Monday, January 26, 2004

Anecdotal Evidence

At the end of the first term of the 1971 school year, the HSC General Mathematics teacher at Greenfields High School did a bunk. After my class mates and had settled in for the first General Maths class of second term, the teacher who entered the room to take the class was not the young woman we had rather gotten to enjoy looking at (but nowhere near as much as we enjoyed looking at the Chemistry teacher who had legs all the way up to there).

Instead, a very short, slightly rotund young man, somewhere in his mid-twenties, wearing a navy blue pin-stripe suit entered the room and stood at the front of the class. His hair was cut short and slicked back with a liberal application of Brylcreme with a shine that almost matched the shine on his shoes. He introduced himself as Mr Martinet "Mr Mart-in-et" he repeated, writing his name on the blackboard as he spoke. He completed his introduction by spelling out what he expected of his class. He was obviously as eager to instil some sound traditional values as he was to teach us mathematics. Particularly when it came to respect for authority.

"First of all," he said, "I don't want to see any books on top of the desks, other than your mathematics notebook and your mathematics textbook. Any other books will be confiscated." He looked around the room with an air of expectation. On every desk there was a stack of at least two books and two notebooks; the mathematics text and the text for the next class. No one ever put their books on the sordid chewing gum and snot encrusted shelves underneath the desktop. Ever.

"Well?" he prompted. "What are you waiting for?"

"But they're text-books sir." one boy pointed out. Mr Martinet walked ovver and stood beside his desk. He looked at the pile of texts at the front edge of the desk.

"You don't need your physics text to learn mathematics, do you boy? Put it under the desk."

Every student in the room, picked up their books - except for those permitted by Mr Martinet. Chairs were shoved back, desks were peered under, noses were wrinkled at the smell of dust from the shelves, grimaces were grimaced and the books were placed very gingerly in the cleanest places that could be found. Having won his first triumph, Mr Martinet went on to lay down more law.

"There will be no speaking during class, unless it is to ask questions of me." This was followed by a little homily on age and maturity, or the classroom being a place to learn not to gossip - the sort of stuff that had been drummed into us in earlier years. We thought that we had left it behind; most of us were used to classes which were conducted with a background buzz of chatter. Granted, silence was expected, and enforced, when the teacher was lecturing. But when we were working exercises or performing practical experiments it was accepted that we would sometimes talk and usually assumed that we were talking about the business at hand and not bragging about how we nearly got shagged on Saturday night. But Mr Martinet was having none of that. "Anyone who speaks during class will be given a detention."

With these ground rules laid down, Mr Martinet moved on to the mathematics part of his first lesson. "Today we will begin on the geometric series."

"Sir, we did the geometric series last term with Miss Bolter."

"Well, a little revision won't do you any harm will it?" he smirked. "And as you've already studied this subject we should be able to get through it very quickly."

Within a couple of weeks, Mr Martinet had turned General Mathematics into a hateful subject for us. It's hard to decide who it was worst for; the kids who had started the year with a keen interest in mathematics and who used to enjoy the subject for its own sake, or those who were taking it as prerequisite for a university course. the one happy person in Mr Martinet's classes was Mr Martinet, whose face often wore a glowing contented smile, his evident joy perhaps inspired by the task of instilling knowledge and sound values into the minds of the young. Whatever its source, his joy was far from contagious.

The issue of books on the desk continued to plague the class. There was always a lot of competition for the desks that actually had clean places on their undershelves, where books could be put without becoming contaminated with the effluvia of the unhygienic. There were always one or two students who, finding themselves losers in this contest, would leave books on top of their desks and hope that Mr Martinet would turn a blind eye. He never did; he would stand beside the offender's desk, point to the book and demand that it be put away, with the usual stern warning. One day he withdrew even this concession.

Mr Martinet's policy was especially hard on Billy Budd, a kid whose parents always sent him to school with the best of everything. He had the most expensive slide rule of all kids in the Physics class and had started every school year with brand new text-books which he kept in immaculate condition; they always brought in the top price when his parents sold them second-hand at the beginning of the next year. He was a frequent loser in the clean desk sweepstakes which set him up perfectly for the example Mr Martinet decided to make of him.

It was during one of our periods of working exercises in silence. Nobody ever asked the kid beside them "Does this look right to you?" because nobody wanted to be the first Sixth former in three years to get a period of detention. Nobody ever asked Mr Martinet for assistance either; instead, they would get together with a mate during a private study period and try to nut things out for themselves. Mr Martinet passed Billy's desk, picked up the PSSC Physics text sitting in front of Billy and carried it to the front of the room saying, "This book is confiscated."

"But sir," came the inevitable protest, "it's my physics text. I need it for the next class."

"I have told you all, repeatedly that all books are to be put away during this class except for your mathematics text. I warned you all that I would confiscate any other books I found on your desks. Now get on with your work. All of you."

"What a turd." someone muttered at the back of the room.

"What was that Trotsky?" the turd snapped. Amazed faces turned in my direction.

Had you going there, didn't I? But it didn't really happen that way; I didn't call him a turd out loud. Neither did anyone else. There was no bare-faced defiance leading to outright rebellion. There was none of that inspirational Dead Poet's Society or Finding Forrester bullshit. Just cold, resentful silence.

The bastard had us by whatever short hairs we had by then acquired, and we knew it. So did he. Prick that he was, he knew, or thought he knew, exactly where the school stood on respect for authority. His beliefs on this subject were quite well-founded; the school's headmaster was very much of the old school and very much the headmaster rather than some namby-pamby principal. True, the strap he was rumoured to keep in his office had fallen into disuse, to be replaced by the system of detention but that was one of very few concessions he made to modernity.

The book didn't stay confiscated; Billy went to Mr Martinet at the end of the class and after several minutes of frantic pleading from Billy, Mr Martinet relented and gavee the book back with a stern warning that Billy should not let it happen again. Billy took his book and returned to his place - that day's General Maths class was held in the Physics room. The Physics students who were taking Pure and Applied Maths had arrived while Billy was negotiating with Mr Martinet, so there was quite an audience, and quite a few people had to be told what had happened.

A week or so later, Mr Martinet simply disappeared. He didn't last out the term. One morning we were waiting for him to arrive and our Fifth Form Physics teacher, Mr Faraday, turned up instead. He didn't need to introduce himself; after the ritual "Good Mornings" had been exchanged, he told us the situation:

"Look, I know and the school knows that you guys have had a rough run with teachers this year. You've lost two - I don't think you miss the last one much and I don't blame you.

We do want you to get through your HSC, but we can't get another emergency teacher right now. I've got a couple of free periods that coincide with your class times so I'll be taking you part time for the rest of the term. You can use the others for private study. If you have any sense you'll use them to work through the text; you're all smart enough to do a lot of it for yourselves with a bit of help."

Finally he offered this consolation: "There's only a couple of weeks left till the end of this term and, one way or another, you'll have a full-time teacher when you get back. I'll let you know what we work out in the last week of term."

Mr Faraday's confidence in our ability to work our own way through the text wasn't entirely misplaced. We were all survivors of the school's rigorous streaming process. There were six year 7 classes; forms 1A to 1F. The letters weren't significant at that stage but by the time you got to year 9 the school had pretty much sorted out who was most likely to go on to year 12 and who wasn't. The six letter grades reflected these rankings; 3F were the muck-ups and fuck-ups who weren't expected to stay at school any longer than the next year at most.

At the start of Year 10 there were still six forms, now slightly smaller than they were in the 3 junior compulsory years. Most of the losses were kids who had done year 9 in the 3E and 3F grades. By now, it was pretty obvious that 4A had all the girly swots and the kids in 4F were pegged to leave at the end of the year. Most of them obliged the school by doing just that. That left only enough students to make up forms 5A to 5E the following year. By now, subject choice had come into play in determining which Form you were in; most of the kids in 5E had chosen Bookeeping or Typing over more academic subjects. Year 12, the HSC year consisted of 4 forms of around 15 students each; an age cohort that started out with around 125 members had been cut down to half its starting size.

Of these 60 students, 20 could expect to fail at least one HSC subject for no other reason than that, in any subject, one third of all students who sat the HSC exam in that subject would be failed. Everyone knew this and no-one wanted to be in that bottom third of students. Neither did anyone want to return to miss out on a University place; it meant a ten percent penalty on your Anderson score if you decided to take a second try at HSC the following year.

As promised, Mr Faraday gave up two of the free periods which he usually spent in the equipment store at the back of the Physics lab and taught us Mathematics instead. And in the last week of term he told us that the school had found us a full-time Maths teacher for next term and who that teacher was.

It was Mr Faraday. He arranged classes in the morning, an hour before the start of the regular schoolday. Although he was a lot more easy going than Mr Martinet, he never had any problems with unwanted talk in these classes. Maybe it had something to do with everyone having to get up an hour earlier.

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