The Lesson | A Poem by Roger McGough

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The Lesson - A poem by Roger McGough
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Chaos ruled OK in the classroom
as bravely the teacher walked in
the nooligans ignored him
his voice was lost in the din

‘The theme for today is violence
and homework will be set
I’m going to teach you a lesson
one that you’ll never forget’

He picked on a boy who was shouting
and throttled him then and there
then garrotted the girl behind him
(the one with grotty hair)

Then sword in hand he hacked his way
between the chattering rows
‘First come, first served’ he declared
‘fingers, feet or toes’

He threw the sword at a latecomer
it struck with deadly aim
then pulling out a shotgun
he continued with his game

The first blast cleared the backrow
(where those who skive hang out)
they collapsed like rubber dinghies
when the plug’s pulled out

‘Please may I leave the room sir? ‘
a trembling vandal enquired
‘Of course you may’ said teacher
put the gun to his temple and fired

The Head popped a head round the doorway
to see why a din was being made
nodded understandingly
then tossed in a grenade

And when the ammo was well spent
with blood on every chair
Silence shuffled forward
with its hands up in the air

The teacher surveyed the carnage
the dying and the dead
He waggled a finger severely
‘Now let that be a lesson’ he said

~ by Roger McGough

It was one such day before the exams, where due to the cultural events in the high school, a lot of syllabus was pending. So, after all the fun we had in the event, were bombarded with a strict routine of back to back classes. Not even a minute of leisure time.

One day we were scheduled for eight lectures on theory subjects, with just a lunch break of twenty-five minutes. Just after the lunch break, we were scheduled for an accounting lecture. Four lectures we had already attended, and ready for the fifth one, we were all in a gloomy sort of mood. Suddenly, one of our classmates came with the good news. The accountancy professor had left for home from the school. And we would be having one lecture free. That meant, that we could go to the playground, play for the next one hour. Or maybe even take a nap in the classroom (which of course, none of us was going to do).

Hearing this, everyone in the class started celebrating. A few boys jumped on the desk and started shouting. A few of them burst the chips/wafers packets in happiness. And as one of them was shouting, “Hurray! Mrs. K isn’t coming”. Suddenly, the teacher walked in, out of nowhere. She saw all this, she noticed everything.

Mrs. K was a short, dark, and strong built woman. She spoke less but was an extremely strict woman. She had such a vibe, that every time she walked in, there was pin-drop silence in the room. Though, she never ever scolded anyone.

 Seeing all that was happening in the class, she got all emotional. She sat quietly on her chair with face facing downwards, covered by his palms. Everyone in the class was looking at each other, as to who will start the conversation and break the silence. Everyone looked at one boy. He got up on his bench, gathered all the courage, and asked in his trembling voice, “Ma’am! Is everything all right?”

Tears started flowing out of her eyes. Next two minutes, there was a pang of guilt on the faces of each of the children, without knowing the reason for it. Then another guy again managed to get courage and said, “Ma’am please, at least say something”. She wiped tears off her face and said “I always knew, you people never liked me. But I never knew, ya’ll hate my presence so much. It makes me so sad that my absence is such a celebrated thing for you guys. Here I am, I wasn’t even feeling good. I came back from my home, just to ensure that we can complete the whole syllabus before the exams. And I come back to see that you were all so happy because I wasn’t going to come. I just hate my job.

This was the first time we had witnessed her emotional side. And this moment we were all crying together with Mrs. K. Then someone got up and explained, that it wasn’t because we hate her, that we were celebrating. It was just that we were all so tired of studying continuously without break. It wasn’t her; it was the fatigue. Everybody joined in to convince her.

From everyone crying to everyone laughing together, it just took 10 minutes. All of us along with Mrs. K, spent the rest of the lecture playing games, cracking jokes, and celebrating. We had seen two unseen sides of her in a period of one hour.

Of course, there was a lesson. Never judge a book by its cover. 

Roger McGough - The Lesson
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Roger Joseph McGough  (born 9 November 1937) is an English poet, performance poet, broadcaster, children’s author, and playwright. He presents the BBC Radio 4 program Poetry Please, as well as performing his own poetry. McGough was one of the leading members of the Liverpool poets, a group of young poets influenced by Beat poetry and the popular music and culture of 1960s Liverpool. He is an honorary fellow of Liverpool John Moores University, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and President of the Poetry Society.

McGough won a Cholmondeley Award in 1998, and was appointed an Officer (OBE) in 1997, and later, in 2004, Commander (CBE) of the Order of the British Empire. This raised a few eyebrows because the Conservative Party was in power at the time of his OBE. One of McGough’s most memorable and shortest poems was entitled “Conservative Government Unemployment Figures”

He holds an honorary MA from Nene College of Further Education, and honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) degrees from the University of Hull (2004), Roehampton University (2006), and the University of Liverpool (2006). He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004.

‘The Lesson’ by Roger McGough depicts the frustrations of a teacher in a very strange and peculiar manner. I cannot, even in my nightmares, imagine any of my teachers could do such a thing, as illustrated so beautifully in the poem. The poem beautifully discusses the question of violence at school.

In every school, there are kids who are notorious. They are kids, after all. They love shouting, having fun, being a rebel. And teachers too have different patience levels, different other problems, mental states. The students in this case have reached the peak level, in terms of how much they can annoy their teachers. And to teach them a lesson, the teacher decides to go not for corporal but capital punishment.

The poem is full of shockers in every line, especially the last lines of each stanza. There is a very striking use of imagery towards describing how the teacher deals with the students, who have been creating a nuisance for him (which he makes very clear in the first paragraph).

‘The Lesson’ is made up of 10 paragraphs, each of which is a quatrain.

The second and the fourth line of each stanza are rhyming, so the poem follows a rhyming scheme of ABCB in each stanza.

The strong rhythm does complete justice to the powerful theme of the poem.

The meter of each line and paragraph is different. Hence, we can call it a free verse.

The first two lines of the poem are in italics. This separates them from the rest of the poem, making it seem like it is the question and the rest of the poem is the answer to it.

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The Lesson - A poem by Roger McGough
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  1. This was a real joy to read this poem again. It recalled my memories from my work as a teacher. And it was in the second glimpse, a really shocking poem either, with its violence that is in the poem only the inverse of today, modern school life. And I like Mrs. K’s story, as well. Her story with the children is so much human. Thank you for sharing it. 🙏😊

  2. Greetings! Pleasure to meet an excellent poet!

    I’m still learning my way around this site — I pressed the “like” button for this piece and succeeded in getting the existing three “likes” underlines on my screen, but no indication that mine had been added…

    So I’m asking, one versifier to another, um, did you get a “like” from me?

    Don’t know how to pick up my comments either, so maybe you’ll send me a yea or nay at [email protected]?

    Mini thanks! 🤣

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