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September 21, 2011

A Challenging Classroom

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – When I came to Malaysia, I had promised myself I would read the classics. For many years, I had been immersed in science and political theory, so I jumped at the chance to teach a course known as Literature in English.


I had to instruct in one novel, two plays and poetry. The novel I chose was Jane Eyre; the two plays included A Street Car Named Desire and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. The poetry was assigned by the gods in Cambridge. One problem was that I had never read any of them. I am a science person by profession. However, I was going to dive into this with gusto as I had a personal interest in expanding my literary horizons.


Jane Eyre was the first chic-lit book in history. It is the story of a not-so-pretty 10-year-old girl raised in an abusive relationship with a stepbrother and three stepsisters. Not too original, I thought, what with Cinderella having the same storyline.


Jane’s stepmother sends her off to a very strict religious school where the headmaster feeds the students gruel, siphoning off the funds for his own family and enjoyment. Jane hates the place; but when she graduates, she stays and teaches there. I think they call that irony.


Jane then places an ad in the newspaper seeking work as a governess. A very rich guy answers and asks her to take care of his daughter. She falls in love; he tries to make her a kept woman in the south of France; she refuses and runs across the moors of Yorkshire, nearly dying of starvation and the cold. I am guessing she reconsidered the castle in the south of France bit. Of course, he can’t legally marry her because he has a mad wife living in the attic, being taken care of by a drunken old woman.


Next, she finds refuge in a home with a mean old preacher, who wants to marry her and take her to India to convert the natives. Then she hears a voice and returns to the rich guy only to find his mansion burned down by the crazy wife and him blind and with a useless arm. Then they get married and live happily ever after. Like I said, the first chic-lit book because in a guy’s point of view in literatureese (my word) she should have gone to the south of France and consumed some wine while enjoying the Mediterranean beaches, sponging off him, and maybe getting a boy toy or two.


The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Lady Known as Lou is my idea of poetry. Poetry to be read while sitting in a dive, drinking 10 or 12 three fingers of Red Eye whiskey in a dirty glass. Then, after getting blubbering drunk, one eye closed to focus, reading about the courage of the Red Cross Man saving the lives on the battlefields of the Great War. Ah, yes, Robert Service.


Contrast that with what I had to teach. Poems about getting old and dying, another group about the horrors, but no heroes in the Great War and still another group whose theme I could not figure out but lied to the students that it had something to do with love. They bought it.


A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare was mandated by Cambridge to study. One of his very lesser-known works, probably unknown except for inclusion in few study guides, i.e. Cliff Notes. It tells the tale of a king who goes crazy, accuses his wife of having an affair with his boyhood friend and fathering a child (which she probably did), then ordering the child killed while the wife dies. Then, after a lot of filler, the wife comes back from the dead in the form of a statue, the king regains his senses, the cuckold daughter marries the other king’s son, and all the supporting cast live happily after.


What a disappointment! I wanted action and adventure like when Shylock demands a pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice; or Lady Macbeth yelling “out damn spot out;” and Julius Caesar saying “whose woods these are I think I know” before he invades Russia. Or…something like that.


Suffice it to say, I will not be teaching Literature in English next year. Hallelujah!


. . . . .life is good. . . . .


For more articles on Malaysian Borneo see Tom’s blog at


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