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Another brick in the wall

| October 28, 2013 | 0 Comments

There I was, a young teacher, on invigilation duty with hours of an examination – history, paper 1 – stretching out in front of me like a jail sentence for a crime I had not committed and no time off for good behaviour.

Invigilating exams takes your soul by the scruff of its neck and squeezes out any joie de vivre like a Spanish washerwoman wringing out her 10 children’s clothing after 30 years.

To survive, I focused on not clock-watching, but rather pacing, head down, like Papillon in his cell on Devil’s Island.1 After an eternity, I congratulated myself, and indulged in a little clock-peek reward, confident that at least half an hour had gone. Two minutes had passed. Two minutes!

I soon used up any entertainment available. You know, like writing a fake answer paper with naughty answers to surprise the fossilised History teacher. Or like creeping up behind a bespectacled, anxiety-ridden lad and suddenly booming out: “ONE-AND-AHALF HOURS TO GO!” to see how high I could lift him off his chair. (Don’t give me that – you’ve done the same.)

And then, if truth be told, I began to crack. I found a desk next to a window and sank into a mindless void of boredom spiced with self-pity. (Did my mother bring me up to do this?) Stretching my arm across the window sill, I encountered the brass lever propping the window open.

Idly, I inserted my pinky finger into the holes for the catch. I wondered how far I could insert it and still manage to pull it back out. (Invigilation had brought about regression into childhood. Years ago, my brother and I competed to see how far we could stick a coin up our noses and still get it back. Not as far as we thought, actually, as the family doctor could attest, after he had to spend 20 minutes with long-nosed pliers.)

And then I realised, with a little thrill of “ha-haam-

I-in-trouble-or-what”, that my pinky refused to come out. Enough of this childishness, I said to myself sternly. Behave professionally, Bruce. Remove your finger.

I wiggled in earnest. And tugged. And pulled. You know that feeling, that sense of “this is actually not happening, is it?” This happened. My pinky turned purple and swelled up. And, unless I cut off the last two centimetres, I was stuck.

Then, with a start, I realised the exam was almost over. What to do? There was no way the boys must know. “Time up,” I said, but quietly, trying not to draw attention to my smallest digit impaled in part of the room’s ventilation mechanisms. “Leave your answer papers on the desk. I will collect them after you go.”

But if they all left, who would help me? On an impulse, I caught the bespectacled kid’s eye and beckoned. He came across. I coughed. “I may need help,” I said, adding, “but nobody must know. Can I trust you?”

Years later, at the school reunion, in his “thank you to the teachers who made me what I am today” speech, the bespectacled one mentioned admirable things we teachers had done. And also the incident. Especially the part where I had had to sneak through the school (with my hand and the window parts stuck to my pinky under my shirt, thus resembling Napoleon posing for his portrait) to find the sanatorium sister.

Bespectacled kid had ingeniously used his Swiss Army knife to disassemble the entire lever. At the time, as promised, he had told no one. For as long as – oh, it must have been at least 10 minutes. I squirmed: the crowd roared.

I had thought of emigrating to a land where nobody knew me – Uzbekistan, maybe – but I knew that it would not help. As every teacher knows, wherever you go, you will encounter at least half-adozen pupils who know you. And remember your dumb-ass moments.

Bruce Pinnock teaches at St Alban’s College.


1. Charriere, H. (2006) Papillon. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.

Category: Summer 2013

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