The rule for fractions when you’re young?
It’s two-thirds’ brains
And one-third tongue
The rule for fractions when you’re young?
It’s two-thirds’ brains
And one-third tongue
The new teacher entered the classroom and took her seat, greeting no one. Perpetua Tightwaters was having a bad day but her deportment made it impossible for the students to tell because she held only one expression in her armoury: disapproval. A fierce-looking woman with grey-blue eyes which devoured their prey whole, she could scan an entire school assembly at a glance over horn-rimmed glasses designed to gore enemies at close range. Thick, silvery hair which still held its lustre was meticulously hoovered up into a tidy bun, giving her the air of a grande dame of the Bolshoi who had long since exited the stage, but not the company. A smooth complexion required only a light touch from a modest palate; it was only her mauve lipstick which strayed into the adventurous, considered redundant by many because her lips were permanently pursed until they parted to issue a summons, reprimand or decree.
Perpetua Tightwaters loved crosswords, hated skateboarders, still bought her meat from the local butcher, donated to the Red Cross by direct debit, considered pet ownership overrated, knew her brother-in-law had a drinking problem before he did and stopped listening to Engelbert Humperdinck the day the singer made a joke about the Queen Mother during a live interview on Radio 4.
Alert and self-assured, she made few demands of others and expected the same courtesy in return, preferring discretion at all costs. During her morning commute into the city, Perpetua remained vigilant lest she should drop her guard for even a moment and, in doing so, make eye contact with a fellow commuter just bursting to talk about his gifted toddler’s progress at Junior Montessori. She had nothing against the public, she simply regarded them much as she did junior royals: odd-jobbers whose pivotal role might one day involve organ donation. In an increasingly unrecognisable world where meat was murder, Drag Queen Storytime had replaced Show & Tell and a pope had wavered ever so slightly on the question of married clergy, Perpetua Tightwaters chose to anchor herself in work, God and country for everyone’s sake.
In her opinion, social distancing wasn’t overkill.
It was overdue.
We sent the students home today
And then wrote off the year
Agreeing we would all downplay
The panic and the fear.
The younger ones all whooped and cheered
As soon as they were told
Then out the door they disappeared
To watch events unfold.
The seniors nervously dispersed
First, shell-shocked, then resigned
This endgame they had not rehearsed
Would leave some friends behind.
Worse still, I had no lesson plan
No academic text
No clever quote from some wise man
To say what might come next.
I struggled with this year’s goodbyes
But didn’t let it show
Instead I joked and signed their ties
And let them call me Bro!
Throughout the revelry we knew
The world was not the same
Our balanced lives were now askew
And we were not to blame.
But you can’t keep a good kid down
When they’re up for the fight
And as I watched them rally round
I knew they’d be alright.
The proof came when I reached my car
That’s when my vision blurred
In foam they’d written Au revoir!
Then What’s the French for NERD???
While teaching a class of 12 year olds, one student asked about the origins of life.
[For the record, she was supposed to be conjugating the present tense of avoir]
“Can you narrow it down a bit for me?”
“Well, something had to start something so what started everything?” Lucy wondered.
“It’s a kind of Chicken & Egg Theory question, that one.”
“What do you mean, sir?” she persisted.
“Whenever we contemplate the origin of anything we often ask Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Some questions we just can’t answer. Well, not yet anyway but I think we’re getting closer.”
Lucy stared at nothing in particular but I could see her wheels were turning.
“And now I’ve confused you,” I laughed.
“Only because you’re confused, sir,” she stated, as respectfully as possible. “The answer to the Chicken & Egg Theory is easy. Chickens are birds. Birds are descendants of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs didn’t give birth to live young but laid eggs, therefore the eggs some dinosaurs laid eventually evolved into chickens through a process called speciation.“
A colleague once told me, “The best thing about being a teacher is that we are, indeed, the smartest people in the room.”
Some days I’m not so sure.
Last month I received a letter from my doctor reminding me it was time for my annual health check. The fact it was addressed Dear Sir/Madam did ring a few alarm bells, given he’s taken at least three selfies with my prostate, but with no offence taken I followed doctor’s orders and booked an appointment at my local Code Blue Health Centre.
“That’s quite a number of steps,” I told the receptionist, stooping to catch my breath. “What happened to the ramp?”
“Gone,” I was informed. “Health & Safety.”
“Aren’t ramps for Health & Safety?”
“Too many Four-by-Fours were slamming into cars when they reached the bottom. When I made a claim my car insurance went up because they had to invent a new category.”
“Four-by-Fours?” I wasn’t following.
“Are we allowed to call them that?”
“I am, you’re not,” her reproval hung in the air, while a bejewelled talon gestured lazily towards a certificate propped up against a pink thermos. “I’ve had training.”
“What do people in wheelchairs do now?”
“They have to go around the back and enter through the…” she stopped texting then casually pulled her hair across her name badge. “Uh, you’re not a reporter, are you?”
“No, I’m checking-in for my appointment with Dr Shapiro.”
“Check-in is by touchscreen on the wall opposite,” I was duly despatched, as if telling me where to find the straws and napkins.
Throughout the check-in process, the Automated National User Service referred to me more than once as a customer without offering any form of cashback facility. This was not only misleading but highly inconvenient as I had an extortion payment due at noon and knew only too well that the Yakuza didn’t accept cheques. Even more worryingly, I was unable to recall exactly when the UK Government had reduced my role from citizen to that of ‘customer’. In my previous school the Head Teacher had once tried referring to the students as customers, explaining that we were delivering a service to them and, if they weren’t satisfied, they could file a complaint.
“There’s only one problem with that,” I spoke up.
“Go ahead, Mr Ormsby,” she readied herself.
“If the customer is always right then why do I have two hours of marking every night?”
“To support learning,” came the stock reply.
“So am I now Customer Support?”
“Well… in a way, yes,” she was on shaky ground and she knew it.
“Which would make you Sales.”
“I just want to get this straight: Sales sells the dream and Customer Support services the nightmare,” I articulated for her benefit. “And will we be running any kind of customer loyalty scheme because I’ve just thought of one: students could redeem their SAT scores for Pot Noodles and spray paints.”
They were back to being students by lunchtime.
Having successfully checked in, I then retired to The Wellness Hub (that’s a Waiting Room to you and me) where I was faced with that age-old dilemma: where to sit so that no one would disturb or infect me while I tried to guess their affliction. We all play it, if not in a doctor’s office, then certainly in car parks whenever we observe what appear to be able-bodied drivers emerging from vehicles displaying a Disabled Parking Permit. My friend, Laverne, is ace at it.
“What do we think of this one?” she asked me last week.
“COPD?” I ventured.
“No, walking too fast.”
“Carrying too many bags.”
“The Big C?”
“Too much hair.”
“Some disabilities are invisible,” Alison reminded us.
“I wish yours was,” Laverne scowled at her in the rear-view mirror. “Definitely upper respiratory… I’ve got it!” she smacked the dashboard in triumph. ”’Pneumothorax!”
“Oh, I loved her in Pulp Fiction,” Alison brightened, before frowning again. “I didn’t know she was disabled though.”
I negotiated my way towards the far corner of the seating area, avoiding eye contact all the way until I reached a cluster of empty seats. Surprised no one else had retreated to this refuge, I was just about to sit down when I noticed what appeared to be a small turn on one seat. Appalled that a Wellness Hubful of humans had watched me make my way towards an open latrine without so much as a warning left me cold inside.
“I tried Tangerine Dew on it but that’s not what they make it for,” one old dear explained, retrieving a bottle of Febreze from her shopping bag. “The one for pets maybe…”
My heart melted.
“No harm done,” I said, taking the seat next to her.
“It was an elderly gentleman,” she explained. “His daughter brought him in. We could all see the back of his trousers when he got up to go see the nurse. I told the receptionist.”
“Which receptionist?” my hackles were now up again.
“The sturdy girl… her, with the wig.”
(I love the way the older generation speaks)
“How do you know it’s a wig?” I suppressed a laugh.
“Because it looks like a bale of hay. I also told her it’s crooked.”
“And what did she say?”
“She told me check-in was behind me on the far wall. I thought it was a cash machine when I came in because I need to buy some stamps. Which doctor are you here to see? I’m here to see Dr Haslam.”
“Dr Shapiro,” I replied.
“Oh, Dr Shapiro’s not in today. It’s another, a Dr Fatwa.”
“Right,” I nodded, trying to guess the man’s actual name.
“I’ve seen him going back and forth. He’ll be better than Dr Raymond; I wouldn’t let him cut my toenails.”
I wanted to play the diagnostic game but I knew it would be a lot more fun talking with-
“-Enid,” she suddenly remembered. “Let me see if I can guess your name. I sometimes get it right… is it John?”
I almost fell off my chair.
“How did you know that?” I was stunned.
“You look like a John,” she patted my hand.
“I had you for a Keith,” a lad to the right of me said. “And I had you as a Lola,” he winked at Enid.
“No, Mary. You look like a Mary,” a woman with two toddlers chimed in. “And you’re probably a Jaden or a Tyler,” she said to him.
“And who are these two?” Enid asked, waving to her children.
“This one’s Thomas and this is little sister, Gracie. We’re here today because her liver’s acting up again.”
Everyone went quiet.
“It’s okay, we’re experts now. She’s missing an enzyme so it needs topping up,” she explained. “Thomas is just along for the ride. I’m Julie, by the way.”
“Robert,” the young man gave a slight wave to everyone. “How is she with it?”
“Sometimes she gets tired which frustrates her to no end. There’s no stopping her though,” Julie gave her daughter a hug. “My father’s a Robert.”
“What are we going to do if a Courteney and a Madison walk in?” I asked.
“Ring Child Services,” Robert replied.
“I went to school with a boy called Enzo and our Science teacher nicknamed him Enzyme,” I suddenly remembered. “And we had another kid called Nigel Sheepwash.”
“No way,” Robert sat up.
“I was at school with a girl called Mary Hammoth and the boys used to call her Hairy Mammoth,” Enid mused.
“I knew a Bobby Bibby,” Julie joined in. “No word of a lie: Bobby Bibby.”
“Did he have a sister Libby?” Robert asked.
“And I once went to the dancing with a boy called Ronald McDonald,” she rolled her eyes at Enid.
“No small feat,” I said.
“Oh my god,” Robert groaned aloud.
“Sorry,” I apologised, but not really.
“No, but funny thing: when I saw him the next week he was with another girl and I knew they were made for each other.”
“Why funny?” Enid asked.
“Because they came straight over and he said, “Meet Patty!”
Call it nervous tension. Call it peer contagion. Call it what you will but I’ll tell you something for nothing: people know a good punchline when they hear it and that one was so corny it was still on the cob. Everyone burst out laughing and when the receptionist told us off we laughed even harder.
After that, I don’t remember much else.
I can’t tell you which doctor I saw or what I told him or what he told me or where I went after that or how I got there because none of that mattered. What did matter was that for a few moments Julie was able to forget about liver enzymes, I forgot I was one year older, Robert forgot about the rod in his left arm and Enid forgot that she now spends most days on her own.
And you can’t get that on prescription.
In the spirit of the season, I drove an elderly neighbour to mass this morning after she knocked on my door claiming to need a lift due to the icy weather. The Church of St Mary Magdalene (didn’t get that memo) is a local Catholic landmark conspicuously situated between the Women’s Health Centre and Darth Vaper’s E-Cig Emporium about a mile from where I live. As we pulled up to the entrance Mrs Malarkey gently enquired, “Are you coming in? You can send a calendar back home to your mother. I’m sure she’d love hearing what’s been going in the parish.”
The old clam had me. At 85 she didn’t miss a trick and knew I hadn’t been to mass since my parents’ last visit.
“Of course,” I stated coolly, looking her straight in the eye. “It’s Christmas, isn’t it? Now, are you going to be alright managing those steps while I park the car?”
“I’ll just wait for you here,” she parried, then thrust, “and it’s not Christmas. It’s only the Fourth Sunday of Advent.”
“I know it’s still Advent. Hey, it looks like they’ve put down some salt,” I pressed on. “Try the steps and see how you go.”
“No, I’ll wait for you, then we can go in together.”
Entering the church brought back a load of memories. I’d been an altar boy right through high school and was much more sanguine about the role the Church might play in later life. Uncompromising and unafraid to challenge the moral turpitude swirling all about me, from an early age I had developed a low tolerance to riff raff. After all, I’d been named after Pope John XXIII and unlike a lot of 12 year olds, had written my own Encyclical:
I’m Mr Ormsby and thank you very much for dropping by.
Each of us has our own guilty pleasures: Chocolate Blackout Cake, slot machines, staying in our pajamas all day, seeing a stranger walk into a lamp post, etc.
Mine is words. Whether I’m at work or walking the dog, words are constantly ricocheting around my brain. For example, whilst writing this I’ve been wondering what the word is for that little piece of plastic on the end of shoelaces.
[for what it’s worth, we call it an aglet]
Sometimes I like to chew words and blow bubbles with them just to see where they land. At other times, I’ll painstakingly place them in regimented rows where they’re not allowed to move until given the order. Most days, however, I rely on words as ammunition in a world where I’m increasingly expected to explain my actions to others. And I must admit that it’s during these encounters when, for me, the fun begins. This is especially true when the occasion calls for returning swimwear without the receipt or spicing up one’s court testimony.
And so, this blog.
However before we continue any further, some context…
I recently started teaching in a new school so I haven’t had time to get to know everyone. On top of that, it has been pointed out to me more than once that I have replaced a very popular member of staff who left “before he was ready to go” (I don’t even want to know). This, now I’m only guessing here, might explain the slights I received in the form of gifts from my Secret Santa: a Yankee candle (they’re fully aware I’m Canadian), a voucher for 10 free tanning sessions (I’m ginger) and Maltesers (choking hazard). It’s the anonymity, of course, which is the appeal of Secret Santa but if I had to wager money on it I’d ascribe these unpleasant undertones to Jerry, our racist librarian.
Needless to say, I now keep the small talk to a minimum when checking out books.
In my blog you’ll find humorous poetry, vignettes, characters and outrageous word play along with the odd sober moment. And you can join me in my quest for the perfect rhyme because to me, and you purists are going to hate this, poetry needs to rhyme. Well, mine does anyway. I mean, could it be worse reading free verse?
See what I just did there?
(they hate that)
In any case, Dear Reader, I hope I make you laugh ’til you fart.
P.S. Here’s an online interview with yours truly, if you’d like to know more:
March 19th, 2021
I grew up in Toronto where upon graduating university I landed a job as a copy editor for a legal publisher. The work was poorly paid and mind-numbingly forensic with no room whatsoever for any creativity; we were basically word accountants. Upping sticks, I moved to the UK where I’ve ended up teaching high school. It can be a tough gig some days but the kids are insanely creative and there are always lots of opportunities for laughs with them. Often what I hear during the day inspires my writing.
What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?
My greatest accomplishment to date would be starting my blog and sticking at it. I wrote loads when I was a kid, edited the newspaper at university and almost went into journalism so writing’s definitely in the DNA. And then finally, I got off the pot and started my blog. To date, I’ve posted a collection one publisher has called ‘eclectic’- it’s a mixture of humour, horror, poetry, prose, essays and opinions – which has attracted an equally eclectic readership. I’m proud of my efforts and honoured that others consider it worth reading.
Why do you write?
I guess I’ve got lots to say. Sadly, few of us are gifted orators and writing offers me the chance to get my points across without being interrupted. I’m not a very brave sort but when I write I become a superhero who’s unafraid to pull out the creative big guns and tackle anything. I use different styles and voices I wouldn’t normally get away with at home or at work; it’s very liberating being a homicidal demon one moment, then a camp Martian in hot pants the next.
What is your writing process? (Any favorite places to write? Any interesting quirks, traditions, or rituals you may have? How many times might you revise something before being satisfied with it? Besides you, does anyone else edit your work? etc.)
I’m writing this on a laptop with my dog snoring next to me on the sofa. Years ago I used to rise early at weekends and write until noon, after which I spent the rest of the day making revisions. These days, however, I can write day or night. I’ll often write and then take the dog for a walk so I can mull it over without seeing it. Usually by the time we’ve returned home I’ve ‘pictured’ what I need to do and make the necessary changes. And I revise constantly, often searching days for the right word until I find it. It sounds tedious but not for me because I love hunting them down, day and night. For me, constant editing is essential because I rarely do anything right the first time.
Do you have anyone (friends, relatives, etc.) review your works before you publish them?
As more friends read my blog they’re becoming braver with their criticisms which is invaluable when it comes from those you trust. They’re catching everything from typos to non sequiturs which is surprising because a lot of them were raised outdoors.
Could you give us an idea of your upcoming works without spoiling anything?
My blog contains the prologue of The Abomination which revolves around the First Nation peoples of Canada, the Church and a lot of cultural rituals we perform without knowing it. It’s a thriller and I’ve written about half of it so far. Right now I need to kill a character to further the plot and I can’t bring myself to do it. I would have made a terrible vet.
What do you hope to achieve as a writer?
I would like every one of my students to have to read my work and then sit a three-hour exam on it. That would be poetic justice after having had to read all of their stuff over the years. Other than that, like most authors I simply wish to become widely-read because I’m not writing a diary. That’s it, really.
What advice do you have for novice writers?
Write about what you know and research what you don’t know before writing about that. And don’t be intimidated because someone’s already covered what you were going to write about – what you have to say may spin the whole thing on its head. In this life, we have few opportunities to break rules without ending up before a judge; writing has no rules except those you impose upon yourself, so impose as few as possible and go for it.
What do you feel are the most important resources a writer can use?
Honesty: draw ideas from all around but don’t take what doesn’t belong to you.
A decent vocabulary (or a thesaurus): make every word count because the readers deserve it.