It took me a while to publish this story; I wrote it in September last year, and have finally found a way to finish it that is in keeping with my great respects for this gentleman. Mr. Z, you are part of the reason I write the way I do. Here’s to you!
I have regaled you with a tale from my primary school lore. We must move on today; perhaps we shall return, perhaps not. But the events of today’s discourse linger on the personage of one of our secondary school instructors.
Necessity and respect invite me to camouflage his identity behind the pseudonym Mr. Z, but there can be no doubt to those who know him that Mr. Z is, in fact, a most fitting moniker for this man. There’s a finality, a certain decisive ring to it. Mr. Z himself would be quite proud to hear himself called Mr. Z.
For Mr. Z’s was a conclusive sort of character. He gave no quarter, and brooked no levity during his lectures. From his decision there was no appeal. That things would end up the way he wanted them to end up was for the most part inevitable, at least as far as his students were concerned, and his decisions, once made, were irrevocable. The word by which we most remember him is “No”. And it became quite a different syllable when pronounced by Mr. Z, for it was said with total, jaw-clenching doubtlessness. How the poor vowel of the word ever escaped out from behind his gritted teeth is more than I can fathom. But we were never in doubt as to the implication, if not the elocution, of what he had said.
The paths of Mr. Z. and our class crossed in that hallowed period of secondary school, Form Two. Hallowed, I hear you ask? Undeniably! Those were the days when Form Two was just the year to be in school. Form One, and its insufferable bedfellow, bullying, were just past. The Form Four exam was just far enough out of sight as to be legitimately ignored (I add legitimately, for many students continued – indeed continue – to ignore the growing spectre of the Form Four exam, with disastrous results). Yes, Form Two availed the rapidly growing adolescent schoolboy with a pleasant limbo, a period of respite in which to cultivate (to the horror of his parents and anyone apprised of the contents of end-of-term report forms) the enjoyment of various distinctly non-academic pastimes such as sports, and that most tantalisingly exciting pursuit of the secondary schoolboy – secondary schoolgirls.
To bring home to you the force of personality that Mr. Z had, I must introduce our Form Two class; ours was a class to bring new meaning to the term “terrible twos”. Once, a poor trainee teacher was having such a bad time of it that the noise from our class attracted the puzzled attention of the passing head of secondary section. Opening the door and unexpectedly coming face to face with an instructor apparently involved in the difficult process of instructing, the head-teacher asked “Er, are you teaching?” On yet another occasion, the students were making noise in class (with the teacher in attendance) when the teacher stopped and said: “Please, you can make any noise in class, but not that noise.” (I believe it was the miaow of a cat that was prohibited.) It was the wrong thing to say, for bedlam followed. Cows lowed plaintively in their stalls. Barking dogs gave chase to sheep reluctant to be caught. Said sheep found time and breath in the course of their pursuit to give voice to their anxieties. Wolves howled insults at yodelling cats. Horses neighed in fear. Suffice it to say that long-stifled class noisemakers achieved nirvana during those few moments. It would not have been difficult to convince a passer-by that simultaneous auditions for an expanded cast of an “Animal Farm” scene were being carried out.
But under the firm steerage of Mr. Z, we rowdy Form Twos became as meek lambs. Perhaps it was his early style of dress that convinced us that this was no man to trifle with. For when Mr. Z. joined the institution, he had in his wardrobe a number of very short-sleeved shirts. The line between vests and Mr. Z’s early shirts was very fine indeed. As an aside I may add that his trousers were of the same variety, that is, rather short-sleeved. But that is not the point. Mr. Z’s shirts revealed large, supple biceps that went on into sinewy fore-arms. Mr. Z was wont to compound the problem by leaning on the table, hands facing left and right. Those forbidding arms would be shown off to best advantage. It did not seem advisable to make noise with those arms staring you in the face. After a while Mr. Z availed himself of a fine, double-breasted coat, and some long-sleeved shirts. By then, however, we were as the dogs of Pavlov. The sight of Mr. Z walking into class was enough to strike us dumb.
BUT, dear reader! – and it is a colossal but. It is a but to stop the world turning on its axis. For the day came when our eyes witnessed what our minds had assumed impossible. It was two years before we saw it happen, but happen it did. And as with a great many great events, there was no warning.
It was the lesson right before lunchtime or a lesson after lunch, one of the two. I must add by way of explanation that in those days, events were related as having happened either before or after lunch. A casual storyteller had only to begin “It was two lessons before lunch…” and there would be immediate nods of understanding among his audience. Lunchtime was the great reference-point in time. Nay, I must be honest, for old habits die hard; there are those of us for whom lunchtime is still the great reference-point in time.
Where was I? Ah, yes, it was an English lesson around lunchtime. The exact facts of the case escape me at present, but I seem to recall that the task that had been set before we lunch-crazed pupils (it did not matter whether lunch had been eaten yet or not: our thoughts were often on it) was to convert a passage written in past tense into present participle. Yes, I believe it was something along those lines.
Well the lesson was bowling happily along until we came to the sentence:
“Mary lay in hospital, bedridden.”
Now, the task of converting this sentence to present participle fell to the class clown, who shall at this point remain unnamed. Suffice it to say that I have met few men as naturally funny as this particular gent. His taunts tended to be unforgettable, and I am yet to see a finer imitator of his instructors as this chap. I have myself been the butt of a few of his jokes, and 9 years later the memories are yet fresh, and the wounds are yet raw. That is a story for another day. On this occasion, he quickly sized up the situation, judging whether it was prudent to play his ace, and then with the assured confidence of the practised card player who knows he has the winning card, he said:
“Mary is in hospital, bed-riding.”
There was a brief, thunderclap-like pause while the sheer idiocy of the statement sank in.
We were wondering whether we could laugh or not (this was Mr. Z’s class, remember) and so we chanced a glance at the implacable Mr. Z. And right then, dear reader, the first fissure in Jericho’s wall appeared, for the Integrated English Book Four (Teacher’s Edition) in Mr. Z’s hands began to twitch. Goodness gracious, could it be… was that a… no, no. But yes! We looked at each other in muted disbelief and wonder. A smile was playing about Mr. Z’s lips! And there was a dimple in the middle of his left cheek that we had never seen before! It was not long before the fissure became a crack, the crack became a cleft, and with a final great release, once again the mighty walls of Jericho caved in before a seemingly innocuous onslaught. Mr. Z let go and silently, but heartily, laughed and laughed, the textbook joining rhythmically in his mirth. I cannot be sure, for the mists of time now drift between me and the memorable scene, but I believe I see a tear behind those darkened lenses. From time to time he would pause and say in unbelieving, child-like wonder, to himself as much as to the class:
And then the textbook would be merrily on its way again, escorting the silent guffaws. We ourselves took the opportunity to have a right good belly-laugh, and I can assure you, part of it was the joy of seeing Mr. Z laughing, and not really the joke itself, if you understand what I mean.
Dear reader, let us not point fingers at Mr. Z. There is a bit of him in all of us. But – happier truth! – it is all a façade. Somewhere deep inside, the Mr. Zs of this world are just like you and me.