It’s a strange thing, being a teacher. We are made into spectacles, expected to be perfect and unsexed, but simultaneously the world loves a story of a fallen teacher. One that has failed, has f’d up, one that is unable to embody the perfection expected.
Naturally, I shy from literature and film that turns the trope of the fallen teacher into entertainment. It hits too close to home. I also dislike literature that focuses on the inspirational teacher – I wish I could stand on desks, reciting poetry and inspiring the ready minds of adolescents. But that is not what teaching is like.
So, wary of the teacher narrative, I picked up my mother’s copy of The Rehearsal. It drew me in with its intertwining narratives, allusion, and symbolism. This book is a performance: the pages are a stage, the words are players, and Catton is the director. It is beautiful.
This was Eleanor Catton’s debut. Now the Man Booker prize winner for The Luminaries, The Rehearsal was her Master’s Thesis. The Rehearsal takes both teacher stereotypes and shuffles them like a pack of cards. Refreshingly, Catton’s fragmented yet lucid narrative does not focus on the fallen teacher, but instead on the people surrounding the drama, those in the line of fire.
The characters within The Rehearsal encompass their role as players keeping a secret, and slowly revealing this secret to the audience. However, unlike Shakespeare, who believes that “All the world’s a stage”, Catton has other ideas as the book muses, “The stage is not real life, and the stage is not a copy of real life. Just like the statue, the stage is only a place where things are made present… The stage is a place where we can witness things in such a way that it becomes unnecessary for us to feel or perform these things ourselves”. The same could be said for books and this book in particular.
Catton uses The Rehearsal as a channel to communicate to her readers the mysteries and complexities of a high-school scandal – it has been revealed that a teacher has been having an affair with one of the girls. Unlike high-school scandals that we see in the news (“Teacher once again is a major f*ck-up and needs to keep their pants on”) this view on the scandal allows the teenage girls insight into the power that they hold. The girls “obsessively examine the details of the affair with the curiosity, jealousy, and approbation native to any adolescent girl”, a view that adults tend to forget in the wake of these types of scandals.
Eleanor Catton is able to portray teenage sexuality in an honest and open way – confusing and exciting at the same time. She shines light on how adults perceive teenagers, and how their views on teenage sexuality is distorted as they place their own stigmas and prejudices upon it without fully understanding the circumstances. Adults see teenage life as “a rehearsal for everything that comes after”, yet it is these years that are real and true for the girls. It is these years and the events that happen within them that will change their lives.
Written for those still learning how to be – those who are adult by age, but don’t feel it yet, or possibly a precocious teenager – this novel is an exploration of adolescence, sexuality, and of womanhood. Every day I see young girls walk in and out of my classroom. A mix of broken and whole, happy and sad, lost and found. But every single one of them is searching. Searching for an identity, a place. Of course, I am too. And like the actors in The Rehearsal, I am seen as a player. Teaching is acting, it’s putting on a show. It’s improvising. It’s about decanting the mind of knowledge, hoping that somewhere it sticks and settles. It’s leaving all your shit at the door because whatever is happening – the show must go on.
But in some ways, it’s important to let the students see the cracks in the stage makeup, in the costume, the persona. They see the cracks when I can’t help but laugh at a completely inappropriate joke, when I yawn, when a needed tampon comes from my own handbag. It’s these little things that make them see, just like them, I am a person.