We occupied the “Rotten Row”, which was the line of desks at the furthest possible distance from the teacher’s predatory perch on a slightly raised platform at the front of the class. There were at least six single desks pressed up against the wall, all of them occupied in body if not in mind, and I sat in the third.
Once and only once each lesson, a swirl of strange nasal sounds would be directed at the inhabitants of the Rotten Row. This would be followed by a pause before the name “Selway” was intoned, at which point my brain registered alarm and I raised myself out of my blank stupor and began to compose my features.
About five seconds would elapse before the name “Paget” disturbed the heavy mocking silence, and then, like Pavlov’s dogs, I became fully alert and prepared for my turn. When it came, I would distort my features in the mistaken belief that I could fool the teacher into believing that I was about to discover the meaning of the universe.
Then, a handful of seconds later, the linguistic baton was passed on and I settled comfortably into my former state. Once the end of the line was reached, the question would be floated to the rest of the class. D. A Thomas (how that name too is etched in my mind!) would respond in oral hieroglyphics and the epicentre of class activity would shift away, never to return during the lesson.
I did not, perhaps, deserve better. I was 14 and in no hurry to buy anything at all from the boulangerie, or to purchase a single ticket to Rouen on the five o’clock train. I didn’t really need to be reminded how bad I was at French, but neither did I need someone to give up on me so readily. In some teaching version of virtual reality, a box was ticked and the job was done. And I had neither the wit nor the inclination to protest.
But now I am one – a teacher, that is – and I know how difficult it is to discover talent or ability when it lies hidden or crushed by apathy, fear or plain boredom. However, if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that teaching is not a search for the right answer, it is a search for the right question – and this in turn requires a real sense of compassion for the learner; every learner.
Without this, I might just as well go fishing.
– Neil Richards
Neil Richards is the Headmaster at British International School, Phuket (BISP). For more information, visit them at www.bisphuket.ac.th