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I know in my heart that it was not Carol Ann Duffy’s fault. It was my own fault, and to a lesser extent the pupils I tried to teach on that fateful day. I know these things yet I still cringed when I saw Duffy at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few months ago, and struggled to stifle a brief fantasy about strangling her with her own smock. As though that could be any kind of suitable revenge.
I have taught many of Duffy’s poems to teenagers; they like her, and tend to respond to her work. It helps that she is not yet dead, like most poets who are taught in schools. Duffy also writes with a sense of quirkiness that school pupils don’t always associate with poetry. They expect landscapes and romance and death; she gives them schooldays and jokes and attitude. They admire her also for being the poet laureate, even if they do vaguely think this means she’s like the Queen’s own personal poet who wanders around Balmoral writing poems about the Duke of Edinburgh eating scrambled eggs.
So I like teaching Duffy. But I think it will be a long time before I decide to teach Duffy’s anti-love poem “Valentine” again.
If you don’t know it, “Valentine” uses an extended metaphor to compare love to an onion. They can both elicit tears; they both have layers; an onion is like a full moon on a romantic evening; its brown paper like the wrappings of a thoughtful gift; and so on. It’s fun, and it’s a good poem to teach—full of imagery and double meaning. But some of my pupils struggled with the notion that love could be similar to an onion. But sir, they said. An onion’s, like, a vegetable. They didn’t quite grasp the idea. So on my lunch break I went to the greengrocers.
I later realised that where I went wrong—and you will shortly see just how spectacularly wrong this lesson went—was in my lack of specific instruction; pertinently, I did not tell the pupils precisely what they should not do. This was probably due to a lack of imagination on my part. I genuinely hadn’t anticipated just how volatile a bag of onions could be in a classroom with thirty teenagers.
My pupils were sitting in groups of four, and each table was to be given its own onion. As soon as they came into the classroom they knew something was up. There was a chopping board on the teacher’s desk. A mysterious green carrier bag. A knife.
Ominously, the lesson started well enough. The pupils cottoned onto the fact that I wouldn’t hand the onions out until they were all sitting, smiling serenely, silent—lulling me into a foolish impression that everything was fine. Okay, I said. I want one person from each table to come to my desk and get their onion.
They quickly assembled, peering with wonder into the bag, nudging each other in anticipation. There were onions in the classroom; the incongruity was too much. It was as though an alien had just landed in the playing fields. Onions are surely not that exciting in today’s world of iPads and video games. I’d certainly doubt if any of my pupils spend their evenings raiding the vegetable crisper to see what bulb-shaped delights they can plunder. Red onions, spring onions, shallots. Leeks, perhaps, if they are feeling adventurous.
No, I didn’t think it would be that big a deal. I dispensed the onions.
The plan was to read through the poem, which was projected onto the wall. As the metaphor built up, I’d ask the pupils first to peel the onion, to feel its brown papery skin, and try to associate this with Duffy’s description of the onion as being gift-wrapped.
The peeled onions were held aloft, and I invited the pupils to equate them with a silvery moon. At this stage, there was nothing more sinister than a small mess and a mild oniony pong. I ploughed on.
For the next stage of the metaphor, the pupils had to be blinded with tears, and it was here where things unravelled, spectacularly. I went round the class with the knife and cut each of the onions down the middle, prising them from greedy fingers and placing the two wobbling halves back on the desks. I returned to the front of the classroom. I suppose I knew then, in some way, that things had veered off-course, but the realisation hadn’t fully formed in my mind.
Okay, I said. Love is like an onion. An onion and love can both make you cry. Sniff your onions. Feel the sting in your nostrils and the tears in your eyes.
But they were, in all honesty, no longer listening. One boy had rather artfully drawn a face onto his onion, and was performing a rudimentary puppet show for one quarter of the room. His ingenuity was quickly followed by others, and soon there was a cast large enough to stage a one-act production of something by, perhaps, Beckett. I moved to quell their behaviour, but was stopped by something far more alarming in the other corner. A boy leapt from his chair, holding his tongue and retching violently. What are you doing! I shouted. Then I saw, on the table, a half-eaten onion—teeth marks gorged into it, much of the onion’s meat missing.
It burns! he cried. It’s burning my tongue!
Have you just eaten half a raw onion? I demanded uselessly.
He picked up his empty water bottle and squeezed its remnants into his mouth. He turned to me, wild-eyed, mouth hanging open, eyes pink. Go fill it up, I said.
If this had taken me by surprise, it was to be surpassed. Taking advantage of my momentary distraction, another girl had plucked the two halves from her table and was systematically rubbing the onion’s flesh into her eye sockets. Her face was red and tears were falling from her chin onto the table; in the eyes of her classmates, she was already a hero.
I shouted at her to stop, and she did—perhaps relieved to be told to—but already a spate of copycat offenders had cropped up. Pupils bit into the onions and chewed them as though they were apples, spitting out frothy lumps of the stuff and roaring with the displeasure of it. Others grounded wedges against their eyeballs, twisting and squeezing the juice out. Onions flew through the air. The room stank. Screams and roars filled the class and we were only at the sixth line of the poem.
Later, when order was finally restored and the onions binned, I lectured the pupils strongly on my expectations of their behaviour. I praised those few pupils who had sat silently, bemused, during the pandemonium. I warned the rest of them of the dire consequences they would face if I had to deal with such feral mischief again. I was angry, and scared. Scared that they had done things I could never have imagined; scared that I hadn’t predicted they could react so chaotically to something as normal and everyday as a small white onion.
They took the lecture with faces that were pink and sore. They’d ruined the lesson I’d planned for them, but I’d been taught a far more valuable one.
Alan Gillespie is 27 years old. He works as a teacher at a remote school in the West Highlands. His short stories are widely published.