Words Matter

Dave Eggers remembers what a teacher wrote on one of his papers:

He was kind to me, but I had no sense that he took particular notice of me. There were other, smarter kids in the class, and soon I fell back into my usual position — of thinking I was just a little over average in most things. But near the end of the semester, we read “Macbeth.” Believe me, this is not an easy play to connect to the lives of suburban high schoolers, but somehow he made the play seem electric, dangerous, relevant. After procrastinating till the night before it was due, I wrote a paper about the play — the first paper I typed on a typewriter — and turned it in the next day.

I got a good grade on it, and below the grade Mr. Criche wrote, “Sure hope you become a writer.” That was it. Just those six words, written in his signature handwriting — a bit shaky, but with a very steady baseline. It was the first time he or anyone had indicated in any way that writing was a career option for me. We’d never had any writers in our family line, and we didn’t know any writers personally, even distantly, so writing for a living didn’t seem something available to me. But then, just like that, it was as if he’d ripped off the ceiling and shown me the sky.

I am pleased for Dave Eggers that he had a teaxher who inspired him. I had a teacher who was nothing like Mr. Criche. I remember what he wrote too, word for word on my school report in the 7th Form.

After I had come top of the class in English he wrote:

“A splendid exam result achieved with little obvious effort”

Only I wasn’t top on the report, I was second despite slaying the next best in the class by 20%. He didn’t mean that comment as praise either. He meant it as an insult. This was a man who was the head of the PPTA in the school, a man who said to me he hated my father, hated my father’s politics and political party. He also told me that even though I got 95% in the English exam “with little obvious effort” he couldn’t countenance me being top of the class so he “scaled” my result so I came second. He scaled my result down 20% for the guy who got 76% would get the credit for being top of the class.

And so that day I got my exam result and report can be classed as the day I started my war against time serving union hacks, jealous and petulant of kids who are smarter than them. He taught me to hate teachers, unions and unionists in his class.

Words matter. Because of those words I set about making sure he could find no excuse to mark me down again. The next two terms I came top again. Both times over 95%. I was determined that once, just once at Auckland Grammar I would walk across the stage and shake John Grahams hand and I did it so I could pull the fingers at Graeme Marshall.

He will of course claim he insulted me and my father to drive me to better myself. The thing is I got the same marks doing SFA in his class or working my arse off, I wasn’t bettering myself, I was slaving to his tired old view of education and staying under the radar so that he had no valid excuse to mark me down again.

Words Matter. Because of Graeme Marshall’s words I loathe teachers and unions. Thank you Mr Marshall.


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  • Alex

    I went to King’s Prep back in the 60s, at about 10 years old I came 3rd in spelling, the best place I had ever managed to achieve in anything. The remark on the report was ‘Could do better’. Where do they find these teachers?

  • Pita

    A cathartic experience…

  • Cactus Kate

    I think he was complimenting you. That you werent even trying and got the mark.
    By all accounts here that is true

    • Oh he wasn’t complimenting me. That is for sure. He went out of his way to try to make sure i dodn’t get to shake John grahams hand on stage. He failed. He underestimated my resolve, just like trevor Mallard does.

  • Phronesis

    My school reports always read something similar. I dropped out of school early and went to Uni. Only problem then was lazy academics stealing my work or trying to stop me publishing it because they disagreed with me. What did you do at Uni Cam?

    • I joined the army at uni, played soldier, drank a lot and met my wife. That’s about it. Left and went about embarking on experiential learning….called work.

  • peterwn

    Roald Dahl had a similar experience at Repton – he landed a job with Shell for when he left school and his teacher commented ‘I am glad I do not have any shares in Shell’. And his mum paid good money to send him there.

    I also remember when the physics teacher at school got the thickest person in class to do the Joules Equivalent experiment as a demo in an attempt to make him look stupid. He duly prepared the calorimeter, put the correct amount of distilled water into it, put the requisite amount of electricity through the heating element, and noted temperature rise. He then did the calcs and got 4.18 (spot on). And all the b***** of the teacher could say was ‘errors cancelling each other out’. When the teacher retired (ie could collect superannuation) the head refused to rehire him as a reliever much to the teacher’s disgust.

  • It is ironic that WO fell for me as I was a High School English and History teacher for 5 years. My most memorable negative experience was with my form teacher when I was 13.
    She did an experiment with the class sending one student out of the room and then told us all to say nothing but positive things to them when they re entered the class room.
    This happened and the student was beaming by the end of it all. She then asked for another volunteer. I eagerly put up my hand. She chose me and sent me out of the room. I returned to a torrent of negative put downs and out right abuse. I was so shocked I just stood there for a while like a stunned mullet. Finally I singled out one boy who was relishing being given the freedom tho abuse me. I verbally took him on and was told off by the teacher for doing so. It was only an experiment she told me. You shouldn’t take it personally. I selected you because I though you were tough enough to handle it.
    I look back on it now and wish I had left the room and gone straight to the Principal.
    I was not a popular student at school. I was fiercely individual and would not conform to typical teenage behavior in any way. I was one of those kids with a 40 year old head on my shoulders. I was however 13 and the last thing I needed was that experience. I guess at least she selected me rather than someone with low self esteem who could have been pushed to suicide by that experience.

  • Cadwallader

    I had a teacher at my school nick-named “The Snake.” He was a cynical snarky exponent of abuse. He had a captive audience and relished it.We hated the smarmy arsed prick.
    Years after my unceremonious departure from the school I read he had been caught as a kiddie-fiddler and was to be imprisoned. I was thrilled. Sadly a year or so later his daughter committed suicide while at Uni. I often wondered whether she did so due to shame about her father or due to his having treated her like shit.

  • tristanb

    Jesus Christ, you had a teacher who was a bit sarcastic and nasty to you. Get over it! It must have been years since you were at high school.

    Marshall obviously didn’t like you, but not everyone likes everyone else. Suck it up, live in the real world, not back in school. I’m younger than you and I can barely remember the names of half my teachers.

    • Idiot, you miss the point. The point is that teachers, using their words and their actions can have profound effects on people. Often negatively and rarely positively.

      The point I am making is that I remember each and every word that he wrote on my report. Of all the other teachers I had, I remember not a single word they ever had to say. So the single thing I remember from my school years is a thinly veiled insult on a report….yeah go the teachers.

  • gump

    Why are you people so obsessed with perceived slights from your childhood?

    Let. It. Go.

  • peterwn

    It is a far more serious matter than some of you think. People kept quiet about it for years, including victims of kiddie-fiddling and now they are speaking out. Tristanb and Gump – get real – people are entitled to express their experiences. This sort of thing brought Benson-Pope’s political career crashing down around his ears.

  • Richard McGrath

    Cam is right – school experiences often have a profound emotional impact on vulnerable adolescents. I had a social studies teacher in 4th form at Wanganui Boys College – Jim Baker – who didn’t like me, as I was one of two kids in my class who predicted a Labour victory in the NZ election that year (1975). Boy, did I get that one wrong! However I was only 13 or 14 at the time.

    Jimmy scored me at 28% in his mid year exam, which humiliatingly was scaled up to 36% for my report. I had earlier topped the school in maths with 99%, came top in English, and near top in all other subjects. After a quiet discussion with me about the gross discrepancy between the social studies exam result and that in the remaining subjects, my father went along to the meet-the-teacher evening and read him his pedigree. He left the school shortly after that. But not before he’d given me six of the best for writing a critique of my chemistry teacher’s failings.

    Second half of the year I got top of the class in social studies with 72%. And of course, thanks to the result at half-year, I ended up getting second in the fourth form overall. Jimmy smoked and I have always hoped that he ended up with oesophageal cancer as a result. He used to massage boys shoulders in class which was creepy. I thought of him when the Benson-Pope revelations were floating around in the media.