Teachers Should Be Given a Course in Horse Whispering

As we all know, taming rambunctious young colts who are kicking and bucking against being saddled with the burden of education, needs something more mystical than mere words. And now the need is even more urgent. Because teaching a class with masks on while wearing a mask yourself has much in common with horse whispering.

Retired teachers asked to return to fill in for an indisposed teacher in the age of COVID-19 find themselves in a strange, masked world. The pupils are reduced to eyes and eyebrows, and verbal communication becomes, shall we say, interesting.

The class watched me enter. One lad in the back row (it’s always the kid in the back row) raised a sceptical eyebrow as if to say, ‘Here we go. This guy’s ancient enough to serve as the closing argument for legalising euthanasia.’

I took him on in the traditional way we experienced teachers have. Like my headmaster before me, I peered sternly over my glasses as if to say, ‘Don’t mess with me, boy! We have serious work to do!’ The effect of this was somewhat spoilt as I returned my glasses to my nose to find they were all fogged up thanks to my mask. When they cleared, I found I was actually glaring at the window.

My instruction to take their books out was met with puzzled looks. It seemed that words needing to get past false teeth and a mask even to my ears sounded somewhat like gobbledygook: ‘Teauwk omm yoy oosk akka what!?’ We solved this by using simple pantomime and the lesson began.

We were to grapple with Shakespeare’s interpretation of evil expressed by the three witches (Yes – ‘Double double, toil and trouble’ – those ones) in Macbeth. ‘Grapple’ is the right word. I was hard of hearing and they were hard of listening. And understanding. All this potential miscommunication filtered through masks: the bard’s deep ideas took much strain.

As they say in the classics, we lost the plot often. I had to keep telling them which page we were on, but masks reduce even page numbers to a sort of abbreviated whale-talk: ‘Page Oy yoy yoy.’ Sign language using fingers for numbers got us there eventually.

Realising that my diction was impeded, I indicated to a likely-looking lad to do the reading. He began with muffled: ‘D-d-d…Double! D-dd…’ How was I to know he had a stutter? I realised why the reprobate at the back’s eyes had shone with anticipation when I selected the reader. We moved on with difficulty. Words that had resounded through the ages were muffled, undoubtedly leaving the bard break-dancing in his grave.

At one stage, I was asked a question. However, it was so quietly spoken and shyly delivered by a lad with soulful eyes, that I had to move closer and ask him to repeat it. Even at two socially-distanced paces I could not make it out. All I could determine was that his question involved several sibilant phrases, and some plosive ‘p’s’ which made his mask behave like a child attempting to blow his first bubble-gum bubble, popping in and out.

By now his eyes were rendering anguished frustration. His neighbours, though, were grinning. They knew what he was asking, but weren’t telling me. As there are just so many times you can say, ‘Pardon?’ and, ‘Say again?’ I took a chance. Perhaps a yes/no answer was required. I shook my head vigorously. His head dropped. I’d got it wrong. So then I nodded vigorously. His head lifted.

That was it! Without hesitation he sprang out of his chair and headed at speed for the door. Understanding dawned. The muffled sibilants and plosives were a request for what my quant granny used to term, ‘go for a whizz’. No wonder his eyes were soulfully anguished. The poor little bugger was bursting.

It was a long day.

What I want to know is, how did the man in the iron mask ever survive?