Another brick in the wall

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Bruce Pinnock

It’s time to get personal.

Iam about to ask you, as a teacher, something that even your mother would not. Does your classroom smell? No, you don’t have to say a word. You are among friends.

Let’s face it. As a place of work, a classroom is not a corporate office. It does not have the thick-piled carpet, mahogany desk, and a panoramic view of the city from 30 floors up. Nor is it a consulting room; complete with framed degrees on the wall. It may be colourfully cheerful with the décor of posters and charts pinned up by the occupying teacher, but it does not speak of Remunerative Prospects for the Future. (My father-inlaw- to-be asked if I was going to get a job before marrying. I said I had been teaching for three years. He said, “That’s what I mean…”)

Getting back to the classroom. All classrooms have a distinct odour, difficult to describe. It is an antique odour, created by a thousand sweaty schoolboys who have passed through it. Also of cheap floor-polish, years of old exam papers and textbooks, and occasional half-eaten sandwiches left behind the heaters. It is less intrusive than old newspapers in a garden shed, peed on by the dog. It is less repulsive than crowded-trainarmpits (in a Lowveld summer). It is less musty and remote than undiscovered Egyptian tombs (despite the blessed silence when no pupils are in situ). But it is there.

My classroom’s odour is particularly strong – it gets up close and personal and gives you a friendly halfnelson as you enter. If it had a colour, it would be homely, grubby mauve with grinning tatty beige trimmings and comfortable greeny-brown undergarments. During Open Day, an important Old Boy (“He’s the owner of a big construction company – look after him – he could be donating substantially towards the new hall”) seeking a school for his son, asked to “see classroom 20”. My classroom.

I was apprehensive. How to impress? While seeing maybe believing, smelling is knowing. And he looked well equipped to be very critical. His large nose preceded him by the sort of distance that, in horse racing, invariably gives the favourite the edge at the finish line. I suppose I should have adopted the attitude: “So, Mr CEO, what do you think? Not quite what you’re used to in CEO-land, is it? Well, sorry for you! Welcome to my world!”

But my place of work gave me no confidence. I quailed. He entered, paused, and sniffed tentatively. “Uh-Uh,” I thought, and stepped back. Like a setter ready to point, he raised his promiscuous nose, and took another series of sniffs. “That smell…” he said. Well, I thought, there goes a prospective parent. I attempted damage control.

“When I use air freshener in the morning, it is not so bad…” But he wasn’t listening. “That smell takes me back. How well I remember this room!” he said. “Old Jacko was the teacher. And I was useless at maths. And every other subject. But Old Jacko told me I was going to pass.” He shook his head, in admiration. “He never gave up on me. And I passed. Only just. 35%. But still – he got me through.” He placed a trusting hand on my shoulder. “I can only admire you teachers. You get to make a difference in people’s lives. This is the school for my son. You will see him through.” And he marched out.

In that moment I understood the smell. I was inhaling the odour of the ghosts of teachers past. I, too, was being challenged to perform deeds of silk purse from sow’s ear proportions. I vowed to heed the call – and then prayed fervently that the son had inherited his mother’s brains.

Bruce Pinnock teaches at St Alban’s College.

Category: Autumn 2013

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