(Another long one: 1900 words.)
In the books on writing memoir that I’ve been reading they all say that when you write about other people, real people who are still alive, and who could well be hurt by what you write about them, what you include and what you leave out, you should be careful, and they recommend various techniques for this, including changing a particular person’s name. Because this is about empathy for the other person. About caring for them.
So with that in mind, meet Mr Bastardface. This is not his real name. If he is still alive he would be in his eighties by now, and probably still as bitterly unhappy with his lot in life as he was when I knew him as a high school mathematics teacher.
At the time he was a chunky guy going bald but with a buzzcut, working the male teacher in shorts look that was very popular in the 1970s, and he had about him what we today would call a vibe, an air, an atmosphere of aggrieved barely controlled anger, and yes, bitterness. He was in his 40s, had completed a Master’s degree in Serious, Proper, You Wouldn’t Understand Maths, he liked to let us know, and here he was, teaching the likes of us, the gormless youth of Lockridge. And he made sure we understood how he felt about this.
He was like the character of Marvin the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who got stuck parking cars at one point. “Brain the size of a planet, and here I am parking cars.” Only Mr Bastardface wasn’t being funny about it. He really did think he had that very large brain, and his spectacular talent was going to waste so that he could pay his bills.
How bitter was he? How angry? Memory is a tricky thing, but I remember the time one hapless kid left his school bag in the walking space between his desk and the next desk. Mr Bastardface didn’t have to go down that particular channel between columns of desks, but he did, and on encountering the bag (having previously announced a no-tolerance policy for bags left like this) he kicked it mightily. The bag took to the air and flew and hit the back wall of the room–SPLAT!CRUNCH!THUMP!–and dropped, exhausted, to the floor.
Mr Bastardface was the sort of teacher who would throw things at students not paying attention. He was the sort of teacher who was always Right, even when he made a mistake. Once he did make a mistake in the working out of a complex bit of algebra on the blackboard. We had a kid in the class who had albinism (like my mum), and he had ghostly white skin, and could only barely see except with the aid of a device called a monocular. He had to sit right at the front of the room, squinting through this gadget. He was also unusually prepared to not notice the degree to which Mr Bastardface intimidated us kids to not talk back. This kid piped up all the time, raising points of order, disagreeing when he thought it was called for, and generally quite unintimidated. It was quite a thing to see. And one day he spotted a mistake in Mr Bastardface’s working out, and spoke up about it.
Mr Bastardface told him he was wrong. The kid said no, he was right. They went back and forth. Mr Bastardface got more and more hostile. The kid, I’ll call him John, calmly insisted that he was right, and explained his reasoning, when allowed. Mr Bastardface blustered and fumed, storming around the stage that was his area at the front of the room in front of the board, looking for bags to kick. But John was right. Mr Bastardface finally got him to come up and write out his thinking, and he did, without any grandstanding, any showing off. He had the facts, so he banged the facts. It was wonderful. That rare day in maths class where the sun shines and the birds sang and you came out smiling.
Mr Bastardface made a special project out of me. There were other kids who were bullies to me, who went out of their way to give me a hard time, to mock me, push me around, heap all sorts of abuse and insult on me. It was grim, but it was also familiar and routine. Mr Bastardface took me on as a special bullying challenge, and what he had was power.
My aptitude for mathematics was odd. In some ways I showed flashes of capacity for the truly hard stuff, which was referred to as Mathematics 2 and 3. Kids who did that also tended to take Physics and/or Chemistry, and had ambitious plans for university and a bold future beyond that. But my mathematical aptitude, as I say, only flickered and blinked, a pilot light in a breeze, sometimes strong and bright, sometimes barely there at all. Sometimes I felt as though I barely understood arithmetic, let alone trigonometry. I probably belonged in the lower class, Mathematics 1, and indeed, I spent a lot of time in that class–but the problem there was that the teacher was wonderful, and I thrived. I did fantastically well in Maths 1, so I got promoted to Maths 2/3, which was the dark domain of Mr Bastardface.
His problem with me was simple: he did not think I belonged there. He thought I was denying a place to a more deserving kid. He also didn’t like me personally. When he looked at me it was a look of disgust, revulsion, the way you’d look down in the toilet bowl after a particularly nasty dump to see what the hell you’d just let loose into the world.
And, sure as eggs, Mr Bastardface would see that I suffered and burned in his class and was booted back to Maths 1, where he thought I belonged.
He had many weapons in his arsenal, many ways to make you feel small and useless. Bear in mind I was dealing with Mr Bastardface in the year or so prior to my 1979 breakdown. When I think of contributing factors, this guy is right up there. He put me in hospital, I have no doubt.
A representative story to illustrate the problem: I had to miss a day of school for some reason. On the missed day there was a big maths test. When I turned up the next day I was given the test paper and told to go and work on it in the school library. I slunk off, heavy of heart. This event took place during a time when I was failing badly in Mr Bastardface’s class. I could not land a single trick. I did not understand anything. Everything was baffling. Between my fear of the man himself, and my terror of the material, and my sheer unending fatigue from several hours of grinding homework every single night, I was at my limit, maybe beyond my limit. I had turned in a series of assignments and previous tests, all of which scored between 0 and 2 out of 10.
So there I was in the library in my study hitch, staring at this paper. It was quiet. I could hear myself blinking. I was a loud blinker. The test paper had been reproduced on the sort of machine that makes blue print and gives the paper an alcoholic kind of waft. You’d see kids given such papers sit there sniffing them. I wasn’t sniffing mine. I felt like I was playing with the business end of a gun that was going to explode in my face.
I completed the questions to the best of my ability in the time allotted. Some I thought I understood, some I didn’t. I thought I might, maybe, get about 5/10. I packed up and went back to the classroom to hand it in.
Mr Bastardface chose to mark it then and there, with me standing next to him, in front of the whole class, during the final moments of class. Ordinarily, you’d hand it in, he’d tuck it away in a file, and you’d get it back next time or in a few days. Not this time.
I stood there, open and exposed. The kids in the class stared, as shocked as I was. There was silence as Mr Bastardface got his red pen out, pulled the cap off and got down to work, placing a big red X on the first question, shaking his head, making a noise. Next question, another big red X. “Oh!” He exclaimed, making a show of shock and surprise.
By question four or five he was laughing, jumping out of his chair, hooting with delight and disgust as he made huge X’s.
I’m not sure when I began crying.
I think that day I managed to get two questions at least partly right. I don’t remember. I remember the shock and trauma. I could not move. I was right there, in the open. I couldn’t even sit. He laughed and laughed at me. He was disappointed, hilariously disappointed, that he couldn’t give me a perfect fail. There was nothing I could do. Nothing.
That was the beginning of the day. I remember nothing of the rest of that day. If anyone came to me afterward with a kind word or a supportive gesture, I don’t remember it. I remember the class’s silence as he hooted and jeered at my stupidity and uselessness. It was a public execution, only I sort-of survived, a ghost walking around, invisible.
Many years later, in the late 1980s, I had a volunteer job with a local government organisation. One day there was a bus tour which would go around the district visiting some of the municipal facilities to assess how they were doing. It was as drab and dull a day as you can imagine it might be.
But on this day there was a special surprise guest on the bus: the Lord Mayor of the neighbouring district, who just happened to be Mr Bastardface himself, live and in person. He fancied himself in politics. He went on to be a state MP for the Liberal Party, but never got far.
But that day, on the bus, once I realised it was him, heard his voice–oh God, it’s Mr Bastardface!–it all came back, all of it. By that point I’d spent more than ten years as a patient, medicated, therapied, consulted-at, worked on like a car up on the hoist at a workshop. And not one jot of it made a damned bit of difference. The memory was then, and now, as fresh as the day it happened.
So, all these years later, why not give him his proper name? Mainly because I feel sorry for him. I feel for what it must have been like to be inside his head with all that anger and bitterness. All that, “here I am with a brain the size of a planet, and I’m stuck parking cars”. He had imagined himself a great scholar of mathematics, an academic, the robes, the mortarboard, maybe even a doctorate, perhaps a professorship somewhere, someplace where his acumen might have been appreciated. Somewhere far, far away from Lockridge Senior High School, and it’s hot and stuffy rooms full of gormless, slack-mouthed youths who kept leaving their bags where they were repeatedly told not to.