The other day I was reading Norman MacCaig's poem "Toad" with a class of 16/17 year olds - not very academic young people, but perfectly normal ones. The poem is about a toad, as you might expect. And when I'd gone over it and explained it a bit, one of them said, "What's a toad?"
I've been teaching for several hundred years now - or that's what it feels like - and every now and then something like this happens. I've explained everything that I think could possibly be obscure about a text and then someone asks a question like this and I realise that I'm making unwarranted assumptions about their general knowledge. The awful thing is that - presumably - students fairly often have such gaps in their understanding, but I don't usually find out.
On this occasion I said to the rest of the class, "Who knows what a toad is?" and another student asked, "Is it a kind of lizard?"
I know you don't get that many toads walking along the city streets, but - well, hmmm.
Norman MacCaig is my favourite poet . He lived from 1910-1996, in Edinburgh, but spent a lot of his holidays in a cottage in the Highlands, where I imagine he met the toad. I got three comments today - how exciting! - and just in case anyone should be reading this who doesn't know his work, here is "Toad":
Stop looking like a purse. How could a purse
squeeze under the rickety door and sit,
full of satisfaction, in a man's house?
You clamber towards me on your four corners -
right hand, left foot, left hand, right foot.
I love you for being a toad,
for crawling like a Japanese wrestler,
and for not being frightened.
I put you in my purse hand, not shutting it,
and set you down outside directly under
A jewel in your head? Toad,
you've put one in mine,
a tiny radiance in a dark place.