Ms Burns and The Greeks

School in the days before GCSE and after O Level was a no man’s land of learning. Back then teachers had been thrown from the streaming nature of O Level and CSE into the what was referred to in whispers in the staff room as the General Collapse of Secondary Education (GCSE). As bad science teachers swung phallic metal rods around our heads yelling at us that we could get AIDS from a toilet seat – I kid you not – there were the other types of science teachers that you assumed hated you because you were a child. I thought this of Ms Burns, but looking back I realised that she was a great teacher, in a year that brought illness and long term leave from school she sent home stack after stack of learning and between them all were Greek heroes. You see Ms Burns not only loved science she love myth, she herself was caught between the reality of the world and the parents who wondered why she was a ‘Ms’ and not ‘Miss’, kids that reflected their parents small mindedness, and the way she drummed it into us that is was pronounced, ‘Mm-is’. She was a scary figure to a twelve year old but from her I gained my love of science, my interest in what lay just out of reach in the known world. There in the class we would do sugar tests with half masticated jelly babies, the stupider tables having to copy down what to do because they were without jelly babies, now lurking in their bellies. Give a twelve year old sweets, watch them vanish. At the end she would pull out a slim black volume, it was always black, it was always slim, the kind of thing she could slide into her bag without anyone noticing or taking note.

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She would open the volume and start with the Minotaur, watch Icarus fall from the sky, weep with Dedalus, and tell us to hush as Perseus took centre stage. For most of the kids in the class it fell on deaf ears. I came from a town where people didn’t ask what you were reading but why you were reading. People who read books were mistrusted as if we would some how bamboozle them with words that would rob their souls. Ms Burns was a shining beacon in the labyrinth. The death of my Dad has got me to look back, I do not do so very often but today Ms Burns leant once more upon the science desk, took out the slim volume and told me about Pegasus. Of how Gods came, how Gods became and how Gods went from this world as myth, as stories, as a slim volume upon a pockmarked lab table. They say writers are born, that you cannot make a writer, I don’t know if this is true but if writers are born they need moments like this to let them know there is myth in the world, there are things hidden between all the science that cannot be accounted for, that even science can become myth, can be forgotten, can become something to tell to a classroom of twelve year olds. Looking back to 2011 I realise that when I wrote this poem, Ms Burns was there, leaning against my desk, asking me to find the story behind the myth, the possible truth that I could make a leap for:

The Real Icarus

The men have taken to shore,

drunk and singing, arm in arm with whores.

My son, their Captain, he yells, keep her fast,

sing my shanties or feel the lash.

Away away-oh, away away-oh.

 

Down by the docks he pisses on tramps,

shows them wax burns, all born from lamps.

In alleys, in taverns, he spreads his lies,

shows them goose feathers, bullshit flies.

Away away-oh, away away-oh.

 

I am immortal, says my son, women snigger,

cocks his pistol, smiles, pulls the trigger.

A snap, a fizz against wax, a misfired dud,

my son is not born of my blood.

Away away-oh, away away-oh.

 

Icarus fell here, women say, as I come and go,

in a tavern, in a marketplace, he performed his show.

No fizz, I melted the wax from the barrel of his gun,

he took away my home, my life, my inventions, my son.

Away away-oh, away away-oh.

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