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19:59, Feb 25 2014

Tomorrow I'm going teaching again. It's years since I did it. I accepted the school's invitation with delight, partly because I will be paid but mainly because I miss the classroom, or at least I miss the unexpected laughter that comes from adolescent honesty. For 20 years I took it for granted. Now I look forward to getting another dose.

I am to teach a series of senior classes and in 50 minutes turn 30 children who read nothing but Facebook into so many Tolstoys. It won't happen of course. Twenty years taught me plenty, and what it taught me was that however much you interested or amused a sow's ear, at the end of the year you'd look in vain for threads of silk. In other words, I know I'll make no lasting difference. Nevertheless my vanity wants the young at least to notice I am there and perhaps to smile a bit or even, if I push my luck, to think. So as I walked the dog along the waterfront this morning I bent my thoughts to working out how I'd approach my day of teaching. I sought an overview of sorts, a tactical assault plan on the fastness of those adolescent minds. Just what precisely did I want to try to teach them? And how should I go about it? And could I dredge up any lesson plans from somewhere in the dusty cupboards of my head?

I dredged for half an hour and came up with precisely nothing. Not a trace of a ghost of a hint of a memory of how I managed in the classroom for such a large chunk of my life. And I was just beginning to wonder whether tomorrow would be the stroll in the groves of jollity that I'd envisaged, when I remembered the tale of Gren and the school inspector.

Gren was my head of department at a school in Canada and my friend. Built like a Viking with a beard to suit he thrived on seeming fearsome. At heart he was as soft as summer butter, but he talked like Beowulf's aggressive elder brother. When Gren and I spent evenings in the bar, I just laughed and listened. The year was 1984 or thereabouts and we'd gathered in the staffroom for morning tea. Gren had poured himself a coffee, wolfed a sandwich and lit a cigarette.

"Mr Fanshawe?" asked a small man in a brown suit and brown shoes. His voice was weak and thin. His nose appeared to twitch. He seemed a sort of bureaucratic vole. Gren looked down at him and nodded. The man did not seem daunted. He explained that he was part of the inspectorate currently assessing the school and he wondered whether he could arrange a time with Gren of mutual convenience so he could see Gren's lesson plans for all his classes.

"No," said Gren. "I beg your pardon, Mr Fanshawe?" said the vole. "No," said Gren.

Now the vole was disconcerted. But at the same time he felt bolstered by his status. Though he could no more have held the attention of a class of adolescents than he could have flown to Bolivia, he knew where the power lay and it lay with him. He duly explained to Gren that in his role as a member of the ministry's inspectorate etc etc he was within his rights to ask to see Gren's lesson plans etc etc and should Gren fail to ... "I'll show you where I make them if you like," said Gren.

"I beg your pardon, Mr Fanshawe?" said the vole again.

"I said," said Gren, "I'll show you where I make my lesson plans if you like." The vole was clearly puzzled but he felt that he was winning.

"Very well, Mr Fanshawe," he said, "lead on."

Gren laid aside his coffee, stubbed out his cigarette and marched the brown-suited one down the corridor that separated the staffroom from the headmaster's office and which we staff called "the credibility gap", and out of the main building and down the steps and across the quad, the little man taking two strides to every one of Gren's, and up the steps into the Challoner Building which would change its name the following year because a very rich old lady wrote the school into her will, and children parted to make way for the unlikely pair, enormous Gren and twitching little functionary, and through the fire-proof doors, along the corridor until they found themselves within about a yard of Gren's classroom door, where Gren abruptly stopped.

"Normally about here," he said.

He was a wonderful teacher.


The Dominion Post