What we really learn at school is people

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When I left university, there was only one thing I knew inside out and back to front - knew from firsthand experience and long objective study, and that was the art of teaching. At least, I thought I knew.

It occurs to me now that what I thought I knew was what most of us know, without even considering the matter. By the time we reach an age when we are supposed to start earning money and stop having a good time at parental expense, the one thing we certainly have behind us is years of exposure to teachers. Theoretically we go to school to learn things. What we really learn is people.

What do you remember about your teachers? About that unpredictable, extraordinary, sometimes inspired, humorous, too serious, caring, careless breed of humans whose influence is just as foisted upon us from an early age as that of our parents? We have no choice in either department.

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What I chiefly remember about my teachers may well say as much about my recalcitrance as it says about their proficiency. It isn't what they taught me, it is how they taught me that I remember most.

They might well be slightly discombobulated to hear about the failure of all their sanguine efforts to instill in me a lifelong remembrance of the secret habits of the red squirrel. Or the battle dates of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. Or how to decline one single Latin verb. Or even why the square of the hypotenuse is so insistently equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

One of the things I do remember is that "Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after he had his head cut off." The potential factuality of that somewhat gruesome and unbelievable statement is entirely dependent on the correct placing of a semicolon and a comma: "Charles the First walked and talked; half an hour after, he had his head cut off." I have had undying respect for semicolons ever since; and commas.

So it is the inconsequential, or silly, that sticks in the memory from one's school days ... and yet, I am not sure that "inconsequential" is quite the right word. You are sometimes educated more consequentially by a chance remark than by years of determined cramming. Ortega y Gasset put it this way: "He who wishes to teach us a truth should not tell it to us, but simply suggest it with a brief gesture, a gesture which starts an ideal trajectory in the air along which we glide until we find ourselves at the feet of the new truth."

I'd like to record my recollections of many of my teachers. For now, I'll mention just one: Mr. Lole.

Mr. Lole, a grizzled man, had had what today is called "a life" before he became a teacher. He had been a miner. This invested him with a degree of clout in the imagination of a boy that other teachers, frankly, didn't always acquire. I could imagine him, grizzled even more by coal dust, hard-hatted and lamped, descending in the cage to the deep, scintillating blackness.

It's entirely possible that if we could meet today, Mr. Lole and I might have very little in common. To him I would probably seem an effete aesthete. I might find him unimaginatively down-to-earth. He was good schoolteacher material; I (trying it for a couple of years after university) definitely was not. And when I abandoned teaching, mining wasn't a career I thought of as an alternative.

Even still, Mr. Lole is a teacher to remember. But what I don't remember are the main subjects he taught us. I suspect hypotenuses were, indeed, one of his bailiwicks. Less central to the curriculum, and more appealing to me, was his role as carpentry teacher. In his hands a plane zipped forward with a steady glide along the grain, upcurling a succession of shavings. When we tried to follow suit, the effect was somewhat different - usually a kind of jerky gouging. He set an enviable standard.

Chiefly I remember him, however, for two things he used to say. The first was: If you're going to exercise your native intelligence to the full, you'd better stop thinking it is done for you by "a bit of gray matter." He was positive that your mind was not to be found there.

The second thing was a matter of pronunciation. If you told him something was made of iron, he was down on you like a ton of bricks. "Ion?" he would expostulate, "Ion? What is ION? The word is not ION, boy, it is I-R-O-N. It is pronounced EYE-RRRRON! Say it! Come on! EYE-RRRRRRRON."

Which is how I learned the extravagant enjoyment of rolling your R's. And, trrruly, this is something everrry child's education should include.

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