The disconcerting ethical ambiguity of the moral of the story in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys did not stop me literally sobbing at the ending of the film, which I watched for the third time this evening:
Mrs Lintott: But of all Hector’s boys, there was only one who truly took everything to heart, who remembers everything he was ever told. The songs, the poems, the sayings, the endings… the words of Hector, never forgotten.
Posner: Slightly to my surprise, I’ve ended up, like you, a teacher—a bit of a stock figure. I do a wonderful school play, for instance. And though I never touch the boys, it’s always a struggle. But maybe that’s why I’m a good teacher. I’m not happy, but I’m not unhappy about it.
Irwin: He was a good man. But I don’t think there’s time for his kind of teaching anymore.
Scripps: No. Love apart, it is the only kind of education worth having.
Hector: Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Pass it on, boys! That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.
Hector, in his small unhistoric way, is the tragic hero of Bennett’s play (not, as some Americans apparently presume, Irwin), and in sympathizing with this poor old man who, other than touching the boys, does everything absolutely pedagogically right, we find ourselves negotiating the minefield of what the Platonic eros is, and whether “other than touching the boys” is a phrase we can allow ourselves to utter while giving Hector an otherwise good review. I, at least, want to say that Hector is wrong to make that a part of his programme; and I want to cry out to Posner and let him know, as glad as I am that the fruit of learning your lessons well, in Bennett’s mind, is becoming a teacher, you do not have to desire your students, to sublimate your sexual energy, in order to teach them well. But I also regret that this is a conversation we need to have, in order to rationalize the fact that I broke down and sobbed and sobbed in my room in the sunlit Oxford springtime evening, thankful that this character in a play learnt something from his sad and troubled teacher. I regret that this is a play that I don’t feel as if I could ever put up in front of a family audience, as ably as I think it teaches the lesson of teaching and learning for itself.