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In conversation with Matthew Kenny, 2019

It’s fitting that in using my phone to record my conversation with Matthew, I receive a missed call. I assume my phone is smart enough to resume recording but it doesn’t, which I find out after we say goodbye from our 90-minute conversation. I’m left with a 24-minute recording. I sit on the train home and type notes on my phone, concentrating on what we talked about. There is a man sitting beside me, mumbling to himself. He burps twice and excuses himself both times. I’m annoyed at first but mostly I’m amused. I think Matthew would enjoy the fact I need to write a story rather than publish our conversation in full. Sitting and listening to someone speak in a considered way, especially one on one, has become a novelty. Too many of us operate at 100kph, our lives on a freeway, while Matthew slows it down to 50kph as if cruising along an esplanade. “When I started school, there weren’t any computers. The written word was everything. I still remember reading things like Moby Dick and Lord of the Rings, and being able to sit there for hours. I can’t recall the last time I sat anywhere for hours.” He speaks with purpose; something rarely seen today. People assume a quickness of speech equates with a quickness of mind, though it’s usually just a bad habit. He mentions there are certain books he cannot return to – books like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series – because to him they now reek of sexism by way of two-dimensional female characters. But for certain books, it’s the ideas you return to, not the writing. Great ideas are important, even when poorly expressed. The Foundation series explores ideas such as societal evolution, adaptation, individualism, and psychohistory: a concept combining humanities with data to predict the future of human behaviour on a mass scale. At the wrong time, these big themes would put many of us to sleep. But when we read or discuss them we are reminded of our insignificance, which is freeing. Matthew has taught English and Literature over 20 years in the secondary education sector, and it’s not entirely what it used to be. “I think teaching has become increasingly busy. The teacher is at the very bottom of a vast inverted pyramid of people saying ‘this is what should be taught’—from the federal government, to various curriculum authorities, to state governments, through to the department of education—and the teacher is essentially a tap at the bottom of the ocean, and they’ve got to get the entire ocean through that tap, to the students, in something less than 50 minutes. And that a huge challenge.” When Matthew, or Mr Kenny, read passages out loud from Macbeth in class, everyone listened. Even the most bored student couldn’t ignore his booming voice in the stuffy portable classroom: “Aroint thee, witch!” the rump-fed runnion cries.”’ That line stays with me to this day. “It’d be great if we could just focus for that period of time. But that doesn’t reflect the world we live in. And so, teachers face an enormous number of challenges doing that in every subject. Communicating complex concepts has become increasingly difficult. While technology brings with it many advantages to teaching, I think it has reduced our ability to sit, focus, and think.” Today, Matthew has been exposed to books he otherwise never would have read. As a consultant for text selection at the VCAA (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority), Matthew attends meetings with other consultants to allocate texts for VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) student reading lists. The meetings he attends at the VCAA are like a monthly book club, he says. When I ask him if there was anything that stood out to him recently, he struggles to recall any authors or titles. He admits that while it’s important to introduce more female authors on high school reading lists, he will always gravitate towards the classics and mid-twentieth century writers from the American south like Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison. He mentions them several times, proving their significance to him. I sense an element of guilt about the lack of new talent in his mind, so I say that we can’t force ourselves to read books we’re not drawn towards. I admit that I hated reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and he smiles – Wuthering Heights is one book he re-reads in order to enjoy its ridiculous narrative. Despite our differences in taste, the key to our discussion, and Matthew’s success as a teacher, lies in his passion for the vocation. If you believe in what you’re teaching, Matthew says, so will your students. Though he believes the curriculum is too busy. “I would love it if we taught less. Or we had longer periods, because that would allow us to do more. You’re trying to communicate, for example, the poetry of John Keats, and I’ve got 50 minutes to try and get through a poet of immense significance, profound intellectual and emotional complexity, in a classroom that may or may not be air conditioned, while there are people coming in and out of the classroom, so, attention spans are fractured, but they’re fractured by the nature of where we are.” This is why I remember my English classes with Matthew so fondly. He believed in what he was doing, every lesson. Where it was a good or bad day, he aimed to switch on the light bulb in at least one student’s mind. I remember asking Matthew for books to read over summer at the end of Year 11. He told me to read my Year 12 English texts. Of course, I said, but what else? I wanted something beyond the school syllabus. He asked me what I enjoyed, and all I could think of at that moment was To Kill A Mockingbird. He recommended Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, and Tim O’Brien. To this day, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried remains one of my favourite books. “We have access to more information in seconds than everyone in the history of the world has accessed, ever. What we now lack is the ability to properly process and understand that information. And that’s what literature requires. You can spend forever on one speech from Macbeth, or a paragraph from Moby Dick, or a chapter from As I Lay Dying and we haven’t got that luxury. So, teachers are doing the best they can.” It’s a reassuring perspective in an increasingly distracted world. I’ll always imagine Matthew doing the best he can, as Mr Kenny: in a suit, hands in pockets, nostalgic for Southern Gothic literature, reminding us never to smile before Easter.

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