In the usual tower situation, I am invariably at the bottom of the pecking order, splashing around in the shallow end. Unless we have Absolute Beginners in, I feel that everyone strikes better than me, handles their bell better than me, grasps instructions better than me and generally makes more progress. Children overtake me with regularity. I am genuinely happy for them and wish them a lifetime of happy and productive ringing, however, sometimes it feels a bit depressing because even though I put in a lot of work, I don’t seem to make the commensurate progress.
However, at a recent association doubles practice the tables, for once, were turned. Only for 10 minutes, but how satisfying a 10 minutes. We got out the handbells. There was an old wooden box in the corner of the ringing room. It did not advertise its contents and appeared to be a resting place for an empty Quality Street tub and a teetering tower of The Ringing World magazines. All the copies were opened and some looked well-thumbed. Inside the box were some fairly ancient handbells. They sounded nice enough although the leather was floppy and cracked. We got them out.
For an hour, I had been crashing about attempting to hunt the treble. There were only 5 of us so no covering tenor and getting used to the feel of that is still a challenge for me. I was making some progress but much of the advice was going in one ear and out the other, as it often does. Here and there something new made sense and I tried to implement it, but there was no way that I could absorb everything that the more experienced ringers were offering. My steps are little and hesitant, not bold and breath taking.
Then the handbells appeared and suddenly I assumed the position of relative expert. I knew what I was doing with these things compared to the other ringers. I could plain hunt with my eyes shut, standing on one leg and humming the National Anthem. Only 3 of us wanted to play, so we took the back 6 and hunted successfully because a proper ringer can plain hunt an “obvious” pair. Could we Plain Bob it? Advice was asked for from the tenor ringer. He was instructed to hunt his coursing pair for 2 leads, with a nifty dodge at the first lead end, and then at the next lead end would need to make seconds with the 5 bell, which would necessitate some time in the 2-3 position, only to make seconds with the 6 bell at the end of that lead which would bring him back to a coursing pair for the final 2 leads. Simple in my book, but of course not simple if you are not familiar with the feel and language of that. The tenor ringer gave me the sort of look that I give teachers whenever they tell me how to find my way through a method . He understood each individual word, but as an instruction they could not be processed . I recognise that helpless “ what do you mean?” look that was shot in my direction, because most times that I attempt to ring anything other than the most basic thing on tower bells, that is how I feel – I understand each word coming out of my teacher’s mouth, but the words have no meaning when put together. All I can do is try to follow the pattern, and correct each little change when it goes wrong.
Our Plain Bob was not a roaring success. I prompted “dodge” and “make seconds” in what I hoped was a helpful manner, but the 2-3 position proved elusive. However, for me it was a sort of success because for a few minutes I felt the security of being in control; not flying by the seat of my pants for once; not pond life. It is hard for adult learners to always be the supplicants, especially if they have spent a lifetime as the teachers. Feeling at a permanent disadvantage does not sit happily with me, so the chance to shrug on that expert’s mantle and show what I can do and what I do understand about ringing is precious. Some might see it as showing off, but I believe that would be an incorrect interpretation – it is more about re-establishing one’s self esteem which can take a knocking if you are particularly dense at acquiring a new skill.
Furthermore, for the teacher who has had the tables abruptly turned on them, it puts them in the shoes of a learner for a few minutes. They may realise that their pearls of wisdom are not being wilfully ignored. We learners do not think that we know better than them. We are not stubbornly ignoring their experience. We are trying our best to make sense of the advice offered, but sometimes we can only take on board a tiny bit of the offering, if any crumb at all. For a lot of the time my default position is “what do you mean?”.
If teachers are willing to endure the change in the power relationship then I would advise them to try because struggling to do something basic on handbells if you are not used to them will make you a much more empathetic teacher, better able to understand how a learner feels and to appreciate how very hard it can be to act on directions if you don’t feel confident that you know what you are doing. You may not have a learner that can provide this valuable lesson, but I bet there is someone in most bands who can help you to experience first-hand the brain freeze and general fog that can so rapidly descend when asked to do something that is very unfamiliar. My advice would be to seek out that person and put them to use.
Using each others’ strengths in this way makes sense because at the end of the day it will make for a stronger band and surely that is what we all seek?