So that's what teachers are for;Back Paige;Summer diary

30th July 1999 at 01:00
THERE'S A famous saying about the noble profession of teaching: "Once a teacher, always a . . ."

Well, actually, always an interfering busybody who can't see other people's children misbehaving on holiday without sticking an oar in . . .

Such thoughts surfaced to the top of my Minorcan swimming pool a few years back, as I vainly attempted a fourth length. My neck was beginning to develop its customary crick, well known to us breast-strokers who never venture to place ear, nose or throat beneath the surface.

Some teenage boys were misbehaving, and it was beginning to get on my nerves. In strict defiance of a notice in bold, dark lettering: NO JUMPING - well, there they were, jumping from the bloody bridge into the pool.

And it wasn't just a gentle swallow dive, or a tentative splash: these little buggers were performing acrobatic summersaults that usually concluded with enormous belly or back-flops into a pool that was crowded with toddlers and seriously underachieving swimmers. Like me.

Every adult around the pool was thinking exactly the same. Why doesn't somebody stop them? Trouble was, there weren't any teachers around to stick their oars in.

And my thoughts went back to one of the most important lessons I ever received in preparation for joining the profession. It happened some time before I chose a career path, I hasten to add. In fact, it happened while I was still at school.

I was in fifth year at the time, and was on the cusp of turning myself into a right bloody nuisance in the English class. Which was a shame, because I liked English. But I'd started an attention-seeking phase, wherein Nicky Thomas and I would make smartass (and not so sotto voce) jokes to each other. The high spot of our hilarious endeavours would be to pretend that we were twanging the bra strap of the girl who sat in front of us. (Alison Sloss, if you're reading this, I'm very, very - if rather belatedly - sorry.)

Mrs MacKellar could see what we were doing, of course. But - in sharp contrast to many a storm-tossed teacher before, and since - she also chose to avoid using the weapon of public humiliation. Instead, she stopped me quietly, and alone, on the back staircase one afternoon.

"John," she spoke softly. "You're messing about in class. You're distracting people, including me. And you're being rather unpleasant. And that's not you: I know it isn't."

She was right, of course: it wasn't me, so I hung my head in sheepish admission. And I resolved to start anew. And I also knew that a public row, a classroom dressing-down, would have had exactly the opposite effect.

It was a lesson I tried to remember throughout a relatively brief five-year span as a teacher. And it was certainly a lesson that came to mind as I watched Tony, Brian and Malcolm perform their 16th death-defying summersault from the bridge.

"'Scuse me, Brian," I waded up close. "Have your pals got a reading difficulty?" I spoke quietly, and smiled collaboratively.

"Eh?" he shook some water from his ear. "Have they got a reading difficulty? It says 'No jumping from the bridge'. They'll end up hurting someone."

He looked sheepish, and bit a lip. I continued in collaborative vein. "So maybe get them to try diving somewhere safer? Eh? See if you can persuade them to move along to the bigger pool."

I paddled away, desperately hoping that his parents wouldn't come to challenge my authority. Now, that would really have been like school.

Someone came up later and thanked me for dealing with the problem. He'd admired the quiet way I'd diffused the situation, because he (and quite a few other simmering tempers) had been about to start a full-scale confrontation. I shrugged a modest shoulder, explained that it was always better to avoid public humiliation when dealing with young people, and mentally thanked Marjory MacKellar once again.

"Oh," he commented. "Are you a teacher, then?"

"Nope," I sighed. "Used to be. But there's never one around when you need one, so I thought I'd better stick an oar in."

Once a teacher, as they say. Especially when it comes to dealing with other people's children.

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