ALAN SAMPSON Schools of Fish. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
This heartfelt winner of the 2015 Finch Memoir Prize is a well-paced story of parenting and career challenges, and the crisis that drove Alan Sampson to re-evaluate his long-held worldview.
The narrative opens with Sampson revealing himself as an outwardly fearsome but inwardly fearful school principal. His workaholic attitude and reputation as a strict disciplinarian and school administrator have earned him a promotion to inspector of schools, but his career takes a step backward when his marriage falls apart. Choosing to relocate to stay close to his children, he finds himself a principal again, this time at a notoriously difficult Brisbane secondary school.
Though the first few chapters move back and forth through time, detailing the roots of Sampson’s career and family life, the narrative’s main events take place over his years as in Brisbane. That’s when Sampson enrolls his youngest son, Greg, in the school he oversees. This goes against the common wisdom of education professionals, but Sampson has a reason for wanting to keep Greg close. While his four elder children have lived up to Sampson’s expectations of academic and sporting excellence, Greg has struggled throughout school due to dyslexia. As Sampson describes it:
His brothers and sisters tried to help him read but Greg was embarrassed to be different in front of them, too. They didn’t really understand it either and were sure that whatever he had, like the flu, would suddenly leave one day and he would breathe in the alphabet as free and easy as anyone else … We didn’t have a family meeting about it, or talk openly. Instead, Greg became as frustrated with himself as [my wife] and I were with each other.
Despite being an educator, Sampson has little understanding of how to support Greg. In his mind at the time, there are only two categories of students: high achievers and underachievers. Greg falls clearly among the latter. Though Sampson wants the best for him, he doesn’t know what to do other than lecturing him to apply himself.
In many scenes, Sampson portrays emotional difficulties through well-chosen details, such as the bleakness he experiences after his divorce:
Even the smell of sheets was strange, like waking up in a foreign hotel. I tried to buy the brand of detergent Margaret had used for years, to make the kids feel closer to the familiar smell of home, but I could never find it. All I got were puzzled looks from passers-by as I sniffed the boxes in the detergent aisles.
It isn’t the divorce that ultimately changes Sampson, however; it is his efforts to get to know his youngest son in his final year of high school, when he allows himself to experience the world as his son knows it by taking up surfing, Greg’s lifelong passion.
In the water, Sampson becomes the clumsy, struggling student, and Greg the knowledgeable, confident teacher. The insights of this role-reversal – paired with a serious crisis that serves as the book’s climax – lead Sampson to re-evaluate not only his own worldview, but the entire school system.
Much of the narrative’s success comes from Sampson’s willingness to be scathing about himself. He struggles with others – his son, his wife, the students in his school, the under-performing educators in his school – but his main struggle is with himself, his black-and-white outlook, and his ingrained concept of success:
Work became my way of dealing with life, and it was much easier to deal with issues and children that weren’t so close to home. I wasn’t even aware of the separate challenges each of my children faced. Such was the level of communication skills at the time. It was a telling account of my ability, as a grown man, to deal with my own emotions.
By the end, he is able to envision and apply a new model for success – a more flexible and inclusive one – the results of which become evident in his school.
Sampson has crafted a focused, purposeful narrative, one that is especially valuable for the insights it offers educators and parents into empathy, leadership and success.
ALAN SAMPSON Schools of Fish Finch 2015 PB 256pp $27.99
Ashley Kalagian Blunt has written for Griffith Review, McSweeney’s and Right Now. She teaches writing and public speaking, performs stand-up and has written two memoirs. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @AKalagianBlunt.
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