I was very lucky really; I went to a crap school. There was no money and therefore no resources and therefore nothing much of anything. We, the kids, knew this and the teachers did too. That being the case, the school could only attract teachers who couldn’t get a job anywhere else, or had already managed to screw up badly that one decent shot somewhere else, and boy did we have some incumbent doozies.
You name it, we had it; the ones who had a special type of interest in children, the stupid, the brutal, the drunks who still had the discipline to just about make it to midday, the embittered old bitches determined to deliver some payback to the enemy before they became men, the sadists who just knew the world was out of step with their methods and the vast majority who just turned up for the day and couldn’t give a rat’s ass whether anybody ever learnt anything in their class or not. We even had a nymphomaniac, who swung both ways and hunted indiscriminately the playground and the staff room. She wore herself out in the end.
Without going into many details, it was all a bit racial and tribal and us kids knew it too but it took us first years, in our brand new blazers that our parents had been skinned for, a while to realise it. It was an educational black hole that sucked out any academic aspirations a kid ever entertained and knocked them into shape for a life on the production line, if they were lucky enough to have an ambition left after it had farted them out the arse end. There was this magic moment when you realised what was what and you went one of two ways. Most people went the angry route but accepted it in the end; so that’s the way it is and played the game, which was the smart move. Just do your time quietly and get out of there as soon as possible. I and a few others went the awkward way and decided to beat the system.
Not all the teachers were crap though and they were the saving grace. Three of them stand out in my memory. The first was a man who taught me the basics of English. I hated him for about two or three years, which is forever when you’re a kid. Every time I turned in a bit of English with a mistake, he jumped on me from on high and in front of the whole damn class. We had some pretty good fights.
I once wrote what I thought was a learned essay on dinosaurs, after a lot research at the local library, but I’d used “it’s” as the possessive pronoun all the way through. He read aloud the erudite monograph all the way through, substituting for it’s claws, it’s eyes, etc etc, it is claws, it is eyes etc etc. I hated the bastard but I’ve never confused a possessive pronoun with an elision to this day. To be fair to him, that was a righteous kill.
He taught me a lot of things about English but the important one was that it was a precision tool. No sentence ever died from blunt force trauma in his class, it was killed very precisely. When I’d grown up a bit, we became the best of friends. He directed my reading and very generously loaned me a steady stream of good books that I couldn’t afford and in return, I kept him well supplied with the latest pulp science fiction authors, a genre we both shared an illicit liking for. I never let out that he wasn’t such a hardass really.
The next one would be the woodwork teacher. He was impressive. Most of the other teachers couldn’t maintain a semblance of classroom discipline without a periodic bout of screaming, shouting or brutality. The little finger of his left hand maintained an easy control of thirty-five pretty rough kids while he taught them the subject. Most of them eventually left the place without passing a single exam except one; woodwork. His kids were the only ones who voluntarily turned up at lunch break to work unsupervised on their various projects. This was particularly impressive since, given the vast selection of sharp tools to hand, no one ever got stabbed. Everyone knew his workshop was neutral turf and respected it, even the mad dogs.
You haven’t lived unless you’ve listened to two kids, who were already making a decent living in the tough world of retail pharmaceutical supply, discussing the exact marking up of a secret lapped mitred dovetail joint and that’s not a spliff, by the way. Like the English teacher, he taught us to work precisely but with our hands. You didn’t decide to cut along the line but rather which side of it to cut. How he ever arrived at that school, I’ll never know but he left in the end for a deputy headship of a prestigious school but everyone knew it was just a matter of time. He was simply too good to stay in that joint for long.
I still like making things with my hands and there’s an automatic reflex to do them just right, which he instilled in me and others. The thing I really learned from him was what a massive effect a natural leader could have on any enterprise. Him they’d work for, because they trusted him and wanted to be part of the team ethos he’d built with each of his classes. He had us inside a bubble of confidence and purpose that floated totally unaffected in a languid sea of who gives a damn anyway.
The last but certainly not the least, was the genteel old lady who taught me advance math. I’d determined to get to college but the place didn’t teach physics, biology or chemistry because it was supposed to be for the sons and daughters of the proletariat, whose mission in life was to lay bricks for or cook the meals of our betters. Realistically, if I wanted to get into college, I’d have to do math since it fulfilled the mandatory science requirement and needed no equipment other than a clear mind and some books I could afford.
I’d always hated the subject. With a heavy heart, I bought the books and prepared for a big slog on my own, from the basics of fractions to those perennially enigmatic squiggles called equations. No one was more surprised than myself, when I covered the entire syllabus in a few months and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I fell in love with the subject. Gone were the fudges and uncertainties that plagued all the other ones. It was simple, lucid and elegant; beautiful really. I know from personal experience, most people’s education in math has been aversion therapy but believe me, it was fun. What was supposed to be a minor part of my college entrance exams became what I was going to study there. The problem was that Stalag Luft III didn’t have a teacher who could teach that level of math, they struggled finding one whose knowledge extended beyond arithmetic. I was going to study for the advanced exams, with or without a teacher, since I’d already done that by necessity in several subjects by this stage but they found someone.
Wheel on the genteel old lady. She was long retired at this stage and a spot of part-time teaching in the murkier depths of the educational morass must have appealed to her. She was an eye opener. I never found out exactly what her qualifications were but you could tell she was academic gentry from the way the other teachers nearly genuflected when she marched past them, clutching her folder and peering myopically but determinedly into the distance.
She never ambled anywhere; this was a woman always on some mission. They sometimes screwed up the courage to venture a hello to her and after a moment of stunned silence and blinking on her part, she’d brake to a stop, come back to Earth and have a chatty conversation with them but you could see there was always the nagging feeling that they’d dragged someone back from the bliss of some nirvana, just so they’d notice an ordinary mortal like them existed.
I and another equation fiddler spent two years in her company, learning how to look at the world in a certain way and bend equations accordingly. I can safely say, I never learnt a formula in her class, I learnt how the formula was derived from first principles. She didn’t hand out fish to people; she taught them how to fish and she made you work bloody hard for it too. When she got us up to speed and doing things her way, she’d write up a formula on the blackboard and challenge us to prove it or prove it wrong.
Catch! Here’s the chalk kiddo, away you go. After a particularly lively session, I swear to God the three of us staggered out of that small room suffering from the effects of chalk inhalation, if there is such a thing. By the time she finished with me, I was ready to gargle mathematical hand grenades and ask for more. She was a great teacher.
She taught me about never giving up on a problem. There is an aspect to studying math that is peculiarly frustrating. You’re sailing along, working your way through different topics with no problems and then you get stuck on one. For some reason, you just can’t get your head around it. The only way forward is to keep bashing your head against it and eventually the light of understanding will dawn and you’ll wonder why you ever had a problem in the first place. If you don’t give up, that’ll happen in the end and she could see it happening to me occasionally. She told me exactly what was happening and exactly what to do. There weren’t any painless shortcuts; just keep on bashing at it.
She was old enough to have won a sprinting medal at the Olympics, back in the days when they held a separate one, just for the women folk. At a time in her life when most people her age were starting to dribble or going gaga, she was still practicing her profession superbly and with zest. When she went on holiday abroad, she spent the months before picking up a smattering of the language, as she’d say but she was being modest; she was a pretty good linguist. She got me through rotations of conic sections and I cleaned up her German. She was a tough gal, never too old or proud to learn something of interest from whatever dubious source. If I ever get to her age, I want to have that same attitude of mind.
The positives of going through a school of that sort are that having refused to allow yourself to be processed by it, you’re a free man. If they can’t or won’t provided you with an education, you do it for yourself. Find out the syllabus, beg, borrow or steal the books and cover it. I did every single one of those, including the stealing. Any dependency on them is broken; you’re an independent. You pay a price though.
Any time an individual decides to do their own thing and not run with the pack, people get uneasy. There’s a feeling that you’re breaking the machine and people don’t like that so they react and you’re the focal point. They work out a few of their own frustrations on you too and there’s usually a lot of them but that’s just the way the thing works. It’s a bit cathartic for everyone involved but you do learn to go down fighting, so that’s okay. It’s just rock and roll.
Looking back on it, it would be nice if I’d had some grand plan but really I didn’t; I was just a kid with too much pride and initially determined not to let my parents down but in the end myself, and it was at times a lonely business. I thought it over more than once. Just give up and they’d understand because I’d been getting home after too many times on the losing end of too many beatings and to their credit, they never inquired too deeply. They knew exactly what was going on but knew me well enough to stand off and wait until I put my hand up to them. I’d have never forgiven them if they’d pulled me out but anyway, I knew there was nowhere else to go. I could not have asked for better parents.
I suppose we all reach that point. What the hell, just give up, everyone else has. Why should you be anybody different? You somebody special? Just let go, it’ll be so easy. Stop being an awkward bastard and just join the bloody club for once. In all honesty, you think about it but you can’t bring yourself to do it. Gowan. Just for once, you can do it. No more waves. Go with the flow, everyone will be happy except you and you know you can take that bullet but it would break something in you.
I suppose it’s my Karma but all those Eastern philosophers and their acceptance Karma can take it and shove it where the sun never shines. Sometimes you just have to fight back, irrespective of whether you know you’re right or not. It may not be the smart move but it’s your move and if you can take the punishment, nobody but yourself can take that away from you. We are what we are and when it’s important to me, I don’t need anybody to reassure me that whatever direction I’m going in is somehow the correct or the proper one. I’ll think about it, make my decision, take my chances and live with the consequences either way. What else can you do? Success or failure, they’re both imposters as Kipling observed but always take your shot. If you don’t, what else is your life about? Whose life are you living anyway? Arrogant I know, but it was part of me recognising who I am and a lesson for life.
The only boundaries you’ll ever have in it are the ones you choose to accept.
If you get into that situation, you’ll get a lot of pressure, both from your peers and the people in charge, especially the latter since you’ve taken any power they had over you away from them. In effect, I suppose they took offence at my not availing myself of the services they weren’t providing anyway and it got pretty venial at times. They were small people entrusted by default with a gram of power over children and couldn’t resist using it to grind the natural optimism out of them and down to their level of cynicism about life. There wasn’t much I could do about the troubles sent my way from that direction except tough it out but there were three people on the inside who could, and I know did, help me out a lot on that front.
In so many ways, I owe a debt to them which I’ll never be able to repay, as I’m sure do a lot of other kids over the years, who were fortunate enough to have encountered them as teachers and then as friends.
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