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Red Pill or Blue Pill: ITE Placement #1: The first day…

by Dr Neil Garner , Senior Lecturer ITE and Subject Lead for Secondary Music Education


It was a crisp autumn morning.

The early morning chill easily repelled the best efforts of the horizontal Sun. I had not slept well. I got up early: My first day. As my future and destination approached, I felt a powerful sense of unease: A strong disturbance in the ‘force’.

The inevitability of my return to school effortlessly yet relentlessly collapsing my twenty-five-year authorised absence.

With each step forwards a torrent of emotions and memories relentlessly decrypted, stripping back the years…back to then. I was losing my armour. My dual-purpose psychic prison designed to both, keep me ‘in’ and, keep me ‘out’ was dismantling.

40 Years of experiential ‘Kevlar’ now proffered little, if any emotional protection. Time had stood still. The system to which I was about to return knew very well who I used to be. The system remained, as always, well defended, and potent. The system had done its job. I had been made safe.

Disarmed upon approach.

As I recall, (probably erroneously), there may have been an early October frost that morning and my hands would not warm up despite my best efforts. Cold hands, the musician’s curse, are never a good portent. Outwardly a steadfast Northerner, inwardly somewhat reduced, I stalked the main entrance, there, a familiar sign, complete with a cartoon Kitchener pointing hand firmly instructed, ‘could all visitors please report to reception’.

The next part of this ITE placement #1 chronesthesia still reverberates with me, and it is just as discomforting. This recollisional re-creation proffers a personal impact statement on the invisible and irreversible ‘Bordieuan’ effects of social reproduction via compulsory schooling and education.

I placed the flat of my hand on the heavy glass door and slowly pushed my reflection into the past.

I crossed the threshold. It and I collided violently. The sensorium of the school overloaded my perceptual system. The smell, the sight, the sound, this place was a time capsule, a perceptual anachronism. It was an emotional Tardis. Distressingly, this hyper-controlled edu-reality appeared completely divorced from the world outside, a miraculously maintained ‘blue pill’ worthy of the movie ‘The Matrix’ (1999).

In Freudian terms this was a somewhat severe attack on my psyche and by the mere fact that I can, and am, recalling and reliving this moment as I write, will inform the reader of the power and criticality of this event.

Before even entering the profession, I appeared to be having a ‘critical incident’ whilst simultaneously becoming a burgeoning ‘cause for concern’.

I’m returned, once more, to school.

I am feeling eviscerated by my circumstance. Am I really, willingly returning to the life-long tyranny of the ‘courtyard of habit and tradition’?

From the receptionist’s desk I can see a chalkboard detailing music rehearsal times. As I carefully stretch my arm to receive my temporary trainee teacher ID, irrationally, I begin to panic over the correct spelling of essential words like rhythm, practice, and rehearsal. On the plus side, for a few weeks at least I would possess a ‘box fresh’ pair of un-institutionalised eyes, easily separating the ‘curriculum wood’ from the ‘learning trees’. (Once embedded in the system this clarity of vision would prove hard to maintain.) However, despite my best efforts of suspending disbelief, at that very first moment when I re-entered the Secondary school system as a PGCE student, something just felt wrong… profoundly wrong…(TBC)

The event I have described above probably lasted about 4 minutes in real time. It provides an intensely personal autoethnographic shard-like glimpse of my very first moments as a nervous trainee music teacher on my first placement in a large North London comprehensive. It was over 22 years ago and at the time I would have been around 40 years old.

Needless to say, I had been places and done stuff. What happened back then was exceptional and, in my life, so far it remains in a constellation of one! I have managed to preserve the 4K-like clarity of my re-introduction to education simply because I am unable to forget it.

As educators, or would be educators, it would be wise to always bear in mind the educare/educere power of compulsory schooling. When the natural learning process is harnessed through schooling and education, such interventions are intended to purposively steer individuals through transformations…Towards extrinsic, politically positioned goals, that is, goals that often are not the choice nor in the control of the recipient.

When the present-day Plato-esque-politico ‘Guardians’ choose to harness the fundamental power of the natural learning process, a process that is synonymous with Life itself, towards whatever purpose, with man-made interventions that permanently disrupt, transform and change others…My question will remain,

’quis custodiet Ipsos custodes?’

Students of the Movie ‘The Matrix’ (1999) to be re-released as ‘The Matrix 4’ (2021) would have enjoyed my earlier autoethnographic analogy twinning the schooling and wider educational systematisation as the ‘blue pill’.

If you haven’t guessed already, without a moment of hesitation…

I chose then (1999), and still choose now (2021) the ‘red pill’.

n.b. The terms ‘red pill’ and ‘blue pill’ refer to a choice between the willingness to learn a potentially unsettling or life-changing truth by taking the red pill or remaining in contented ignorance with the blue pill. The terms refer to a scene in the 1999 film ‘The Matrix’. (Wikipedia n.b)

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