The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Best Freakin’ Teacher in the World

In my first year at secondary school, I saw two dogs copulating.  It was lunchtime, on the grass.  The one on top had his tongue hanging out – hanging out, too, I mean.  I ran inside with another boy to find the Science teacher.  We weren’t telling on the dogs.  Sir had just been teaching us the facts of life, and we thought he should know.  We were only thirteen.

He told us it was normal, the dogs’ behaviour, but talking about it obviously wasn’t.  The smile dropped off his face, the half-smile that was always on his lips, like a euphemism, his own fact of life, which meant: I know more than you.  He was embarrassed.  It didn’t occur to me, but he wasn’t the best teacher in the world. 

On the shortlist this year – that’s right, The Best Teacher in the World, 2015 – there was another Science master, the UK winner.  He sings and dances during lessons.  I think this was crucial for the judges.  The finest teacher in the land!  Animal sex won’t bother you.  Get your dance steps from it. 

As for my old master, the only shortlist he could make would be in centimetres.  I mean his height.  Let’s move on from the dogs.  He was bald, too.  His head was as smooth as an electric bulb, although I never touched it, and came with a laboratory shine.  The room he taught in was set up for experiments, like a real laboratory where discoveries are made.  The boys loved it, though each new fact was merely new to them. Standing at the bench, I saw my partner slip away to a place I couldn’t follow, and didn’t want to, a world of Bunsen flames, test tubes and powders. 

One day, the Science master came to Latin, a folder in his arm, and gazed knowingly around. No randy dogs up here.  Freaky, gentle Freaky, was behind his desk, where he mostly was, facing several rows of pink-cheeked boys.  To be honest, when the old chap was sitting there, it wasn’t just a desk.  It was a rampart against us.  In Freaky's room, which looked dusty even after sweeping, and was full of ancient words, experiments would fail. 

Baldy (I’m just calling him that now) stood inside the door, smiling his little smile, the half-crack in the breakfast egg.  You felt he was making phrases in his head, quips that would explain the little smile, but were too clever to waste on us. 

He had some test results.  He opened his mark book, deliberately, the way a priest holds the Bible, and found the right page.  Then he read out the scores.  He wasn’t the best teacher in the world, but I wasn’t the best pupil either.  There was a boy who used to come bottom, until he got expelled, and vacated that post for me. 

When Baldy finished reading, he closed his folder and addressed the class, but he was looking at me: “Spaid has no interest in Science.” 

He asked Freaky how I did in Latin,

“Oh, he’s not too bad,” muttered Freaky

“He’s going to be a lawyer, not a doctor,” Baldy smiled, still looking at me.

A lawyer, not a doctor.  We know how things turned out.  He was being kind.  How could a boy not like Science?    

How could a teacher not wait for his own lesson?  He interrupted Latin, and the modern world’s most deferential master.  It made your tongue hang out.  

He didn’t butt in on Geography.  I was good at that, too.  He’s going into the jungle.  He didn’t trespass on PE.  It’s just as well.  You can spend your life running.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

The History of Rooms

At the end of the year, we had exams in the hall, except for Latin.  I was the only candidate.  They couldn’t waste the hall, so they put me in a classroom instead.  I had Economics there.  I was learning about money.  Ironic, isn’t it?

That room brought out the worst in me.  It was on the first floor.  Once, during an Economics lesson, the teacher went down to speak to someone.  They were standing on the pathway below.  To fill in time, I spat through the window, quite judiciously, but a moment later, the teacher reappeared.

“Who spat out of the window?”  Silence.  “Who spat out of the window?” 

I raised my hand.  When the teacher saw it, he shook his head.  He was very angry.  I mouthed the word sorry.  There was no punishment.

Another afternoon, the boys were all working.  Sir had set an exercise and sat back in his chair.  At times like this, when he followed his own thoughts, you could feel him ebb away, like water over hard sand.  A bird stopped singing, started, and stopped again.  The windows were open and the sun was shining.  It was one of those days which people say are perfect, when even a room at school seems the right place to be.  A workman on the path raised his voice.  I said, very quietly, “Fucking working class.” 

Sir jerked his head around, but just went “Ah!” like warning a puppy.  Again, no punishment, and he thought I meant it.  He should have punished me even though I didn’t.  It might have cured me.  I’ve got irony. 

The same man once said to me: “When teachers criticise you in the staffroom, I always defend you.” 

He was trying to be nice.  I pictured them in their armchairs, all the old boys, sipping tea, and backbiting Spaid.  Rooms have history. 

A year later, when I’d left school, we passed each other on the street.  I looked into his face.  He smiled, and began to speak, but I looked right through him. 

Pedestrian Economics.  You don’t hear people ask: What’s the point of learning this?  At last, in my Latin exam, the world caught up with me, in the shape of a cleaning lady. 

There was no invigilator.  I understood the hall, but this was disappointing.  They hadn’t bothered.  The teacher’s desk had never looked so empty.  I didn’t bring a dictionary.  Invigilators steal them.  After months of fecund cheating, I’d been dropped into the desert, in school uniform, with nothing but a pen.  Freaky had dictionaries, a whole cupboard of them.  I wished I was there.  The school day was over, except for my exam.  He didn’t need his room.  There was no Latin club.  He didn’t coach a team in Ancient History. 

Then you walked in with a mop and bucket, like an actor from a casting agency.  You had an apron, and a scarf in your hair.  You had muscles, too.  In terms of rubbish, you invigilated.  You examined every corner of the room, and held all the answers in your hand.   

You also distracted me.  I only answered half the paper, and got a low grade.  It served me right.  You punished me, when no one else did, for the wrong things I’d done in that room.  You were some cleaning lady.

I ignored him, the teacher who defended me.  Add it to your jobs-to-do, my list of wrong things.  You didn’t see his face.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Freaky Holmes

Being an only pupil, like an only child, means that you’ll be spoilt.  You get away with things.  For me, in Latin lessons, this meant cheating.  I know.  I was only cheating myself – well, me and Freaky. 

The old chap left the room a lot, even during tests.  As soon as he shuffled out, I got a dictionary and looked up the words I didn’t know.  I needn’t have bothered.  I was, ipso facto, coming top.  I cheated for the sake of it, because I could.  After one of these tests, I told another boy about the dictionary.  He swivelled his lips in pleasure, and said, like a compliment, “Spaid, you’re basically dishonest.”

Outwitting sir was not merely right, it was obligatory.  I didn’t realise then, but Freaky was outwitting me.  He had his own deceptions, like everybody else, and walking out of class was one of them.  I assumed he had a reason, other than just wanting to escape.  Important teacher business.  He never told me why he left, but he would have had excuses for himself.  The lessons were a favour from the start.  He was giving up his free time for me, a single pupil, when he needn’t have.  Besides, he didn’t think I’d misbehave.  What could one boy do?  One spineless boy.  In Freaky's class, I never misbehaved, not openly.  Freaky didn’t, either.  I thought he was spineless too.  In short, we undervalued each other, and lived in harmony.

On certain mornings, we had assembly in the hall.  The whole school was there.  I say we and whole, but I arrived late and missed it, deliberately.  I set my alarm so I had no chance of waking up in time.  It felt good in the empty school.  The spaces looked different without any boys.  The best part was knowing they were there, invisible, in ranks in the hall.  A thousand boys had acquiesced, and I wasn’t one of them. 

I had never been caught, and I was getting careless.  Once, when Freaky’s lesson was after assembly, other people’s assembly, I strolled up to class to wait for him.  When he padded in and saw me, he looked surprised.  The masters left the hall before the boys.  He had come straight up.  How could I have got there before him?

His surprise was, well, surprising.  There was never much emotion on his face.  I looked at him more closely.  The moustache I knew.  There was no surprise there.  It was identical each day, and didn’t seem to grow.  It was hair in a portrait, or fixed on every morning like a medal.  It was trim, dry thatch where birds couldn’t go.  It was, in fact, a replica of Arthur Conan Doyle’s in the photograph from 1907.  

We trusted each other, me and Freaky, when we shouldn’t have.  The time he found me waiting in his room, it waved a red flag in his head.  I must have skipped assembly.  There was no other explanation.  He stared at me.  I had never seen him so alert.  Somewhere on his face, along with the surprise, I saw the first doubt.  Perhaps I wasn’t so spineless after all. 

He asked me if I’d gone to assembly.  I said yes, but you couldn’t fool Freaky.  He persisted.  He asked me what the Head had talked about.  There was a new theme each day to interest, then edify, the boys.  I paused before I answered, as if regretting what I had to say: “I don’t listen all that closely.”

Freaky relaxed, and muttered in his old, sheepish way, “I don’t either.”

Friday, 6 March 2015

Freaky want a tweaky? Per tela, per hostis

I studied Latin right through secondary school.  The longer I studied it, the fewer pupils there were.  By the final year, I was the only one.  Australia, cemetery of ancient tongues.  

The man who taught me came from England, like the name of the college, and its architecture.  Freaky was an old-style Classics master.  He put MA (Oxon) after his name, which already had a hyphen, and now looked even longer.  The word before the hyphen rhymed with freak, so we called him Freaky, with affection, but with accuracy.  He stood out from the other staff.  He must have taught Greek when there were pupils, but those days were gone.  It would have helped my writing, my poetry of ridicule.  He rhymed with Greek, too. 

I knew Freaky for five years.  At the start, he didn’t notice me, but, by the end, he looked dissatisfied.  I was too quiet.  You’d think that, with the help of puberty, I could make a noise, eventually.  But I couldn’t.  As a classicist, he valued public speaking.  Public noise came first.  He advised me to go somewhere deserted and shout at the top of my voice.  I had a mentor now.  Karate Kid II, in Roman numerals. 

Let it out!  Somewhere deserted.  It was classic Freaky.  I could have given him his own advice: Go on, Freaky, shout!  He wasn’t the most assertive Latinist. 

What did he care if I didn’t make a noise?  The other teachers weren’t too bothered.  I think, when he looked at me, he saw a version of himself when he was younger.  A shiny, little Freaky.  I had his bent shoulders, the same, dopey eyes, without the bushy thing below the nose.  But there was hope for me.  I could still avoid his life-in-diffidence.  From my point of view, I saw a baby in a crib, silent, immobile, with a jacket and moustache. 

There are advantages in being the only pupil.  You come top, for a start.  I had a rival on just one occasion.  The State Latin-speaking Competition.  Don’t laugh.  There was one other entrant, a pupil from a different school, who, strangely, was not as good as me.  Move on, you’re saying, but let’s stop a moment and grapple with my excellence at speaking.  Freaky entered me, in the contest, I mean, to help me be assertive.  He didn’t think I’d win.   

How could someone who hardly spoke win a prize for speaking?  Apparently, despite myself, I excel at pointless things.  As for the Latin-speaking, it wasn’t conversation.  We recited verse.  I culled a few lines from Virgil’s Aeneid, the second book.  Imagine that, a second book.

A teacher told me that Freaky was generous giving up his time for a single pupil.  I was meant to feel grateful.  For a few hours of Latin!  Four, long years I had picked through that faultless skeleton. 

Freaky’s disappointment was annoying.  His lessons were nothing to shout in, or about.  I took revenge and wrote my own verse.  I put flesh on bone, in other words, then showed it to my friends. 

Freaky want a tweaky up his little cock?
Does he want his scrotum strangled by a sock?
Does he want bananas up his smelly arse?
Does he want a fucking from an eager class?

Freaky could have said all this in Latin.  He might have liked it, too.  In places, the ancients are obscene.  There was no word for banana.  There were no bananas, not in Rome.  Banana, bananae, first declension.  Feminine.  Not the ones I had in mind.
Freaky: Decline banana for me.                                                                                                                 Spaid: Just say no.