|This picture has nothing to do with the text. December sunset over wartime Nissen huts, Steeple Morden, Cambridgeshire.|
My French teacher in the First Form at secondary school (1969-70) was Mr Simpson. He was one of those dangerously mercurial characters – most of the time he was genial and jolly, though fairly strict, but then just occasionally something would trigger off his dark side and he’d turn into a fire-spitting monster. A crazy look would take over his eyes, and he’d rant most alarmingly, great harp-strings of saliva twanging between his berserk lips. Mr Simpson’s nickname was Scratcher. I’ve no idea why, apart from the pleasingly sibilant alliteration. I suppose once some persecuted kid must have thought that Simpson scratched himself unusually often and focused on this perceived defect in revenge.
Two specific memories: a normal lesson, Mr Simpson talking at the front, the class more or less paying attention. He notices that Mike Cresswell at the back doesn’t seem to be listening but is in fact doodling, and, without stopping talking, sidles over to Cresswell’s desk. Cresswell is so absorbed in his artwork that he doesn’t notice that anything is wrong. The rest of the class are observing with mingled dread, interest and (since only Cresswell is potentially in trouble) schadenfreude. Before Cresswell knows what’s happening, Mr Simpson is standing by him, looking down at his doodle. I don’t know if it was on a piece of scrap paper, or (obviously much worse) on the sacred pages of his French exercise book, but I remember that the doodle depicts a stick man, with a large – ahem – appendage dangling between his legs. This is crime enough, but the potentially most damaging detail is the one word written unmistakably as a caption: SCRATCHER.
Mr Simpson looks at the doodle. Of course, he knew what his nickname was, but I suppose he had to maintain his dignity by pretending not to know. His voice is dangerously calm. His finger stabs at the doodle, and he asks, ‘What’s this, boy?’ He’s offering Cresswell a safe exit. All Cresswell has to do is say, ‘It’s Gouldstone [or whoever], sir; we call him Scratcher,’ and he’ll in all likelihood get off with just a rebuke. However, with magnificent, you could even say superhuman gormlessness he fails to recognise this relatively comfortable option. The whole class has obviously swung round to witness this confrontation, and I can still remember the expression on Cresswell’s face as he looks up at Mr Simpson, ‘Scratcher’, looming ominously over him; it combines puppyish trust, innocence, honesty, but most of all stark staring imbecility as he says ‘It’s you, sir.’
The climax of this story should be Simpson’s record breaking bout of going completely bananas. But that’s where my memory ends. Was his rant so appalling that it’s been blocked from my memory? Was he so taken aback my Cresswell’s stupidity that he didn’t know what to say? Was his reaction overwhelmed by the gale of laughter from the rest of the class? Unlikely, this last one; I suspect we were too afraid to laugh openly, but struggled to contain our mirth. I still think those three simple words, ‘It’s you, sir,’ are just about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.
I’ve been making fun of Mike Cresswell for his naivety in giving Mr Simpson an honest answer, but the truth is that I fell into exactly the same trap, lured perhaps by his seeming, or in this case probably perfectly genuine, geniality. We were working in our books, and I turned around to ask the boy in the row behind me, Ian Kellard, the time. Before he had a chance to answer, Mr Simpson saw what I was doing and called to me. He told me to leave my seat and walk up to the front of the room where I stood facing him. He wasn’t angry; I was a goodish pupil who hadn’t done anything significantly wrong in previous lessons. He gave me a mild lecture about the impropriety of turning round in my seat in the middle of a lesson to ask the time when I should have been working. It was all quite friendly. He asked me if I saw the error of my ways, and I agreed that I did. He concluded by saying ‘Well, Gouldstone, are you satisfied now?’ Without thinking – and I honestly wasn’t trying to be cheeky or clever, I just wanted to respond truthfully, man to man, as the interview up until that point had seemed to require – I replied, ‘No, sir, he didn’t tell me.’
He went mad. When we say this, it generally means that he became angry, which was certainly true; he was angry, of that there was little doubt, but he also seemed to go mad in a more literal sense. He slapped me at least once, possibly several times. He seemed possessed. Words, abuse and spittle flew in several directions. I can’t remember his exact words, of course, but their general drift was that I was a thing of little or no account. Eventually the storm died down a little and he sent me back to my seat, telling me to see him at the end of the day (I think this lesson was in the morning).
I spent the rest of the day in fear of this second encounter. If he was capable of such a torrent of invective on the spur of the moment, how much worse would it be when he’d had several hours to prepare his lines? It just didn’t occur to me that by slapping me he’d seriously overstepped the mark of what was permissible (presumably even by the standards of 1970). So after the last period I, with great fear and trepidation, went and stood outside his room. Eventually he appeared from down the corridor. He was talking to someone, possibly another teacher, and when he caught a glimpse of me it became obvious that he’d forgotten all about this rendezvous. He wordlessly waved me away. The whole incident was never referred to again.
Despite all this, on the whole he was a good teacher, and if he’s still alive (as is perfectly possible - he was I imagine in his thirties) I wish him well.
I wrote the above a couple of years ago in response to a request from a colleague in the school where I teach. He wanted to give our students an impression of how frequently corporal punishment had been used in schools until relatively recently. It emerged that a surprisingly large number of the staff had been hit by teachers.
I'm still friends with a few of the members of that French class (though not Mike Cresswell or Ian Kellard), and they confirm the broad outlines of my anecdotes. Their memories differ from mine in some details, however - hardly surprising after more than forty years, but this makes me question the accuracy of my account. One friend wasn't aware of the sexual aspect of Cresswell's Scratcher doodle; have I invented this detail to make the scene more dramatic and comic? For that matter, how could I have seen the doodle at all, as Cresswell was at the back of the class and I was near the front? Maybe Simpson held the drawing up (unlikely), or perhaps I saw it later. Or perhaps I didn't see it at all, but only heard about it later.
The same friend reminds me of a famous exasperated outburst from a different French teacher at our school, faced with a particularly dim pupil: 'It's like a foreign language to you, boy!'