Thursday, August 21, 2003

Appalling People I've Known

For a while, I've been thinking of attempting an inspirational piece along the lines of one of those Reader's Digest stories about the most remarkable person (or animal) that the author has ever known. My personal favourite in the genre was one about a black goldfish that lost both eyes in a violent pond brawl, but nonetheless managed to live a life of independence and dignity with a little help from his faithful guide guppy.

Alright, the guide guppy is artistic licence on my part but RD really did publish such a story sometime back in the sixties. If the author had known that the biggest bundle of nerves inside your average fish's head is its olfactory bulb I doubt that little Pop-Eye the blind Bubble Eye would have attained fame (however briefly) as an example of courage in adversity.

It should be obvious by now that this isn't going to be an inspirational piece - I obviously don't have what it takes to write one. So you'll just have to settle for a cautionary tale.

Every Thursday was Religious Instruction and Sports day at Greenfields High School, where I got my six years of secondary schooling. One hour of Religious Instruction (RI) in the mornings, two hours of Sport, or truancy, in the afternoons. Roman Catholics got RI in a normal classroom; the rest of us, Protestants of no fixed denomination, would troop down to the school hall for a lesson from the Reverend Duncan Donald*.

The Reverend Donald was the Minister of the local Presbyterian church. He had a strong speaking voice, which he could project all the way from the stage to the back of the hall and slam dunk into the basketball net. This was largely wasted, as the hall was never more than a third full: Forms 1 and 2 got their dose of RI in the first period of the day, Forms 3 and 4 in the second. Before I reached Form 5 there was also a third period for forms 5 and 6 but, thanks to events that happened early in my 5th year of High School, compulsory RI, at least for the upper Forms, was abandoned.

With so many students in the hall, there was little room for class participation; instead, the Reverend Donald would take to the headmaster's lectern (presented by the school's Ladies' Auxiliary the year before I started there) as if it were a pulpit and deliver a fairly traditional sermon. I can still bring the gist of one or two to mind.

The sermon on Commandment Number Five, "Thou shalt honour thy mother and father" was one of a short series of sermons on a selection from the Ten Commandments that the reverend Donald considered most relevant to impressionable twelve and thirteen year olds: from memory, the series included Number One, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me"; Number Two "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" was probably skipped, in deference to the need to avoid sectarian division within the school's student body, and of course Number Seven "Thou shalt not commit adultery" was obviously irrelevant to a group of early teenagers whose hormones had not yet propelled them into the temptation to fornication, let alone graver sexual sins. Number Ten "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." got a guernsey too (with a seemly emphasis on the real estate and livestock, rather than the wife, the maidservant and the manservant).

Reverend Donald illustrated his sermon with a short fable, allegedly traditional Chinese, of a married couple who had a live in elderly father (or father in law). Thanks to senile dementia, Pop's table manners became a little less than exemplary and the couple found it convenient to construct a pig trough so, at family meal times, when the rest of the family (father mother and young son) were eating at the table, Grandpa was put in a corner of the room, feeding himself by hand out of his trough. This went on until Dad found his son out in the woodshed one day, constructing two brand new pig troughs, for when he and Mum got old.

But, said the Reverend Donald, in a climax of hair-splitting triumph, this fable misses the point of the commandment, which is not "Thou shalt not dishonor thy father and mother" but "Thou shalt honour thy father and mother." And so to the second part of the sermon, on how children should honour their parents; the details of this part didn't stick in memory nearly so well, but doubtless included the sort of cheerful obedience we used to faithfully promise in primary school when we were reciting that "I will honour the flag" malarkey.

On another occasion, the Reverend Donald decided to broaden the scope of the Religious Instruction lesson by inviting a guest speaker. He had picked up on the fact that, thanks in part to a rash of 1950s science fiction films on television (Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, It Came From Outer Space, The Day the Earth Stood Still and others of that ilk), the subject of UFOs was enjoying one of its frequent faddish revivals. The Reverend Donald made it pretty clear that he considered UFOs a silly superstition but, in a spirit of open-mindedness, he offered to invite along a friend of his who did believe in UFOs, had studied them intensively, and had constructed his own theory to explain them.

The promised UFO expert turned up the following week; he was perhaps a few years older than the Reverend Donald. He was more than happy to share his UFO theory of everything with us, but he didn't make much headway. His credibility was sadly undermined by the dishevelment of his grooming and dress; in contrast to the Reverend Donald's impeccably pressed and buttoned up three piece mid-gray suit, Bill the UFO bloke's suit had obviously not seen an iron in several years, his shirt tail appeared to have a claustrophobic aversion to the inside of his trousers and his shirt appeared to be short of enough buttons to hide his singlet.

Some students, a little more observant than I noticed that his trousers also suffered a shortage of fly buttons, but no-one missed the fact that he had made a mess of buttoning on his braces. His ideas turned out to be as disarrayed as his appearance so, while the Reverend Donald's stern gaze was sufficient to keep the giggling of the second formers to a more or less courteous level during Bill's speech, after the bell rang for the next class, there was an eruption of hilarity as we walked from the hall back to the main school buildings.

The demise of compulsory Religious Instruction started with a trivial incident; the Reverend Donald decided to experiment with class participation in his lesson to the senior school. He began the class with a diatribe about the woeful lack of Biblical knowledge and understanding in the younger generation. He then pointed to Chris, one of the Form's clown princes and demanded "You there! What are the first three words in the Bible?"

"In the beginning." Chris replied.

"No you fool." Donald thundered. "They're 'In the beginning'!"

He then went on to his sermon, a fairly standard piece about how the words "In the beginning" mean literally "In the beginning" and that questions about what God was doing before the beginning were nonsensical (repeating, I think, Martin Luther's joke about how God spent his time pre-creation stocking up on switches to cane those who asked silly theological questions).

There was a lot of comment on Donald's conduct on the way from RI to the next class, not much of it favourable. You don't mess with a school's clown princes, self-appointed or otherwise. From that day on it was open season on the Reverend Donald.

The next major confrontation happened after the ABC screened the Hanna-Barbera animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Donald was a staunch anti-Communist. After asking who in the class had seen the film that Sunday: a lot of hands went up. Donald said that the film showed how people had the right to rebel against communism. Slim, the other clown prince, put up his hand.

"Yes boy, what is it?" Donald asked.

"Sir, in the film, the animals rebelled against capitalism and set up communism. Like in the book." Slim answered.

"That's not the point!" Donald sputtered. "Anyway, at the end of the film they overthrew communism too."

"But not the book, sir."

Of course, that wasn't the point either. By the end of this lesson, the official fifth form consensus was that Donald was a laughing stock. His next class was memorable mainly for the open derision of the mob. It pushed the Reverend Donald to his fatal utterance; frustrated with the hoots of derisive adolescent laughter that greeted his every statement, he shouted "For God's Sake!" There was a shocked silence, followed immediately by loud jeering laughter and Donald completed his humiliation with an abashed display of incoherent back-peddling: "No, not for his sake, for your sakes ..."

It was clear that the Reverend Donald could no longer control the class; for a couple of weeks order, of a kind, was maintained by having a couple of the school's regular teachers present during his classes. While this helped maintain discipline, it also gave them a chance to see the Reverend Donald in action and to see how poorly regarded his class was. This low opinion wasn't confined to the school's emerging atheists and agnostics; it was shared by quite a few of the school's Christian students as well.

Obviously it became a serious issue for the school, because one morning we were given forms to take home to our parents: if they consented, those of us who wanted it could have a period of private study (and definitely not truancy) instead of RI on Thursday. I decided to play it safe: the forgery of my mother's signature that I put on that form was the finest I ever produced. Looking back, I suspect that I would have done just as well with a large "X" and the inscription "Ma Trotsky her mark."

* - All names have been changed to protect innocent and guilty alike.

Update: After seeing an excerpt from this post over at Troppo Armadillo, I've done a quick edit to fix up some shaky paragraphing and remove a redundant phrase. I should have gone on to that fourth draft after all.

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