What I’m about to say is going to sound a little strange, but do please bear with me. I saw you do a double-take when I came through the door, so you might already have an inkling of where this is leading.
Take a good look at me. Do you see anything… familiar? Well it’s like this: I’m you in thirty years’ time. Thirty-one to be precise – although when you get to my age, you don’t usually quibble over detail.
Oh dear. You’re clearly a little rattled! Well hold on to your seat, fella, because it gets a whole lot worse…
I’m a teacher.
I’m afraid you heard right. Totally insane, isn’t it? Look, my friend, I know you have loftier ambitions than this. You might be an artist, right? Or even a writer! After all, you love the shape and sound of words, yes? The way they combine to dazzle, soothe, intrigue, enchant? Well I have some good news: this particular love affair is not going to die! Sure, you’ll make many false starts, cautiously giving flame to too many big ideas, only to watch them get snuffed out by an absent muse or your own insecurity. But that one has yet to play out.
For the time being, I am afraid that what you see here before you represents how you are to earn your bread and butter for a considerable stretch of your life. So how can it possibly be, you ask, that someone might actually choose to earn a living making a complete idiot of themselves? After all, you’re all too self-aware of your current status as a skinny, awkward seventeen year-old; one who often wishes that a giant benign hand would sweep across the sky and whisk you away. Well, yours will be a complicated and often meandering transition, the tale of which we can probably keep for another time.
Ah. The thought of becoming a teacher fills you with horror, doesn’t it? The coffee-breath, the patches on the arms, and more than anything, the fact that the last thing on Earth you could possible entertain is spending your working day standing up in front of a crowd. As soon as anyone looks at you, after all, your tongue turns to stone and your head becomes a giant, sweating beetroot. People, adults in particular, make you feel exposed, graceless, foolish; and all those wonderful articulate thoughts of yours that lift, as mist off a river in the still of night, dissipate in the brash sunlight of day. I know.
Hey! Do you remember that moment, not too long ago, when your English teacher humiliated you in front of your A level Literature group?
You were the only male student. The only male! You and twenty odd girls! They laughed and chattered and were utterly gorgeous; but you never had the guts to make the most of it! So you became their geeky class mascot: some very English and slightly repressed boy who seemed younger than all of them, and whose amusing sketched caricatures made people smile. None of them saw that there was much to you than that, did they?
Of course, you carried an air of nonchalance, pretending that such things didn’t matter. But of course they did. That wonderful girl beside you with the short crop of bleached hair and the green eyes: what of her? How you watched the chewed biro dangling loosely between slender fingers that played so close to yours; the painful awareness of her upper leg pushing against the seams of her jeans, almost brushing your own. God, those unbearable nights of yearning! You never said a word, of course – not even when that idiot of a teacher humiliated you.
You. The only boy. The teacher always tried to appear affable, conspiratorial even, the men together against the rest of them.
“What are we going to do with all of these women, eh?”
How you hated him. And you saw through his mysogonistic bonhomie. He’d perch on the edge of his desk like a carrion crow, picking at your vulnerability. He, the man; you, the boy.
Or, at least, that was the way you saw it.
He saw you watching her, read your awkwardness, your boyish longing. So he made you read Romeo to her Juliet.
I know not how to tell thee who I am…
He watched, arms folded, as you tripped over the loose yards of bright pentameter than spilled from the pages. He steamrollered through your efforts with loud corrections as you stuttered and stumbled over every long line. You shared your book with her and felt her helpless waves of support and empathy as you faltered into an agonising silence.
Then he pulled the part from under you and, to the relief of the class, rose from his perch and took Romeo as his own. Suddenly, the words were skipping off the page. Her relief was palpable as the prospect of an accomplished foil lifted her own voice with animation. For you, humiliation was complete, and that tiny distance between your two desks now opened up like a giant fissure between continents.
How awful it was: colouring deeply, consumed by that flush of shame, the world jeering and closing in on you.
Or, at least, that was the way you saw it.
For everyone else, even her, an amusing episode. A slight humiliation at most that came and passed quickly for all concerned. Not for you. Not for us. We remember that young teacher’s sly face to this day- burnt into our consciousness for a lifetime.
But now I’m the teacher. Your teacher was young. I’m older – with less to prove but as much again to learn! I have to admit that there have been those times when I’ve been a little clumsy, blunt or sarcastic with those for whom I have been responsible over the years. There have been times when it’s been too easy to get lost in the moment, to play a situation for laughs until you suddenly realise that not everyone is finding it funny. I look back on these times with shame. But now, when I see that one face, awkward, painfully self-conscious, angry even, I am brought back to you, my young friend, and I try to become a little more mindful.
So I could tell you to turn backto the girl and tell her how you feel; I could tell you to get a grip of yourself, sit back and stop being terrified of being in the company of twenty or so people of the opposite sex. I could even tell you to stop behind after the lesson and to let your teacher know how his carelessness only served to feed your insecurities.
But then, if you took my advice, you would become someone else. Someone other than me. And I’d rather you became the best version of me instead. I work at this still.
So go as you are. And go well.