12 February 2011
My least favourite teacher in primary school was the deputy head, a stooped arthritic old lady in tweed, who never allowed her demeanour to stray for one moment toward a comforting smile. With her constant scowl, she controlled the assembly of tiny people, of which I was one of a hundred infants, trained to pray once a day under her supervision.
No infants were taller than the dais of the school hall, where the least favoured teacher made us wait while she surmounted the great height way above us. We all waited in complete silence as she made her ascent and even then, at that young age, I wondered why she bothered, since she was already taller than us all, and it was a struggle for her to mount the steps. Nevertheless she did so everyday without fail. From the lectern at the centre of the stage, she more than compensated for her stoop, and was able to look down upon us all.
From there she conducted prayers and demanded songs of praise which were drilled into us on a daily basis. The ritual bound the school in song, and provided the least favoured teacher with the satisfaction of commanding the full attention of so many small people.
One morning we silently watched her ascend the steps. She wore the same daily scowl, and did not look upon us or acknowledge us until she had completed her slow shuffle and came to rest an arm on the lectern. She would then signal the commencement of a hymn followed by the Lord’s Prayer.
That morning she prematurely abandoned the normal procedure and made her way off the dais slowly, but with a more assured shuffle down toward the assembly of tiny people. We all wondered what she was up to since we had not seen her do this before. She shuffled about and then amongst us; I watched her walk between an aisle of children. Without warning she raised her elbow back and thrust a punch into the small of the back of a boy, who was in fact one of my classmates, David Green. Oddly, I recall this event in slow motion. It is possible that shock can render the victim of violence and even the witness of it, numb or indifferent. At that age I doubt that I would have had a moral compass to enable me to comprehend what had happened, but I did not like what I saw.
The least favoured teacher shuffled amongst us some more, and in fact came up somewhere behind. No one dared to turn around, but I soon discovered that I was in fact her next target because I also took a blow in the back and I had no idea why.
These were not slaps or smacks, these were seemingly unprovoked and unexpected punches with a fist, albeit a withered old arthritic fist.
Oddly, neither I nor David Green were reduced to tears by this public humiliation. The blows we received were potentially damaging physically, but even now I recall this event with a vivid sense of injustice, but also of utter contempt for this wicked deluded woman. I think maybe tears are not appropriate or necessary if you have no guilt.
The whole school had to wait for the least favoured teacher to make her journey back to the lectern. This was the second slow accent of the day. When she finally looked up to address the school we were all given a lecture on how to pray. David Green and I were offered up as examples of how not to pray, and what might happen to anyone who did not follow her instruction, and these were of course instructions that she had never actually given hitherto.
My least favourite teacher required that we all pray with hands flat and not clasped with interlocking fingers. I have Googled Paintings of Prayer and cannot find a painting that illustrates her method.
On this page is St Francis, committing the sin David Green and I were guilty of, as painted by Francisco de Zurbarán in the 16th Century, and these Breton nuns will certainly be glad to avoid my least favourite teacher.
Today, this teacher might have been gaoled for what she did, but I am left wondering how the other class room teachers allowed this to happen.