This is an edited extract from the introduction to Teach 2: Educated Risks which will be published in July 2016
Life’s like the Wizard the Oz…
For six months at the tail-end of 2015 my life was like a macabre version of The Wizard of Oz. I was in search of a new heart and a new brain because mine hadn’t been working very well. It wasn’t their fault; rumour had it, it was my damn kidneys started it.
My kitchen cupboards resembled a well-stocked branch of Boots. I was on a cocktail of medication which controlled the main symptoms but some of the pills sedated me, some sent me loopy with hallucinations. I could smell smoke all the time and saw the world as if through a kaleidoscope. I felt like I was trapped in the 1970s.
It was Hobson’s choice: continue to black-out, vomit, suffer chest pains and debilitating migraines or spend half the day struggling to get dressed and the other half confused by the dimensions of my own bathroom.
For several months, I chose to stare at my shapeshifting shower in stupefaction.
I’d been ill since the summer of 2015 and in and out of hospital since October. There’s no dignity in illness, despite what they say; you leave that at the door. I was prodded, poked and shaved, had fluids injected and extracted from every part of me, and was hooked up to some weird and wonderful machines.
One of the most undignified experiences was the aptly named ‘stress test’. I had my arms and legs wired up to a heart monitor so that I looked like a marionette, albeit one carved from a gnarled log by a blindman (think Keith Richards crossed with Pinocchio).
I was made to run half naked in a room full of young women. You could probably re-arrange the words in that last sentence to create a pornographic fantasy but leave them in their original order and you have, instead, me wobbling like a particularly unappetising jelly on a treadmill whilst a cabal of sadistic student doctors took readings of my heart rate and blood pressure.
Over the course of thirty agonising minutes, I was forced to run at ever-increasing speeds as sweat pooled at my feet. They told me to relax my arms; little did they know I was clinging onto the treadmill for dear life – one false move and I’d have been a YouTube sensation.
When I first went to the doctors feeling unwell – typical man, I’d been ill for a couple of months and had to be frog-marched there by my wife – I described the two main symptoms and had to have the other six slowly coaxed out of me. I threw in a few no’s so as not to sound like a hypochondriac. The doctor took my blood pressure. Three times. Just to be sure. She asked me about my family history and started to look worried. That was two weeks before I dared mention the chest pains.
I’d always joked about my family’s medical history. On my father’s side there’s heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, high cholesterol. On my mother’s side there’s Alzheimer’s and dementia. So with a bit of luck I’d have a heart attack and then forget all about it. But following this most recent scare, I’d started to take it all a bit more seriously. I’d even started dragging myself onto an exercise bike every day to do some cardio vascular work.
I’ve never been a fan of physical activity. Sir Ken Robinson says that academics exist largely inside their own heads and use their bodies simply for transporting their brains back and forth between meetings. I’m not an academic – I have fashion sense and good personal hygiene – but it’s true I exist more in my head than in my body in that I’ve always been more comfortable and contented to engage in mental activity than in physical. If you’ve seen me dance, you’ll know what I mean.
My problem is one of motivation. I find physical activity just too much hard work.
Add to this, the fact that the medication I was on is a strong sedative. It didn’t just make me drowsy; it completely knocked me out. The next time I want to kidnap someone and keep them pacified – you know, really comatose in the basement so the police can’t hear their screams – I’ll crush some of that stuff up in their food.
When I started exercising, I could manage about fifteen minutes of half-hearted cycling. I cycled whilst watching something on TV. It gave me an opportunity to catch up on some of the highbrow stuff my wife wouldn’t let me watch in the comfort of my own living room. But I struggled to get motivated. I stopped after ten minutes for a breather and to clutch my failing heart and then battled through the last five minutes huffing and puffing, fantasising about getting off and lying on the sofa reading a book instead.
Until, that is, I had an idea. And what I did next not only helped me to conquer my natural phobia of physical activity, it also taught me the secret of motivation, a secret I believe can help unlock the potential of even our most reluctant, difficult to reach students.
Read part two to find out more…