My Best Worst Lesson

24th October 2008 at 01:00

BEST: A Somerset comprehensive, 1978. I am about to regale what used to be called a bottom set biology class with the mysteries of earthworm reproduction. The group, consisting of a couple of dozen country boys and a few rosy-cheeked girls, is rapt. Reproduction was quite a big deal in those days, and they were quite prepared to sit through the creepy-crawlies as support acts for the main event.

I begin. "At night, when the grass is damp with dew, the earthworms come (a few knowing giggles) up on to the surface and move around seeking a mate. When they find a suitable partner, the two worms join together in a sort of sleeve of slime and exchange sperm, so they are both fertilised. Then they separate and wriggle off to lay their eggs in the soil."

Antony is a stocky, baby-faced farm boy with sleeves rolled up over forearms like hams. One day, in the near future, he will become an amiable and competent slaughterman but, today, he is a student of biology. He raises a huge, red hand.

"You'm sayin' that they worms do it to each other, at the same time?"

"Yes, Antony. That's exactly right."

He shook his head in near disbelief or, as I prefer to think, wonderment.

"Well, I'm buggered," he said.

In many years of teaching in a variety of situations, this was the nearest I've come to witnessing genuine revelation.

WORST: Mbala Secondary School, Zambia, 1974. It was probably agricultural science with the equivalent of Year 10, and was proceeding in a calm, almost lethargic way with a gentle murmur of conversation, as the pupils got on with their project.

Suddenly, one of the star pupils, a quiet lad, stood up, spun round and punched the boy sitting behind him firmly, if inexpertly, in the face.

The victim hit the floor while the aggressor headed around the bench to finish off the job. I sprang into action and grabbed the assailant from behind, pinning his arms behind his back.

At this point, the recipient of the punch leapt up and returned the favour to the nose of the boy I was conveniently holding. Shocked silence turned to uproar as law-abiding members of the group separated the two contestants.

Fortunately, this was pre-HIV Zambia, so the modest amount of blood caused no concern and order was soon restored. At the end of the lesson the two miscreants remained to face the music. Looking seriously contrite they stood, loosely holding hands in a typically Zambian gesture of friendship and solidarity.

"We are sorry, Sir. It was a bad thing to do." "OK." I said, "But you, Obino, why did you hit him in the first place?"

"He called me a cow." The other nodded sadly, in recognition of his offence.

As I watched them cleaning up the blood, I pondered on my introduction to in-class violence. Throughout the rest of my career I counted myself fortunate that it happened there and not here.

Paul Hending was head of science at a Somerset comp. He is now retired We have been asked to clarify that Victoria Hannan (Best Worst, October 10) was not teaching at The Foulstone School when her worst lesson took place.

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