Thanks for the memories

2nd April 2010 at 01:00

"Which of the following will run out first: coal, oil or gas?" John's hand went up. His body language told me that a major breakthrough had occurred.

He was keen to contribute to the class, rather than to offer to water my geranium plant or demonstrate his elephant impression (which involved him turning his back, pulling out his pockets and pretending to draw his zip down).

It was month 22 of a two-year Standard grade science course.

For 21 of these months, John had been a pain in the "erse". He had demonstrated the sort of attention-seeking behaviour that both frustrated me and put me in the position of having to protect him from his peers - while occasionally longing to join the substantial queue wishing to set about him with a variety of blunt instruments.

"It's gas, isn't it?" said John, obviously eager to please, "because the other ones kind of stay on for a bit when you put them off." I like to think I treated his reply with respect.

For the remaining month of the course, John continued to do his best. After the exam, he appeared at my door looking for a reference. He wanted to join the army. "What as? A target?" I didn't say, though six months previously it would have taken all my resources not to. Instead, I said I'd see what I could do.

My first action was to contact his guidance teacher, a sensitive, moral man who understood my dilemma. I am sure it is one every teacher has faced. How do you tell the truth, so that future references are treated as credible, without blowing the poor chap's career plans right out the water?

On the guidance teacher's advice, I did indeed tell the truth. John hadn't always been settled at school. He was not academic. He would benefit from the structure of army life. I still think the paragraph I wrote about John counts as one of my finest pieces of non-fictional writing.

John did join the army. I met him later and was very taken by his sense of self-respect. However, I got wind that he had been discharged due to an injury that may have been obtained when he ran himself over with his own Jeep.

I may never know what happened to him but that's not the big question. What I need to know is why I can look back and smile at the thought of someone who, at the time, made me want to put a galvanised steel bucket on his head and whack it with a mallet.

The bad memories have run out first. The good ones have kept going for a wee bit longer.

Gregor Steele has also almost run himself over with his own car.

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