Richard Hoyes stops pulling his punches

28th January 2000 at 00:00
Mr Stevenson, where are you now? Mr Stevenson taught us English and I remember the last lesson before the A-level exam, someone asked him "What's imagery?" I remember thinking two things. One, what a naff question to ask just before the exam. And second, yes, good question, I'd like to know the answer. I listened in vain for 10 minutes. Mr Stevenson celebrated ambiguity as he had done for the past two years. It depends what you mean by imagery. Fifteen minutes later the person next to me nudged me awake. "He doesn't know, does he?" I felt that maybe Mr Stevenson did know but that he had a job putting it across. Mr Stevenson, you talked too much. Like a lot of knowledge at school, your words floated by just a few inches over the top of my head. I felt that if I could put my hand up suddenly I could somehow pull them down and understand them. But I never could.

"Wanna know your trouble?" a pupil asked me in my first post as a teacher. "You talk too much." But there seemed so much to tell them. At the time I couldn't think of any other way of getting it across. Now I negotiate meaning. I do group work. I am an English teacher of the touchy-feely type. I'm Mr Stevenson without the talk, full of ambiguity. Until, that is, I started teaching my daughter to drive. She's in my class at college, so she also gets me for English.

But driving lessons are different.

"STOP!" I told her the other day. Eventually she stopped, not exactly where I'd intended, negotiating meaning and several parked cars. Frustrated, I told her: "This isn't a bloody English lesson, you know. When I say stop, it isn't 'Stop. Discuss'. It's bloody stop."

And I realised that here was a teacher coming out in me that had been been repressed for years by liberal educational dogma, when I said: "That's the way to do it, girl, that's the way to do it."

"God, Dad. You sound like Mr Punch."

And that's an idea. I shall give up being a teacher and become a professor. I don't mean the academic sort in an ivory tower. I mean the man cramped upin his booth at the seaside with his hand up a glove puppet. Professor is what they call a Punch 'n' Judy man.

"That's the way to do it!" I shall squawk through my swozzle, full of fundamentalist fervour. The swozzle is the device the professor puts in his mouth to make that half-human, half-schoolmaster voice that knows exactly how it should be done. I shall wave the big stick, crack the most appalling jokes. Kids will sit cross-legged on the sand in front of me and laugh at them. They'll be scared not to.

"I've got to say skwasages 'cos I can't say sausages," I'll swozzle.

"You just said it."

"No I didn't, boys and girls. I didn't say it. I said sausages."

How they'll laugh and how I'll boss them about, a perfect role model for bullying brothers and dads.

"Gizzakiss, Judy!" "Not now, Mr Punch. Not in front of all these boys and girls. They'll laugh." She will blushingly make her excuses. I'll teach the kids how to be voyeurs. "You won't laugh will you boys and girls? You won't even look."

"Oh no we won't."

"Oh yes you will."

They'll cover their faces and peek.

When I think of it, many of the Punch 'n' Judy men I see at the seaside or at fetes stumbling out of the booth at the end of the show look just like my old maths teacher, frowning in the sudden sunshine. I think that's what happens to them, these old teachers. They retire and become professors.

But if Mr Stevenson had gone into Punch 'n' Judy he'd have failed. That's the way to do it? Discuss. He would have talked about the stick but never used it. The kids would have clambered all over him peering into the booth seeing all the secrets hanging up inside, Punch, Judy, policeman, sausages, a dog. The magic would have been lost. "Your trouble," they'd have told him, "is you're too soft." I'll be a professor of the old sort. I'll wave the big stick. I'll talk too much. Sit down, shut up and don't spoil the magic.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham College, Surrey. e-mail:

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