What are you going to be IF you grow up?
“That’s what was written on the poster put up by Mr Jackson on our high school class wall, Kevin.”
The speaker is my prankster friend, Barney, who actually has a story to tell about maturing! His maturing above all! Who’d ever believe it? Apparently there was a time when he did indeed mature; implying that there was a time prior to that when he was incredibly ‘unripe’.
“Oh we were a rotten bunch all right,” he says, commencing his narrative, “we were the incorrigible stand-up types people go to supermarkets to buy the cheapest rotting tomatoes to hurl at.
“The best punishments were those where we were banished from the classroom. It gave us time to get out and have a fag. The fags were usually donated by a teacher himself. Mr Ronson, for example. Like all teachers he had a private cupboard in the classroom that he always kept open, with his cigarettes inside. Always a new unopened pack. That was in year ten. We took a packet off him every day. Not once did he complain or try to investigate. He knew. What we didn’t twig on to was this was his way of getting on our side, being one of the boys. We gave him a headache in classes, even reduced the poor bloke to tears one time — probably at the thought of how much he had spent on free cigarettes all for nothing!”
It’s time to sip the coffee and sit without comment, for Barney isn’t done. He’s only paused midstream to take a sip himself.
“Then there was Miss Stackpole — bless her ample heart. She was structured like the Queen Mary high upper deck, very broad beamed and as a result not always in the best position to turn around. The things that went on behind her back, I tell you! One time Roland Barnabee brought a puppy to class in a little bag. Every time the pup whimpered, old Stackpole thought it was one of us idiots. First Roland quite rightfully got accused and sent out, but he passed the bag to Mickey who got sent out next and he passed the bag to Duncan Whitney and so on ... until finally the bag and Miss Stackpole were the only two left. Then she banished herself, came out and split her sides laughing apparently. Only one bloke was out there to see it. Most of us were in the cafeteria scoffing a muffin or blowing smoke rings in the air.”
“Needless to say, Barney ...”
“Yeah, Kevin, needless to say it was a miracle how I, how we ever got through year ten. It had failure written all over. Now, in my later non-studying years, I’d really like to take up the education department on that. How do kids, who have no interest in studies, pass their exams simply by showing up? Ah, but let’s not go there!”
We pause like cars at the pit stop for a swift refill.
“Mr Jackson, now, he was the total antithesis of Miss Stackpole. Just a weak-looking reed of a man you could snap between two fingers. So delicate was he to look at. But what a mask for strength. Mr Jackson could not be broken. Chiefly because he somehow managed to appeal to a sensitivity in us that none of us even knew we possessed. His poster: ‘What are you going to be IF you grow up?’ was printed against a strange lace curtain-like background. It’s only after we’d settled in for a week and got talking that he told us the lace curtain was actually a diseased pair of smoker’s lungs. Boy did that jolt us all right. And then he showed us a documentary on children walking miles barefoot to school in Africa. We grew up pretty quickly all right.”
And that’s the closest Barney may come to revealing a personal truth.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.