Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"To Sir, With Love - Part D"

The time has come

For closing books and long last looks must e-e-end…

The school year finished on the 27th of July. There was no air conditioning and I dressed in a woolen suit. Do the math.

I had been at Saint John’s – a substitute teacher, who, through the benevolence of a kindly headmaster had been given his own class – for four months. Though I had no idea how to teach, and my students showed little enthusiasm for learning – the day’s high point for both of us was the free lunch, whose much anticipated “Meal of the Week” was “Suet Pudding” (cooking hint: its primary ingredient is pig fat) – both teacher and students made it through to the end of the year.

My plan was to use the “August Break” to visit my family in Canada, then return to England, and continue teaching. This plan was abruptly thwarted when, on my second day back teaching, the government, in a stunning maneuver against the combative Teacher’s Union, fired all the substitute teachers in England. (I was categorized as a “substitute.) My expectation of yearlong employment had been shortened to two days.

On that scorching last school day in July, I was blissfully unaware of that upcoming turn of events. I was a happy fellow. The long school year was over, and I had a job to come back to after the “break.” It wasn’t a job I wanted, but hey, you can’t have everything.

There was this annual special event scheduled for the last day. After lunch, classes were suspended, and we all – students and teachers – were directed into the schoolyard to play cricket. Oh, well. At least classes were suspended.

I didn’t know how to play cricket. I had watched “Test Matches” on TV. They lasted three to five days. I couldn’t play that long. I was leaving the country in two.

It turned out this was a “schoolyard” version of cricket. The game was shorter – it lasted an hour – and the “wicket” was drawn in chalk on the side of the yard-boundarying brick wall. I won’t go into the cricket rules, because one, you’d be bored, and two, I have no idea what the rules are.

They put me in the “field”, leaving me with two instructions: If the ball (in the “schoolyard” version, it was a tennis ball) came to me on a bounce – pick it up and throw it in. If it came to me “on a fly” – catch it.

Apparently, news of my athletic limitations had not yet reached England. I was tall (compared to the students), so they imagined me to have cricket skills commensurate with my height.

The majority of the students gathered around the “cricket pitch.” The remainder had climbed the “wicket” wall, where they arrayed themselves in an extended line, their legs dangling over the edge.

I was nervous. An athletically ungifted man with thick glasses, thrown into a game he did not understand. That’s pressure. The pressure was augmented by my students’ expectations. What made me think they had any?

The kids were cheering for me.

My students were assembled, side-by-side, on the top of the wall. You could sense their animation and excitement. They were yelling for me the moment I took the field.

Their cheer involved a specific rhythmic cadence, familiar to English sports fans, but alien to me. I’ll try and reproduce it. First they chanted my name:


Then they clapped. There were five claps in the sequence. The first clap was long. Then, there was a space, followed by four quick claps in a row. So it went like this:





It was exhilarating. (My cheeks are inflaming just thinking about it.) For the first time in my life, I actually had a “Rooting Section.” Besides being unexpected, it was a little surprising. I was far from confident that my students liked me.

The cheering was also intimidating. What if I…you know. And, knowing me, I probably would.

For a while, the game went smoothly. Meaning the ball came nowhere near me. Then came a corkscrewing “grounder”, which narrowly escaped my fingertips. It was deemed a “tough chance”, so there was no booing. I imagine great athletes never think about such matters. For those of us at the “inept” end of the “coordination” spectrum, booing and, hopefully, its absence, is all we think about.

And then it happened. A scorching “line drive”, rocketing viciously in my direction. My instincts immediately kicked in. I timed my jump, leaped high in the air, snaring the ball in my outstretched left hand. I returned back to earth, the ball resting comfortably in my hand.

The crowd went wild. It was pandemonium. Spearheaded by my own students.








…echoing through the playground at Saint John’s Church of England Infants and Junior School. In my fantasy, they’re talking about “The Catch” to this very day.

Speaking of fantasy, I’d like to end these “school stories” with a speech which, like many speeches, I never delivered, only partly because I didn’t think of it until later. I wanted to tell those kids something. Something I needed them to know. In the unlikely chance that they’re reading this, well…better late than never.

This is the speech I wish I had made:

It’s that day, the last day of the year, just before lunch. This would be the last time we’d be together as a class. As usual, the students are full of beans, and I’m struggling to get their attention.

“Settle down! I want to tell you something. I promise it won’t take long.”

The kids sense an urgency in my voice. They settle in their seats and they give me their attention.

“Okay. We made it through the year. I don’t know how, but we did. I don’t know what you learned. But I know what I learned. I learned that you guys are special. Every one of you, even the ones who gave me a hard time, and you know who you are.

“You guys deserve stuff. You deserve a classroom that’s bigger than a storage closet. You deserve at least the minimum amount of equipment. You deserve a family that pushes you to do your best. You deserve a better teacher than me.

“Most of all, you deserve respect. No matter where you end up, you must never allow anyone to treat you worse than you have a right to be treated. You’re people. You have a right to be treated with respect.

“You guys are great. And I’ll miss you. And before I cry…that’s it.”

That’s what I wanted to tell them.

I’m sorry I missed the moment.


Anonymous said...

CLAP…CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP! Mr. P. Just think, you're life is a work of art, taking you from Mr. Chips through the Hollywood Hills to Los-t-Horizon Angeles, the land where the locals not so much do not age, as choose not to.

Anonymous said...


Kim (Holder) Brown said...

Oh I've read your To Sir With Love blogs with such interest. I went to St John's Church of England Infant & Junior school! from 1961-1967 and they were some of the best years of my life. What a school?! I was so glad to read your ,last statement about the children being special because that's just how Mr Kinsman and the teachers made us feel. What year was you at St John's? Please, if you have any more stories about Mr Kinsman, let us know. He was the most amazing and eccentric man I have ever come across in my 59 years .. I absolutely loved him. I just wish I'd known him as an adult as I would loved to have known more about him personally. I do know that he also lived in a lovely house in Hampstead because he would take a few of us there regularly to meet his wife and children. He was so special. Thank you for these memories. X