the door.
The medics are the key. And a great story. And young people who haven’t had their imaginations battered out of them by the constraints of narrow curriculums and narrow thinking. Have I made all this up? Why on earth would I do that? There’s no conspiracy here, only Drama being used as a vehicle for successful engagement in Science. Polar opposites being hurled together as when world’s collide.
With thanks to Rebecca Reed