Empty Vessels

At school I had a very strict Primary Five teacher, Miss M..  I started the year as an innocent eight year old, and ended it as a slightly disenchanted nine year old.  No harm done, that’s growing up; isn’t it?  Miss M. had a great range of ‘wise’, snippy sayings: her no-nonsense approach to education reflected in telling a child, “you don’t have a titter ’o wit”; her antiquated methods of discipline in the threat: “there’ll be wigs on the green”; and her unflinching demand for silence in the classroom with the pronouncement: “empty vessels make most noise”.  What a load of old tyrannical nonsense, giving us the notion that silence was an indictor of intelligence.  And what a mangle to put herself through, day after day, placing the demands of a silent retreat-house upon children, instead of gently reigning in the natural exuberance that bubbles up in the character of all eight and nine year olds.  Old-school, isn’t that it?  She’d been told to think that way from her own school days during the war and it hadn’t occurred to her there might be an alternative.  She had other old-school ways, like the cane she used; the one she’d christened (terrifyingly), ‘my little friend’.  As M. would say, “was she mad, bad or sad?” A bit of all three, would be my answer.  She was complicated.  Even as a nine year old I knew she was complicated, and I knew not to listen to her platitudes.  She was older, and was probably bone tired, reaching the end of her teaching career, with any love for teaching (had it ever existed) having long since drained away.  From a distance of forty odd years, I now think she had a fear of creativity; she feared that children talking might be a sign they were brimming with ideas, thoughts and imagination, and this might veer her away from her textbooks.  Horror!  She dreaded the furious pot boiling of back and forth chatter, the sparking of ideas, flint-like, off one another.  But the ill-conceived phrase about empty vessels has always stayed with me, along with its flip-sided saying (one I also question) of, ‘still waters run deep’.

Alexander McCall-Smith prompted me to question both of these phrases this week because of something I read in one of his gentle stories, ‘Trains and Lovers’.  In it, he describes a World War Two veteran: a quiet, non-communicative, keeping himself to himself sort of man.  Two characters in the book are discussing Mr. Silent.  One of them attributes Mr. Silent’s verbal restraint to the war; to the emotional scars he bears from the trenches.  But this point of view is countered by the other character, who says, “He mightn’t have had all that much to say anyway. Some people are like that, aren’t they? People think they are keeping it all inside them, but there really isn’t very much there in the first place.” Quite. As my dad used to say – as a bit of a joke – still waters run stagnant.  But was he joking?  When someone is remaining quiet, maybe nobody’s home, maybe there really isnothing going on up there.  Has anyone ever said to you, “a penny for your thoughts,” as you stare into space thinking nothing at all? (Or certainly nothing more lofty than what you’re having for your next meal.)

That’s what I feel like today: a bit of an empty vessel.  In spite of Miss M.’s closely held beliefs I am drenched in quietude and I have no thoughts, nothing to write about, I feel devoid of ideas. Even though I am sitting here quietly, in the manner dragooned into me to when I was eight years old, I feel that there is nothing very deep going on.  I am so quiet that this vessel of mine should be the magic porridge pot of originality. Yet I seem to be the living proof that still waters do run stagnant after all.

‘A Quick One Before I Go’, by David Lehman

There comes a time in every man’s life

when he thinks: I have never had a single

original thought in my life

including this one & therefore I shall

eliminate all ideas from my poems

which shall consist of cats, rice, rain

baseball cards, fire escapes, hanging plants

red brick houses where I shall give up booze

and organized religion even if it means

despair is a logical possibility that can’t

be disproved I shall concentrate on the five

senses and what they half perceive and half

create, the green street signs with white

letters on them the body next to mine

asleep while I think these thoughts

that I want to eliminate like nostalgia

O was there ever a man who felt as I do

like a pronoun out of step with all the other

floating signifiers no things but in words

an orange T-shirt a lime green awning

To all the teachers out there (especially C.), happy return to the classroom.  May your little vessels make much noise!  And remember, you could always resort to earplugs.


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