Thank you, Tiger
I started teaching way back in the early 1960s. Well, teaching is, perhaps, too grand a word. It would be more honest to say that I began to be paid for standing daily in front of loads of bored adolescents, opening a well-thumbed science text book, and reading aloud. Then, scribbling science words on the blackboard to be copied by the kids into their science notebooks.
13- year-old Tiger always sat alone at the back of my science lab. He did not sit politely through each lesson. Tiger was always looking for trouble. Sometimes, he smiled benignly at the thirty-two other boys and girls, six of whom had recently emigrated from India and could speak but two words of English (‘lav, sir?’). Sometimes Tiger shouted, “S’boring, boring…….science is pissin’ scabby.” Sometimes, to prevent himself from falling asleep, he’d run his fingers through his greasy hair, scratch his head, and interfere with anyone sitting close to him working diligently through the science textbook.
My science lessons on Mosquitos and other insects didn’t interest Tiger. School didn’t interest him and science didn’t engage him. Nothing I did in my science lessons made any connection to Tiger’s life experience or appealed to his sense of curiosity. The science I read from the textbook was irrelevant to his world – irrelevant because of the way I presented it. Tiger's Dad told him that he’d have a job with him as a bricklayer on the building sites when he was fifteen, so why should he ‘do his best’in school? What was the point of it all?
In the first week of October, the miracle of miracles happened - a big change for the better came over my teaching. Tiger, of all people, and a small but beautiful garden spider, were my divine inspirations.
Walking back from shopping at the Coop for the weekend food, I spotted the most beautiful spider sitting in her intricate silky web in the black currant bush outside the steps leading up to my flat. Surprised to see one so late in the year, I fetched a jar, popped the spider inside, and took her upstairs.
I took the spider to school the following Monday, put her in a large bell jar with a little soil, some greenery, and a forked tree branch, and set the new home on a small table, away from direct light, at the back of my science lab.
The following day, I noticed a silk egg sac dangling from near the center of the spider’s orb web. Sensing the spider was hungry, I caught a small silverfish darting around the base of my desk, unscrewed the top of the spider home, and dropped the small creature on the web. Immediately, the spider came running towards her prey. I sat and watched, fascinated by the spider’s eating habit, until Tiger’s class came through the door, breaking the atmosphere by noisily throwing their satchels under their stools. The kids were ready for yet another particularly dull science lesson (all chalk and talk, then reading and writing, and no ‘hands-on’science investigation). Before I even started, the boys especially looked bored. I got up quickly, pushing the spider home to one side.
As I walked towards the blackboard, Tiger came through the door. He looked upset. He stared at the floor, mumbling he’d been sent to Mr. Thomas’ office because, he said, “I was caught looking through a dirty book, sir. ‘Fore school started.” “T’ain’t fair.”
“Who caught you?’" "What were you doing?" I asked. I wanted to know more about what had happened. Tiger’s tone changed, and he glared across the room at me, and shouted belligerently: “Mr. Jelbert, you know, Mr. Paull, he looks at us lads through his telescope from the class upstairs. He saw me. Looking at pictures. You know. Dirty pictures. Naked girls and stuff. Weren’t my book, though, Mr. Paull. It’s Fatty’s, Fatty White’s. Now Mr. Thomas has it. Fatty’ll murder me. I’ve got to go back to the boss’s office after school. And I’ll get caned. I’ll get six, I know I will.”
I calmed him down as best I could. Tiger turned and went to his usual spot at the back of the lab. He looked sulky and angry.
I read a few lines about insects from the science book, closed it, and picked up the chalk. As I was writing on the blackboard, asking the kids to open up their journals and copy my notes, there was a loud shout of “CHRIST!” from the back of the room. Startled, every head turned to see what was going on. Tiger was standing up and pointing his index finger and thumb at the bell jar. His eyes now were wide open. ‘F*# ‘ell! Look!’ “Mr. Paull, Mr.Paull, there’s a spider ‘ere! It’s killing a creepy-crawly! It’s f*^** killing it! Look!!!”
I raised my hand. ”Tiger, watch your language!”
” Mr. Paull, Mr. Paull, Can’t ‘elp it. I can’t f*ing believe it. Look at THAT! The spider, f*+** great!!” “Fz+** GREAT!!
I told Tiger to sit down, leave the spider alone, and get out his science journal. I turned to the class, some standing near their seats, wanting to know what was going on. I felt I was losing control. “Wassup wiv Tiger, Mr.Paull?” asked Michael. “’e sick or summat?” “’E swore. Used the F word, sir. Wot you goin’ to do?”
I tried to settle everyone down. “C’mon. Everybody. Thank you, Michael. Never mind Tiger. He’s just having a funny moment.” “Get on with your writing.” “C’mon everybody, no big deal.”
The spider eating her lunch, of course, was, for Tiger, far more interesting than my science-reading lesson. Tiger swearing loudly was much more captivating for the class than my science-reading lesson. “Let’s see. I wanna see the spider,”shouted David, one of Tiger's friends.
Not knowing what to do, I gave in. “Go on, then, everyone, take a look.” “Go and see what’s in the jar – then get back to your seats.”
The class didn’t need telling twice. Everyone rushed to join Tiger at the back of the room. He pointed at the spider in the jar. “Look at that,” he shouted. “Bloody great!” The kids stared at the jar and started chattering excitedly about the spider – excited chatterwas something I had never heard in one of my science lessons.
“Cor, look at that! Ain’t never seen a spider like that. What is it?” “Wos it doin’?” someone asked. One of the girls, Diane, said the spider was so beautiful. “Can I look at it, sir? Please?” “Can I get a maggy glass from the drawer?”she asked.
I thought for a moment. Why not? “‘Course. Go on. Get the tray of maggies.” Diane fetched the tray and chose a magnifying glass and held it close to the jar, peering at the spider. “It’s great, Can I draw it, sir? Please?” “Can I?” she asked.
“Of course.” I answered, “Use your pencil, not your pen.” “Oh, don’t, though, draw it in your science book.” “ That’s for science.” “Here, there’s a piece of scrap-paper on my desk you can use.”
Dianne looked at me, and asked, drily, “Aren’t spiders science, Mr. Paull?”
“’Course, Dianne. Sorry.” I replied, kicking myself. “Do it, drawing, oh, go on, put it in your science journal.”
The idea caught on and a few more girls also wanted to draw the spider, sitting in her web, clasping the poor silverfish. The room went quiet. Tiger, though, did not draw the spider in his journal. He sat very still, ignoring me and everyone else, watching the jar, mesmerized. Nobody moved until the bell went for the end of the lesson.
Tiger stayed behind after class, and, with a warm grin and an impish twinkle in his eye, said, “The spider’s great, sir, ain’t it great?” “You like ‘em?” “Spiders? They’re brill!” He looked up at me. “Sorry I swore, sir, sorry. Won’t do it again. ‘Onest!!” “Dint wanna draw, Mr. Paull. Sorry. Can’t draw, you know. Scabby drawer. Can't draw for nuts.”
“Well,” I said, “I think you can draw, but your pictures are a bit rude, you know.” “You know. What you draw in your science journal. Really rude.”
Tiger smiled. "Sorry,"and then said he was going to get some spiders of his own as soon as he got home.
“Good, but now get off to your next class. Don’t be late,” I said. “Oh, and don’t forget to see Mr. Thomas………….and be sure to give the book back to your friend.”
The next day, Tiger was waiting for me, before school started, with that impish smile on his face. “Found ‘em, Mr. Paull, found ‘em.” Tiger had a jar in his satchel. “There were stacks of ‘em. Tiny ‘uns. Babs, I think, ain’t they? I got free or four. Can I keep them in the lab, Mr. Paull?” Go on! Can I?” ”Next to yours?” Then, he added: “Found out about ‘em, too, Mr. Paull. My dad knows what they are – they’re Garden Spiders, and they eat flies and stuff.” “You know what? You’re ok, Mr. Paull. Sorry, sorry, I swore.”
“ “Thank you, Tiger, thank you. I appreciate that.” I said. “I’m sorry you swore, too.”
I gave him four jars, telling him that spiders can’t live together without paralyzing and eating each other. “Make a home for each one, ok?” “Quick, school’s starting soon.” OH, and you can tell your class what you know about spiders, ok?”
When his class next came for science, Tiger stood by the blackboard, looking sheepishly at the front of the room, and told a very respectful, quiet, surprised, and very attentive audience what he had learned about spiders. I was fascinated to see how Tiger caught everyone’s attention when he told them, with excited, twitchy, body movements, what he knew about spiders. I was mesmorized. Tiger had at last discovered something in my science period that made him feel that wonderful, inside–your-headglow when the brain is alive and alert. His classmates felt it, too.
“Spiders, “ he said, “ are dead good.” “They're good for us. They eat millions of flies and stuff." He held up one of the jars." Look at this one. It’s a beaut.” “Guess what I found out…………." “Some spiders chase after stuff they want to eat.”
Spiders suck their food after they’ve crushed and made it watery…….ain’t only the gals that make silk……..the fella spiders make silk, too, but only when they’re young………..then they stop and go looking for a spider girl-friend. They mate on the web………….sometimes the gals kill and eat the fellas.”
He’d really done his homework. I was taken aback by how much Tiger knew, thinking: “Where did he learn that from, then? All from his dad?” “Well, I know for sure it weren’t from me in science lessons.” Tiger told his audience that, if anyone wanted to watch, he was going to release the spiders and their eggs in the school garden at lunchtime. “They’re goin’ to die soon, y’know, and the eggs will ‘atch, next year, spring, right, Mr. Paull?”
When he’d finished, everyone clapped. This was Tiger’s finest hour. What a wonderful lesson about teaching and learning, I thought.
“Any questions for Tiger?” I asked. The hands went up, and Tiger was asked a million questions, some of which he could answer.
That night I checked my spider’s identity in a spider book, learning that it was Meta segmentata, a common garden species related to the garden spider. Its courtship routine was different, though. The male, I read, drives off other male suitors, but doesn’t advance towards the female until an insect is caught on the female’s web. Both spiders then move towards the struggling insect. The male’s front legs are larger than the female and he uses them to push the female away from the insect.
He then gift-wraps the prey for the female. As the female tucks into her dinner, the male wraps silk around her legs and then mates with her.
The following day, I went to school early in the morning, an hour or so before the official start of the day, and went to the science storeroom. I gathered a box full of microscopes, racks of test tubes, flasks, and other scientific equipment. I set them out in the science lab. I made the room look for the first time like, well, a science lab. Oh, and I rearranged the stools so that the kids could sit in groups.
When Tiger’s class came through the door, the boys and girls looked at my displays of science equipment.
“Hey,” said one, “look….look at all this science stuff……..and hey, look, we ain’t sitting alone. He’s put us in groups.”
“Mornin’, sir," said Freda, "this stuff looks great. Can we touch it?”
Tiger showed me a picture he’d drawn at home of the beautiful orb-web spider. “Look, sir, Mr. Paull, see what I did. Like it? Can I glue it on the cover of my science journal, Mr. Paull?”
“Hey, Tiger, Tiger,” I said, “you did it. You drew your spider. You can draw, see?” “And you can pretty good.”
Seeing Tiger operating like a young scientist,was a first-time experience in my classroom.
I had learned, by sheer luck, what motivated and engaged my most challenging pupil: observing and studying a small spider.
It was, in fact, an incredible teachable moment.
It was THE first ‘Come on, John Paull, be a REAL teacher. Be professional. Earn your pension.’wake-up call.
Thank you, Tiger. Thank you.
You helped shape my teaching.
From that day on, I thought as much, if not more, about how to bring my pupils into my lessons, how to capture their curiosity, how to engage and motivate them, as I did about the content.
Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But it certainly made me more interested in my teaching.