Teaching needs characters.
If the oft-repeated maxim is true: “Pupils do not learn subjects – they learn teachers,” then we need to populate our schools with school teachers and ma’ams whose impact is such that the ones most needing education – the grubby little so-andso’s in the back row – at least remember them.
One wonders how much truth there actually is in these maxims, although I do know one that definitely is true: “No teacher ever went on holiday anywhere without encountering at least one pupil.”
It is amazing how, at any school reunion, alumnae fall over themselves to regale each other with stories (each one capping the one before) of memorable characters who taught them.
Memorable for what? The stories are seldom flattering. Unsurprisingly, teachers would prefer to be less memorable, if this means being indelibly labelled with the stigma of colourfully embarrassing tales and less-than-flattering nicknames.
The unfortunate incident that puts the hapless teacher forever in the annals of any school’s infamy records need not even have taken place at school. Mine happened on a beautiful summer’s day in Cape Town, way back in the days when it was hip to go to a coffee bar to listen to some random longhaired drop-out twanging on a guitar while mournfully asserting that “The answer is blowing in the wind.” I was on holiday with the “lads” (we were on a boys’-only jol) and someone decided we needed to investigate the Cape’s only (unofficial) nudist beach, Sandy Bay. (It wasn’t my idea.)
We arrived at the parking spot and set out on the long walk to freedom. Then there was a delay, mainly because it took time (nearly two hours) to pluck up the courage to proceed au naturel.
Now, you know the path where you come out of the bushes around the big rocks with the beach ahead of you? (Gotcha! You’ve also been there.)
As we (buck naked and appallingly selfconscious) left the bushes and rocks and turned a corner, I heard what I believe was a gasp. (The others claimed later it was actually a sniggering giggle). I looked around. There she was, a matric girl from my English class, safely covered by a very large beach towel.
The way to handle situations like this is to nonchalantly nod a polite greeting and saunter on with perhaps a polite dismissive flutter of the fingers to suggest to the pupil that, much as you would like to tarry a while and chat, this is not the time. It is, however, nearly impossible to do this when you are frantically adjusting both hands into the fig-leaf position while turning a shade of red bordering on purple. After a pregnant pause, lasting oh, maybe six months, and broken only by more rude sniggering from herself and two friends, also safely covered by beach towels, the best I could manage was a plaintive, “When we get back to school, please button your lip.” And her reply, quick as you like, was, “Yes, sir – if you do up your zip!” followed by gales of laughter. (Score 1 to the pupils, 0 to the teachers.)
And did she keep the awkward encounter to herself? Fat chance. The first inkling I had as to how far the faux pas had spread was when we were doing a Shakespeare sonnet in class and the lad reading it (a daring reprobate, let it be said) applied poetic licence: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” became: “Shall I compare thee to someone at Sandy Bay?” And the line, “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” became “Cape winds can shake your dangling bits when astray.” Et cetera.
Living down something like this takes time. At that class’s 10-year reunion, the same reworked Shakespeare sonnet was recited. Who says pupils remember nothing they learnt at school? They dedicated the reading to a “memorable” teacher nicknamed “Adam”.