there were punches that went to my head...

As a thinker one should speak only of self-education. The education of youth by others is either an experiment carried out on an as yet unknown and unknowable subject, or a leveling on principle with the object of making a new being, whatever it may be, conform to the customs and habits then prevailing: in both cases therefore something unworthy of the thinker, the work of those elders and teachers whom a man of rash honesty once described as nos ennemis naturels.
- One day, when one has long since been educated as the world understands it, one discovers oneself: here begins the task of the thinker; now the time has come to call on him for assistance - not as an educator but as one who has educated himself and thus knows how it is done.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow
(with thanks to Philip)

Last time I had to do a school assembly I ended up writing a Tangents piece about the whole experience. It seemed a good idea at the time, and it still does, in so far as it gets my head in gear, gets me heading in the directions I might want to take some other peoples' heads, given half a chance. The theme for this weeks' assembly is 'challenge' and I have half a notion that it's going to end up with me treading well beaten paths, saying lots of things I've said lots of times before. But not to these bored and blank faces, and not in these particular circumstances, and not with these particular nuances of reference. And anyway, I make no apologies for treading similar paths many times, for restating familiar themes; didn't Rothko do just the same with his canvases of deep inner colour, casting hues of religious fervour, and don't Rothko do just the same with their canvases of deep sonic breath, each understanding the importance of obsessive exploration, that the subtlety of nuance is all important.

I've been thinking about education recently. More to the point I've been thinking about learning, which of course isn't always the same thing at all. I've been thinking about how we learn things, how we come across the things that matter so much to us that they stick with us, if not for the rest of our lives, at least for a large proportion of them. There's always an assumption that you do most of your learning when you're a teenager, when you're in school, and although I think that's true to a degree, it's not the whole picture. Certainly I remain deeply unconvinced that anything that you learn in school has very little connection with curriculum, or even anything that is structured much. Anyway, I was discussing all of this with a friend in the pub, and it was then that I realised that actually I can barely remember anything from my own school days. It felt strange thinking back, and so I wrote down what I could remember. Here it is:

I remember being asked by other kids if I supported Rangers or Celtic, and I remember being beaten up for giving the wrong answer, although no doubt you've heard me tell about that before of course.

I remember some kid punching me in the face because he said I looked like a girl.

I remember being called a 'wee poof' so many times I lost count.

I remember riding my bike, going miles away by myself over lanes and back roads, exploring the world and my thoughts. I once rode over Alpine passes on my bike and beneath me were the names of cycle stars that the Tour De France fans had painted on the crumbling tarmac. I always had immense regard for these riders, but the more so for experiencing the mountains myself: imagine then the level of awe I have for Lance Armstrong, the rider who came back from Death's door at the hands of cancer and dominated the Tour in '99.

I remember walking on the beach at midnight in the winter with the stars out and the moon reflecting on the sea.

I remember this art teacher I had, who never said anything about your work, just pointed at your painting and wobbled his hand, expecting you to know what he meant. I think he was a big influence... And although I came out of school with what would these days be an A* in Physics I'd be hard pushed to remember very much of use from the lessons, except that one day a substitute teacher told the class about The Velvet Underground. I remember he made them sound terrific.

I remember reading books and poems and finding words that made me want to touch the sky.

I remember listening to the radio late at night, and I remember song lyrics that meant the world to me.

I've been playing Kevin Rowland's version of 'The Greatest Love of All' a lot recently. I don't like the song, you understand, but I do know what he means about not wanting to walk in anyone's shadow. I wrote about that idea over ten years ago, for a forgotten magazine, although the context then was the Stone Roses. There's nothing like Pop references to date writing...

Kevin Rowland has always been a great influence and inspiration to me. Not Kevin Rowland the person, per se, you understand, but the words and ideas that flowed from his mouth in songs, interviews and sleeve notes. All those words about Soul and pride and strength. The words about running, searching, burning and making stands: they made sense, made me want to do something special. As such, it doesn't interest me that he had his drug hell and that he now chooses to tell us about it and wear dresses. The moment has passed, and if I care for Kevin Rowland now it is as a voice that can make my heart want to explode, as it does when he says "listen" before breaking forth with the aforementioned "I decided long ago, I didn't want to walk in anyone's shadow."

When I was eleven or twelve I read Niki Lauda's autobiography, in which he said that he never at any point in his life wanted to be anyone but himself. When starting out driving he had no hero that he wanted to emulate, or at least he never imagined himself to be that hero. I always thought it was a great thing to say, a fine way to believe, and I took it to heart. It was something I always thought that Kevin Rowland echoed in everything he did, certainly back in the day, and I'm not sufficiently informed to suggest that it's any different now; and that is the same fierce inner pride and the same feeling of obsessively chasing personal goals, rising to challenges set by the soul and the heart.

It remains a vital ideal for living.

© Alistair Fitchett 1999