Teaching! Such a noble profession, they tell me, retreating ever so slightly into the collars of their expensive shirts, the wrinkling calligraphy of disgust etching its nib across their brows. “I think I would have been a teacher if I hadn’t gone into finance or banking or sales” (delete as applicable). “Such a noble profession!”
I smile. I sigh. I watch them wriggling, see them squirm. What selfish lives they lead, making money from money, selling trash to strangers, lassoing the luckless with loopholes of law. Some sell Stanley knives, true, and some bake bread, yet to my keen and eagle eyes all are guilty, all stand in need of correction. And how red, oh how red is my pen!
English teacher, me – but then you knew this. One of God’s own chosen. Seventh year in the profession, first year at the school…sorry academy…just up that road there. We’ve met before. You commented on my tie, remember? Such vivid colours. Used to annoy my wife Esther no end, my ties, despite the fact that we were both ardent fans of Channel 4’s John Snow and his dazzling neckwear.
“But he’s famous, Andrew,” she’d whinge. “He’s on the TV. He can get away with it because he’s well known – it’s a wry ironic joke between him and his audience.”
And thus with my audience, I’d tell her! The parents, the children entrusted to my care, those sparkling little souls sent to me minus capital letters and full stops, leaping free amidst a black confetti of commas, faulty paragraphs refusing to open as their text spirals pageward…
My little angels. My little grammarless dolls. What life, what joy, what fun! Yes, what nobler role can there possibly be than the morphing of my manifold moppets’ morphology? (Alliteration! How I love thee.)
Not that pedagogy is without its challenges, its pain. Take this morning, for instance. Young Spencer Barlow of Year 9 had the nerve to hand this in as homework:
Once upon a time there was a blubbery man who realy liked shoes. He didn’t just like shoe he loved them, so much that one day he broke into a ladys house and stole a pair of her amazing shoes and took them back and hid them in his wide wardrobe. Another time when he was younger the man tried to steel some shoes from his stupid teacher but she caught him and made him give them back.
I’d been forcing them to think about using adjectives in their work, hence the wincingly crow-barred descriptors, and so far so good, you might say (aside from the abhorrence of that absent apostrophe, of course, and that unnecessary maligning of the teacher). Alas, Spencer went on:
When he got older he started going up to beautiful women and hitting them hard with his iron fist. Then he would take their lovely shoes and go back to his big house where he would store them in his dark wardrobe.
This wasn’t the only weird thing he did. The man had a wife and one day he dressed up in her lovely clothing and showed her and she didn’t like this. Then he killed four wonderful ladies and cut off their floppy breasts and also one of their elegant feet. He used the breast’s as a solid paperweight and made shoes for the cut-off foot. The man’s name was Jerome Brudos.
Shocked? Yes. Flustered? NEVER (I’m a pro, trained at the Institute you know) and instantly reprimanded the young pro(se)vocateur on the spot. Barlow, a small lonely lad with rampant acne and few friends attempted to affect the stammering innocent yet still I read him the riot act, forcing him to write out the sentence beginning ‘he used’ fifty times without the apostrophe, thank you very much, you simpering and quite idiot boy.
Makes me shudder just to think of it. Breast’s. Ugh. Possessive how? Sometimes I fear these stains will not come off, that like a certain Scottish queen I am doomed forever to be maniacally scrubbing such grammatical gore from my hands. Alas, someone needs to sort this mess out, someone needs to address the epidemic before it’s too late.
And thus my pen stays red. Oh relentless, thankless task! No sooner had Spencer Barlow’s mob fled the room and Year 11 blundered in when fat Momataz Begum wandered up to me with this on A4:
“hi there what’s your name,” I asked.
“Larry,” said the man. “Shall I have a look at this for you?”
“Yes pleese I said Im Herbert by the way.”
I’m Herbert. I’m Herbert. I’M HERBERT. (I’m not, actually. I’m Arnold Po and my wife has fled). On Momataz scrawled:
The man looked up at me with confusion in his eyes he was all grimy and dirty because he had been sleeping on the streets, it was nice of him to offer to look at my car though, I left him bent over the engine and went to fetch my baseball bat from the boot.
“Not sure I can see anything wrong,” called Larry, still dipped into my car like a soldier of dirty human toast.
(I liked this bit though, I liked this simile. Bravo Momataz. High fives.)
The road around us was empty and there were no more cars.
“Keep looking please,” I said and smashed the baseball bat down hard on the top of his spine, he screamed a bit and his body went limp and he collapsed and slithered down the side of my car onto the road. Then I brought the bat down on his head a few time’s until it broke completely and all the blood and brains came out onto the ground.
“Drink, ground!” I shouted. “Drink it all up!”
Dark fury flared. Was this some kind of sick joke? A few time’s? And the content…we’ve been doing Of Mice and Men, for crying out loud! This was supposed to be an essay on Of Mice and Men!
Momataz being the large and rather verbal young lady that she is though I let it slide, counting to ten and directing the class to page 45 exercises A and B with C extension quiet please quiet please etc. I kept Ms Begum’s work handy though – her Head of Year would no doubt be appalled – whilst taking advantage of a momentary lull in volume to sift through further submissions in search of a suitable balm.
Good old Kyle Parker – I could usually rely on him, I thought, pulling his essay from the pile. Good old stick is Kyle. Yet no sooner had I read a few sentences when a dizziness struck, my vision misting as I tried to focus on the words before me:
“Herbert Mullin, nice to meet you.”
“Thanks. I’m Mary.”
“Get in, Mary.”
“Thanks again for this. I’m so late. Anywhere near the turning to Cabrillo will be great.”
“Okey dokey Mary.”
“You said something else. I missed it.”
“Oh don’t worry about that, Mary, just talking to myself there. Say, did you feel that tremor this morning?”
“Yeah. This morning. Small one around eight o’clock. Thought I’d done enough but…”
“What are you doing? What are you…”
“Thought I’d done enough.”
“Stop it! What are you…stop…no, no, please stop!”
“Stop stop argh argh ahhhh please no please no no kkkk kkkckk”
“Sorry Mary I’m sorry Mary.”
“Arghh argh argh. Argh.”
I don’t remember Momataz and Kyle and the rest of 11C leaving the room but they were gone when I regained consciousness, returning to the cluttered paper nest of my desk, my right cheek dribble-gummed to the wood, my left arm a meaty hanging liana, as though the very sinew of the shoulder had been severed like some cracked flesh baguette (mixed similes – do forgive).
They’d left their books in a rough stack near the door. Some of my more conscientious students had left me their essays, the soft flurry of their pages fluttering down from my hairless pate, across the flaky peak of which they’d been carefully laid in anticipation of my eventual awakening.
Break time. Minutes remaining before the clatter of the bell and the tumultuous tussle of 10T. I was sweating heavily, armpits pooled, spectacles skiing down the bridge of my nose (I have small, vicious ears, quite lobe-less, like so). Time only to call Esther as I’d promised myself I would – just the once, just to see if she still felt like leaving me, no? – but Esther didn’t answer of course and then the bell went and here they were, noisy heads a-bob like a string of commas in some scruffy, meaningless sentence.
Reaching for the full stop of my door knob I glimpsed wobbly Mrs Jarret wibbling down the corridor towards me. Waylaying her with a stab of the finger – like so – and so (oh do stop wriggling) – and leaving 10T with strict instructions to correctly capitalise their biographies I dashed into the corridor, stuffing Kyle and Momotaz’s papers into their Head of Year’s fleshy mitts.
“Quite inappropriate,” I barked at Jarret. “You think?”
Having smudged her wet little eyes over the offending articles she looked up with something akin to confusion. “In what way? And are you feeling okay, Mr Po? You look a little…”
“The content. The violence. Inappropriate, no?”
“Um.” The hyper-heavy Head of Year looked again at the papers, then back at myself, her eyes studying my face like a mad surgeon on the carve (tee hee). “I don’t see anything particularly inappropriate,” she said. “The grammar’s a little off perhaps, and Steinbeck is spelt wrong almost every time but…” She shrugged. Snatching the papers from her I retreated mumbling to my room, leaving her pale and seemingly inflatable face frowning through the dirty glass of the slammed door.
I looked back at the pages, at Momotaz’s piece in particular. My heart was hammering. Was it…but could it…had the words somehow rearranged themselves? This wasn’t the same piece as the one I’d read before, surely? Instead of a brutal account of murder I found myself staring down at a poorly punctuated and rather superficial critique of Steinbeck’s use of simile. But how?
“Sir? Sir! Help me please. Is this right? Think I’ve got them all.” Sebastian Wang had his hand up. A real hard worker, Mr Wang (Chinese father, like mine). Over I lurched, reaching Sebastian in time for a solitary bead of sweat to escape my forehead and splat dead centre upon the spidery writing of the page below, which read thus:
Charles Fredrick Albright was born in Dallas, in America. His mother was a Teacher. His wife was also a Teacher but they got divorced. So in 1990 he met and killed a prostitute named Mary Lou Pratt and cut her eyeballs out.
A year later he met another prostitute called Susan Peterson and cut her eyes out too. Then he met Shirley Williams. He cut her eyes out.
The room began to swim. Reeling away from Sebastian I collided with the back wall, my leaking face smearing slick across Year 7’s display of limericks, the nearest of which caught my eye:
There was a young man named Ted Bundy
Who murdered his victims for fun-dee
With a swing of his bat
He’d remove head and hat
Crying “I believe you’d call that a home run-dee!”
No. No! That was not what little Hannah Begum had written! I remembered the original limerick, something about her budgie wasn’t it? and yet here…this travesty…that errant apostrophe…those hideous cheating rhymes…
Perfect match my tie
for Dahmer’s brand new dress’ of
dried out human skin
Thomas Barnes, 8F, his sharply scrawled handwriting slicing at my eyes as I stumbled through the haiku-haloed doorway to the cries and shredding laughter of my class and out into the corridor, through reception – “Mr Po, where are you going? Mr Po?” – clear of the school gates, out on to the road, the hot light grinding my mind like broken glass until I saw your bakery shop open, empty of customers…your sign…FRESH DOUGHNUT’S you were boasting, you had FRESH DOUGHNUT’S for sale and I realised for the first time I actually realised why I had been put on this earth (Esther, if only you could see me now)…my truly noble roll (pun!) starts here…and you didn’t see me coming, poor young thing, too busy flicking through your magazine as I staggered through your door ding ding, didn’t start your screaming until the knife, this red, red pen was in my hand and I cleared that counter so quick and this upstairs flat is so quiet because that gag is so tight and your overalls so red shall we continue our corrections my little weeping trophy are we ready to go on..?
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PDF: A.Po’s Trophy