‘In conclusion’ was a favourite phrase of a teacher of mine — a man of scientific qualification; a man who looked at you and perceived atoms and molecules. Mr P, let’s call him, for he very well may still be alive monitoring the masses that passed through his hands.
It was the Sixties, of course. The Hippie Movement was winking naughtily from outside classroom windows, “Come out and taste the freedom!” The band Uriah Heep did indeed sing, plaintively, Free Me, which may well have been the anthem of many a classroom bound schoolboy of that time.
It was also still the Years of Collusion — between teacher and parent to ensure at all cost that Johnny put his head down peered into the laboratory microscope and averted his gaze from the classroom windows. The world outside can wait, a good education couldn’t.
If he were a cricketer — which I rather doubt since he possessed not one jot of cricket vocabulary in his speech — but if he were a cricketer Mr P would have been categorised as an all rounder. This is because he was three science teachers rolled into one. He taught Physics, Chemistry and when the frogs were plentiful he was found in the Biology rooms giving lessons on dissection which non-biology-inclined ones like myself found hard to stomach, especially the drawing of blood or the severing of flesh in order to peer at the undercoating and the insides.
“One has to have a stomach for these things,” Mr P would instruct, directing his words at the ones who’d gone a whiter shade of pale and generally stood in the back rows at the dissecting table so they missed a good deal of what was going on.
“Life is going to toss things at you that are a lot harder to take, so get used to it. In any case, you have to do it yourself come exam time. It carries a good deal of marks, remember.”
This generally got the ashen-faced ones moving a few feet forward in a determined effort to overcome their resisting wills.
Chemistry periods were about tables with cryptic symbols and water that changed colour magically with the introduction of different powders. I once remember naively being drawn into taking a deep sniff from a bottle of chlorine that nearly took my sinuses for a walk right out of my body.
Physics was about equations, balance and sticking pins in paper while trying to trace angles of reflection and refraction through a thick glass slab. Most things in Mr P’s class started out as premises before gradually working their way through a series of reasoning stages to a finely drawn conclusion.
Dispute that, he’d say, pointing to a solved equation on the blackboard. Of course, who could? Especially who could who had his head wrapped around other notions — those of total freedom to pursue the pathways of one’s own mind, frolic in the fields of an idyllic nature and dream of writing lines that rhymed and described life in a more natural way — a way that had nothing to do with science?
A young man dreaming is how I come to view my school reports of that day and age when I glance at them occasionally these days yellowing in a plastic sleeve. Mr P obviously had a kind heart too for his marks awarded to me in their own scientific way reflect a kindness.
If the dissecting of a frog taught me anything it pointed me in the direction of vegetarianism and a kindness to all animals great and small. Science provided me with an insight into laterality. That is, you could be seated in the lap of science and be totally at ease contemplating poetry.
Science didn’t care because ultimately it seems everything is relative. There is no end, no conclusion to be drawn because like some wise person once said, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.