Back in the sixties, when political correctness wasn’t the need of the hour — any hour in the day — we young ones got called names with abandon, according to our appearance; or, more clearly, we got called what the observer thought we looked like, at that time. We got called animals (in the classroom.) Sheep, for instance. Because it was thought that a lot of us didn’t possess minds of our own and, consequently, no independence of thought; we simply bleated what someone else had said: ‘baa, baa’. ‘You haven’t got an original thought in your head,’ I was once told, in a kindly voice that belied the sharp spike in the observation. Years later, I happened upon the phrase ‘smiling assassin’ and immediately connected it with a teacher. It’s interesting how association works sometimes. This teacher was a bit of a conundrum to us pupils.
I have discovered since that if the teacher himself/herself was ‘a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma’, to borrow from Churchill, then the class of pupils was going to be one confused lot. In my defence, if you have to deal with the said teacher for a whole year, then that’s 365 days of non-stop confusion, guaranteed to thwart any originality or creativity that may be there in the first place. It usually went like this: The class was given a question, say, in the science (botany) test — ‘Write three sentences about Xerophytes.’ Now, a pupil, especially one who’s crammed like mad overnight, can reel off not just three sentences, but an entire chapter on xerophytes. So, it’s hardly a challenge to write: 1. Xerophytes are hardy plants. 2. They can survive harsh conditions. 3. Cacti and pineapple plants are examples of xerophytes.
If, however, a pupil (who hadn’t opened his science text book to the botany sections even once and, therefore, didn’t spend the night cramming, in preference to getting some deserved rest after a strenuous game of cricket), if this pupil were to write: 1. I think Xerophytes are spelt wrongly, or pronounced wrongly. 2. Xerophytes should begin with a Z. 3. They sound like things that don’t have much survival qualities, no fight in them, because in their name there is a clue, which sounds like ‘zero fight’.
Now, depending on the mood of the said teacher (riddle/mystery/enigma), one could win the lotto in class (high praise before one’s peers), or get subjected to public ridicule (having one’s work read out aloud, by the teacher, in a voice loaded with mockery). Come to think of it, the classroom is sometimes where a career in stand-up comedy may be born. If you’re funny enough to make a class of peers split their sides with your quips and answers, you may as well contemplate comedy as a career. Sometimes, however, one is fortunate. Your ‘ridiculous’ answers on the xerophyte plant get shared around in the staff room at tea time, amid more laughter and, if you’re lucky, at least someone will prick up their ears and say, ‘Hang on a minute … that sounds like something out of left field.
Who is this kid?’ In this way, the ‘kid’ gets moved out of science and placed in the Advanced English group where everything suddenly comes alive, words simmering for long under the surface suddenly get their chance to bubble, bubble, boil and roil, and the landscape ahead is forever changed. It is a verdant feast for the eyes. Green, grassy, endless, pastural and pastoral. And as far as the eye can see there’s no blot on the horizon. That is, there’s not a single xerophyte in sight.
— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.