Growing Dumb: My English Education is a lengthy memoir, still under construction, of my childhood from about 1938 through about 1948 or 49, the declining years of the British Empire. These two extracts are from what is currently chapter fourteen, set in 1944 to 1945, when World War Two was dragging towards its close. Teachers, as well as material goods, were in short supply. – PQ
Some teachers were completely useless, they had no idea how to cope with eleven- and twelve-year-olds and their energy. Mr Heiatt had a gammy leg and an big uncertain smile frozen on his face, all lips, he always looked a bit bewildered and tried to be strict but that smile gave him away, and he lasted just one year, I had him for English in III B. On his very first day when he came into class he even said “Good Morning” and then took a long look and said “No! When I come in and say ‘Good Morning’ you should already have your English book and your notebook in front of you on your desk and you’ll get on your feet, and you’ll stay on your feet until you’ve said ‘Good Morning’ back. You’ll say that one at a time, and you can only sit down after you’ve said it. You have to learn some courtesy, how to be civilized.” We all thought that bonkers it’d take up so much time, and at Break Ken Larsen wondered if we have to stand at attention. “Next thing you know,” he said, “he’ll want us to salute!” And next day Bommy Rogers, his desk was at the side not far from the door, he didn’t care tuppence for school and was completely irrepressible just the same as his best pal Jeff Hayward at the desk next to his, he said “Good morning, Sir” different from everybody else, humble and toady, he sounded really all meek and ashamed of himself, apologetic and a bit terrified, as if he meant “I’m ever so sorry, Sir, I couldn’t help it, Please don’t hit me!” And Jeff said “Oh!” but bit it down so it was almost under his breath I could hardly hear it, he looked up, pulled his shoulders back and loud and brisk, almost a bark, “Good Morning, Sah!” he sounded just like a Sergeant Major in the Army, any moment he’d click his heels and salute. A faint snigger from the back of the room, and Heiatt looked over and frowned, but the next kid was already saying “Good Morning, Sir !” all cheerful and perky, sounding all smiles Isn’t-this-a-lovely-day-to-be-here-in-this-classroom-with-you-Sir and sat down with a crash. Heiatt looked a bit startled and opened his mouth but before he could speak the next kid said “G’morning, Sir” in a terribly feeble whisper he sounded as if he was at death’s door and collapsed into his seat coughing terribly, almost drowning out the next kid’s perfectly ordinary “Morning, Sir,” but he’d left out the “Good” bit. Next day at the beginning of class we all did it all over again, and if Heiatt’d only said “I suppose you think this is all very amusing but it’s not, it’s simply tiresome and you scan stop” we would’ve, but instead for a week or more it became a wonderful complicated game in which you couldn’t say it the way anybody else had said it, all us kids standing up at the beginning of class grave and straight-faced, butter wouldn’t melt, you couldn’t laugh or even grin till you were sitting down and you mustn’t let him see you grinning, that was one of the rules we all understood immediately without saying anything, we never talked about it at all really except perhaps at Break when you remembered somebody saying it in a really hilarious way or there’d been a really terrific sequence, the class starting with a progression of grunts and falsettos and wheezes and groans and anger and cheerfulness and misery and obsequiousness, always somebody sounding as if he was grovelling on the floor licking boots, somebody else imitating Mrs Mop or Valentine Dyall on the wireless, an ordered cumulation of suppressed hilarity. It was terrible if you were one of the last ones left standing while everyone else was bent over his desk chortling and grinning away pretending to read his English book, you had to keep your lips absolutely still and straight the goings-on coming towards you in an increasingly diverse cacophony, if you didn’t you’d burst out in a great guffaw and you couldn’t afford to do that, whatever you did you mustn’t become a target for the Teacher’s wrathful discomfort and helplessness, then it’d be your turn, you racked your brains how to do it. The best way was simply not to listen and to think about something else, but you had to listen to make sure you didn’t say it the way somebody else had, and you couldn’t help but pay attention to that wonderful harmonious sequence of squeaks and growls, terror and pity. “I don’t know what I’m learning from Heiatt,” Robin said to me and Jim on our Sunday walk, “but there must be something.” “Like how boring he is,” said Jim, “there’s nothing there really to like or dislike. I don’t think he’s doing us any harm though.” And we all laughed. Of course it wasn’t long before the novelty wore off and Heiatt gave up his silly rule, it’d never worked. But when a few years later I came across the notion that the meaning of an utterance isn’t in what the words say but in how they’re said, the tone and the pacing, the silences, I instantly understood.
We hadn’t got far into January before we began calling the new Headmaster Mr Brogden Broggie but only among ourselves, he was clearly so very strict that we’d never dare call him that to his face, he’d’ve been so angry at such lack of respect, and one Monday morning right after Break we got back into class to find Broggie standing by the blackboard instead of Mr Miller, that was such a surprise I faltered a bit, so did a lot of the rest of us. Broggie wasn’t supposed to be there to teach us Scripture, it was Dusty Miller did that, and Dusty’d been at Prayers that morning, nobody’d said anything about him suddenly having to go home or anything, but Broggie simply looked at us a bit impatiently and said “Come along, don’t waste time! Hurry up and settle down at your desks, I’m teaching this class today, not Mr Miller, ” and then he said “Don’t get your books out, we won’t need them.” He paused. “Tell me,” he said, “how do we know the Bible is true? What evidence is there that there really is a God?” We all looked at each other, but nobody said anything We’re supposed to be doing Scripture! “Oh, gather your wits,” he said, “and think. Why do we think there is a God?” and we were all silent for a bit as Broggie looked round, a piece of chalk in his hand. Then Birdie stuck his hand in the air. “Yes, Prince? What do you think?” and Birdie said, “Well, the Bible says so, Sir, and that’s the word of God, everyone says so.” Broggie looked at him and said “I think we’d better leave the Bible out of this discussion, what you say is a matter of belief, and that’s all very well but how do we know?” and he wrote “everybody says so” on the board. “Does that make it true? If everyone in this room says,” and he looked round, casting his eye on us all, “hmmm, that Mrs Brogden is a better soccer player than any of you, does that make it true? If none of you have ever seen her play?” and we all grinned a bit as he paused, Mrs Brogden with her thin legs and delicate hands looking so fragile, shorter and smaller than even some of us, not a bit like gangly Mrs Bailey with her shooting-stick’d been, but slight, yesterday Charlie Hammond’d said she looks as if a puff of wind could blow her away, and he was right.
“What is there, from what our senses tell us, from what we see in the world, that tells us God exists? ” More silence, and then a hand went up. Carey. “Well Sir, in big battles like in the last war some soldiers saw something in the air, spirits or something Sir, fighting on our side.” Broggie turned to the blackboard. “The Angel of Mons,” he said, and wrote it down. “Do you know about that?” Some of us nodded. “You can tell us later, Carey, those of us who don’t know. What else can you all think of?” and more and more hands went up, and it wasn’t long before we’d added lots of things to Broggie’s list, sudden cures to illness, stuff like that, and Broggie said “Very good! That’ll give us enough to go on with. Is all this enough to prove that there is a God? Tell me” and we all fell silent again, and a hand slowly went up, at the back of the room. I turned my head. Dan. He put his hand down again. “No, no,” said Broggie, “say what you were going to say, Featherstone isn’t it? I won’t bite, you know.” And Dan said “Well, everything has to’ve started somewhere, Sir, somebody must’ve made it,” and Broggie smiled. “Yes,” he said. “That’s good. It’s not proof, of course. We might want to think about what we mean by somebody, it can’t be somebody like the people we might see in here, or anywhere else, can it?” and he wrote Reason and Logic on the board, “Let’s think some more.” A lot of hands started going up, and after about five minutes of different kids competing to speak, Broggie pointed to a boy in the second row. “We haven’t heard from you, Trigg, not yet. What do you think? I’d really like to know,” Trigg never said anything in class, not if he could help it, he wriggled in his seat a bit his face bright red and looked at his hands clasped in front of him on his desk, the other kids restless as they waited. Broggie frowned and gestured them into silence, and Trigg stuttered a bit and slowly said “There must’ve been a beginning, Sir, it’s too frightening, there has to be a God. How can God not be?” “Yes,” said Broggie. “Well done for saying that! that’s very good, it’s an honest response, and that’s what we need. With questions of this sort you must always say what you really think, not hide behind a lie.” And he looked at his watch. “This has all been very interesting,” he said; “thank you. It’s important for you to know what you think. Mr Miller will be back for your next class, but I shall be visiting you again. I hope you discuss what we did today among yourselves. Be sure to tell Mr Miller what we’ve learned.”
That lesson’d been so interesting that at lunch we couldn’t leave it alone, and other kids at our table, all of them in the Third and Fourth Forms, said he’d visited their classes too, in History or English, or Geography as well as Scripture. We heard he’d asked a Geography class in III A How do we know the world is round and not flat? and as soon as we heard Babcock and Jones going on about it as we waited for our spuds some of us started arguing about that too and the rest of the table joined in. Some of the kids at the other table, they were in the Fifth Form, scoffed. “Everyone knows that, it’s a sphere, there’s a Globe in the library! Go and look at it! Nothing to discuss!” But we argued anyway. “How do we know?” provoked us, we all had opinions, and that night as we were talking in the dorm after lights out the sound of a shoe in the corridor, a quick shaft of light as the door opened, intense in all that dark. Broggie! His quiet voice. “It’s very late and you should all be asleep. You have to be alert in the morning, and you certainly shouldn’t be chattering away as late as this! Now be quiet, or you’ll regret it in the morning.” We all fell silent, the possible threat of punishment hanging there, and as he quietly closed the door, “Good night!” Next day at breakfast Fatty Bullimore said “You know, he’s always prowling about the place, he wants to make sure everything’s okay. I think Broggie’s going to be alright. He’s not like Pussy Bailey was, he’s going round all the classes, he was in the Fifth Form Friday, he taught a Geometry lesson.” Bowcock looked up, “Yes,” he said in his quiet voice, “he hasn’t been here for more than three weeks, that’s why he’s visiting them all. He wants to get to know us, see who we are. Have you noticed he already knows our names?” And Fatty nodded, “And we can get to know him, too. ’Course he might be making sure that the teachers are doing a good job too, getting to know them,” and as he laughed murmured something to Smethwick about teachers who’d gone away in the War and what they’d been like. Somebody said something about how strict Broggie was, he ‘d really lit into one of the dayboys for not doing his prep, “well, you can’t blame him for that; you can’t simply not do your homework!” and the talk drifted off to something else.