Updated: Jul 10, 2022
When I was in primary school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. I was in awe of my teachers even the evil ones, and there were a few. I was in awe of their knowledge; they knew the answers to everything! Perspective is a great thing. I viewed teachers as beings standing before me as all-knowing gods of wonder. Most teachers know above all, that being a good teachers means that you inspire the young people you are teaching.
Until eventually most would prove themselves human.
Teachers knew everything
I wanted to know everything they knew. It would take a long time but I finally joined the hallowed ranks of my childhood gods. By that time the idea of teaching in classrooms full of school kids had lost its shine.
How could I go from the sublime to the unwanted in a decade? Reality is a great equalizer. The clouds of innocence and wonder finally pushed away to reveal the cold hard light of disappointment.
One memorable teacher in primary school for all the wrong reasons was Mrs T. She kept her hands warm in winter by slapping the supple young calves of innocent little girls taken very much by surprise.
But there were good teachers too who motivated me to be better, to yearn for more. I can never forget that Tananarive is the capital of Madagascar, courtesy of primary school dictation. It’s now called Antananarivo I see. High school was notable for Mrs H, a pretty young teacher who knew everything about literature and the English language (which would be a constant favourite theme throughout my life). I wanted to be her in her long hippy dress and silver jewellery.
Then the great don of teachers appeared
But it would be at university where I would meet the pinnacle of my teaching world in Dr L. He taught romantic literature — poets like William Blake, John Donne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron.
‘What do you think Shelley means when he says, “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert”?’ I was too shy to speak in tutorials and would spend most of the session building up the courage to say something that was nothing but meant everything.
He hurled himself into recitations of his dreams, violent images of being boiled in a vat of oil, ready to be skinned alive by a dangerous tribe.
‘I know what it means,’ he’d say. ‘But I’m not going to tell you!’ Could it have meant there was something within himself he wanted to reveal, external forces trying to strip below the surface, through pain to its essence? I didn’t find out for a long time that he would be taken too early by a vicious virus that attacked his immunity and robbed him of an extraordinary future.
He made me feel at home for an hour, built my confidence just a little, and helped me express my feelings for the magical words in front of me. It was because he revealed himself, talked to his young students as if they were friends, wanted them to learn the things that he loved, that they needed to learn.
He was my tyger burning bright
I knew him for only a year but that year was important. An influence can come from a short encounter just as easily as it can from something or someone who spends a long time in your life. The essence of that influence can stay with you forever.