Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Bertie and the Hydra

I am reading Julian Barnes' Metroland. The adolescent atmosphere of its early chapters reminded me of something that happened at school; a small event, but one that I recall with a sense of surprise, even pride.

It involved a biology master, 'Bertie' Fowler. Bertie was inclined to be aloof and intolerant of fools. One felt he was fonder of the exotic plants he raised in an anteroom behind his classroom than he was of adolescent boys, and perhaps we respected him rather more than we liked him.

One lazy summer afternoon, in the run up to exams, we were slumped in our seats, waiting for Bertie to emerge from his plant-filled eyrie. From the open windows came the drone of a tractor dragging a gang mower across a cricket pitch. On the blackboard behind the teachers' table was chalked an elaborate diagram of a hydra, presumably left over from a previous class - the hydra being the sort of simple organism taught to beginners. As we listlessly waited the classroom door opened and a stranger came in, wordlessly sat down at the back of the room, and drew a pad of paper and a pen from his briefcase. The school was undergoing a visit from the school inspectors, and we supposed that it was Bertie's turn to be assessed.

When Bertie emerged and saw the inspector he visibly blanched. To our growing horror he 'dried', totally and completely. He looked at us, looked away, leaned on the table for support. He wiped his face with his hands, stared at the floor, then the ceiling. It was as if he had completely lost his bearings, unable to remember which class we were or what he had planned to teach. As the silence lengthened our embarrassment increased, and our hearts went out to him.

I think it was Gardner who saved the day. He put his hand up and Bertie, in a reflex action born of decades of teaching, said 'Yes?'

'Would it be possible for you to run through the life cycle of the Hydra for us again, Sir?', Gardner asked. 'There were some things I didn't understand.'

We had 'done' the hydra long, long before. We knew hydras inside out. We could have recognised one in the dark, and probably known its Christian name. On a normal day Bertie would have given such a question short shrift. But a look of profound relief and gratitude swept across his face. 'Yes, it would', he replied. Turning to the diagram on the board, he launched seamlessly into an elegant and articulate exposition of the physiology of the fresh-water polyp.

One might not normally credit a class of 16 year old boys with much tact or sensitivity. But Gardner's inspired question, and the deceit that followed in which we were all complicit, came purely from kindness and loyalty. We knew that it was a ploy. Bertie knew it. The inspector must have known it. Nothing was ever said; it would have been impossible for Bertie ever to concede his moment of weakness. But I believe the school got a glowing report from the Inspectorate, which drew particular attention to a remarkable rapport between staff and boys.

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