Thursday, June 14, 2012

Purple Sea, Silver Sea and 4ac

In my post on the Jubilee I wrote about those memories that come unbidden into our inward eye when we are "in vacant or in pensive mood". And by the way, I admit that a documentary on BBC America after I had posted made me realize there was a 16  month interval between the Queen's succession and her crowning, which meant I was at the end of my second form year when I watched the coronation procession. Inward eye a little short-sighted, but the rest of the memories the same.

At this time of the year I think about those lines of prose and poetry jammed into my memory out of fear of the words, "Please quote from the text to support your thesis." O-levels, A-levels, degree finals, all these rites of passage took place at this time of year, and after 50 years I can still regurgitate some supporting quotations.

The purple sea was a little different. Every year Enfield County School took part in the Greek and Latin Oratory Competition. We traveled up to University College, London and stood trembling on a stage reciting some chunk of classical literature. This was Clytemnestra's "Estin thalassa" speech from the Agamemnon, and I still remember a lot of it. It explained in Aeschylean iambic something or others how the purple sea dyed the regal robes. The First prize was always won by someone from a school like Haberdashers' Aske's, but occasionally we placed or showed. Not this year!

"Silver sea", well, that was 1956, O-levels, Richard II. The trick was always to learn a quote you could use to illustrate several arguments. John of Gaunt was patriotic, John of Gaunt understood geography, John of Gaunt was articulate—even if it didn't support anything, a quotation impressed the Examining Board. That year my head was stuffed with quotations in English, German, Latin, Greek and French (and there's still quite a bit of Lamartine and de Musset bouncing around.) I had got to choose for myself what I wanted to study for O-level, and in the interest of proving myself well-rounded, I took the three Mathematics papers. I enjoyed Geometry, did OK in the Arithmetic portion, but was adrift in Algebra. That is why I clung so desperately to the formula for solving quadratic equations. I wasn't quite sure what a quadratic equation was, but I will go to my death mumbling "x=minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared all over 4ac."

This post will all be meaningless to some people, but some will understand what education was like in those days and that it is only in the last few years that I have stopped having THE dream, the one where you dream you are going into the exam room and haven't a clue what you were supposed to have read.


Maggie May said...

This evoked all sorts of memories of my childhood..... bits of poetry and yes..... those terrible dreams.
Maggie X

Nuts in May

Z said...

My trick was always to learn the less familiar passages, taking the view that everyone would quote the well-known ones - and, as you say, to use them to illustrate my argument.

In maths, I loved algebra, was fine with arithmetic and loathed geometry. I can't remember what I used a quadratic equation for either, though.

I used to dream that I could read Latin fluently. Sadly, it was never true.