This is a personal story by me, Sheila Tucker … I did write about this experience in Rag Dolls and Rage, but this week wrote of it in more detail in response to a writing prompt. (I’m part of an online group that gives prompts each week for poetic or prose responses.)
England: Mr. Goodall circa 1971
Mr. Goodall. Yes, that really was your name and a fitting one at that, although I didn’t recognize your all-out goodness until I moved into your math class midway through the school year—a terrified young teen, shy, hopeless.
To this day I still wonder what prompted the transfer. Was it that Mr. Powell, the other math teacher in my second year of high school, knew that either he’d kill me or I’d kill him if we were forced to spend any further time in the same room? His sneers, the facetious remarks and vocal demands to math questions he knew I couldn’t answer; my teenaged bravado of rolling my eyes, tapping my finger in exaggerated boredom to repay his insults; me staring enviously out of the window at birds in branches and wishing I was a sparrow flying away at great speed.
My math issues began some years before, at junior school. In 1966, at eight years of age, I contracted scarlet fever just before the new school year began. I missed out on being bridesmaid at an uncle’s wedding and lost several weeks of school. By the time I did return to class, the new teacher had already explained a lot of mathematics: fractions, divisions and much more. He was now in the habit of writing problems on the blackboard then reading his newspaper whilst the pupils worked out the answers. I sat at my desk, lost and confused, staring at the chalked numbers and symbols and feeling as if I were attempting to comprehend Chinese pictograms. During my second math class, I tiptoed to the front and whispered to the teacher that I couldn’t do the sums. Irritated, he told me to figure it out or ask the other kids. Then raised his newspaper as a barrier between him and me. Conversation over. I walked back and from then on sat in silence during math classes.
I never caught up. And when I started in Mr. Firth’s class during the first semester of the high school we 13-year-olds moved to (Grade 8), he was sympathetic and caring, but I was too-far-gone for him to help me, because by now I’d acquired an active phobia for anything concerning numbers. My marks in that subject were low, but he was kind. I remember that: a nice man and I felt comfortable in his class, even though we both knew I’d fail the course.
It was in the second year that we were assigned to Mr. Powell. Although I always handed in good assignments for English, History and other such topics and got on well with the teachers in those classes, this one was different. This one was akin to descending into the fires of Hades three times a week. “Growly Powelly” was my name for him at the beginning. He marched around the room barking instruction on x equaling y and other incredibly baffling concepts. Baffling to me, although the other kids seemed to get it, which in turn made me feel even more pathetic.
Mr. Powell complained loudly each week about my homework. It was all incorrect, it was half-baked, it was useless, I was useless, blah blah, and the whole group of kids would listen in and sometimes giggle as he berated me for a full five minutes every time. His face would turn into a mask of contempt when he looked in my direction, and at first I’d shrink and look to the floor.
I had tried to explain one time to Mr. Powell about my bad start in junior school, the missing of crucial math classes due to scarlet fever and being kept in bed for weeks. I told him I’d never received any catch-up help in that class. (My family was too poor to pay for extra-curricular lessons. That would never have crossed their minds anyway, back then. We lived in a small country town, had no telephone or car, and the very idea of even a girl-scout uniform, let alone private math classes, were about as attainable as a free trip in the Starship Enterprise from the new ’60s series called Star Trek.) I hoped Mr. Powell would be less angry if he understood about those missing classes, but instead he hurled the idea of missing marbles at me—mine. Anyone can figure out maths, he told me, if they just had a few brains.
As the months wore on, and puberty weaved its way into my shattered brain, I became angry. I started to fling Mr. Powell’s insults right back at him. Example: he berated me for handing in a half-finished assignment (unfinished because I gave up; as usual I’d tried hard, but was incapable of working on the calculations). I told him I didn’t have more time to spend on them because I’d needed to study for my Geography exam. He said, with a smirk: “That’s your excuse, is it?” I replied, with my own smirk: “Yep. That’s my excuse.”
This is about the time I started to sigh loudly, look as bored as I possibly could, doodle, click my pen on and off, and anything else I could think of to grate on his nerves as he taught. He would grit his teeth and continue with the demeaning remarks, but now I’d become an actress. I’d laugh loudly at his name-calling and stare at him as if I thought he was insane. I’d shake my head like I felt sorry for him. I could tell he was shocked at the change in me. I also saw his fury building. I didn’t care. In my mind, I didn’t call him “Growly Powelly” anymore: simply “The Bastard.”
It came to a head one lunchtime when, after eating at home, I’d crossed to the middle of the road, waiting to get to the opposite sidewalk after a car had passed. Then I realized Mr. Powell was driving the car. We locked eyes. Suddenly, his car was moving faster as he stepped on the gas and veered his car right at me. For what seemed a long, black time, but which was probably only about three seconds, his vehicle thundered toward me and I knew his gritted teeth and predator eyes were meant to injure. But I held my ground. I decided in that flash of time that I would not give him the satisfaction of running me off the road. Even if I was killed, although with a perceived immortality only possessed by the young, I didn’t believe I’d die. And I was right. As I stood there, with arms folded and head held high, staring him down, he was the first to blink. He swerved at that last moment and I turned to fake-grin at him, knowing he’d be looking in his rearview mirror.
When I returned home from the shops, I mentioned the incident casually to my grandparents before heading back to classes.
Looking back now, I wonder if Granddad quietly complained to the school. Nobody at home ever said anything, but he may have. Or perhaps Mr. Powell himself realized things were getting out of hand. And perhaps he knew he couldn’t hurt me anymore—that I was done with being intimidated by him. Which of course, would spoil his fun. Maybe he was the one who decided to somehow get me out of his class.
All I know is that one morning soon after, he made a statement to us. Some of Mr. Goodall’s pupils and some of his were going to swap places: that a few who were excellent in math and a few who were not, were going to switch. Five in total. I am sure I was the only one who was not at all “excellent in math.” With the other four, I picked up my satchel and we walked down the two corridors to Mr. Goodall’s classroom, passing his five on the way. I felt a huge sense of relief at being out of Mr. Powell’s class; however, this was tempered by fear of the unknown. Could the new teacher be even worse?
I walked in after the other four, to see his group of kids staring at us. It wasn’t them I was nervous about as much as this new teacher: an elderly man with fluffy white hair. He had the droopy face of a bloodhound, but with puppy-dog eyes that emanated affection, although I wondered how it was even possible for him to see, as his saggy forehead seemed to hang right over his eyes. Mr. Goodall welcomed us and asked me to sit next to a boy in the second row. The class commenced. During the next year of being part of his group, I learned that in between math instruction, he was partial to telling us incredible stories about his life, such as how, when living for some years in Scandinavia, the town conserved electricity after the war by setting all lampposts and public-building lights to only light up half the time. How they did this was to have them flicker on and off in rapid succession. Mr. Goodall said it was like being in a teenagers’ disco, where the DJ would flicker coloured illuminations during the dances. Except these town lamps flickered all night and took some getting used to. I’ve always remembered that strange story.
I have also always recalled Mr. Goodall with fondness. He understood that I was a math-traumatized kid but gave me encouragement nevertheless, including the reassurance that there were many positions in the workforce that didn’t involve maths and for me not to worry. I’d get on in life regardless of this handicap. He was right. I’ve had an interesting array of jobs through the decades, including being an editor and graphic designer for almost eighteen years before finally retiring.
I don’t think a whole lot of teachers back then considered the effect they had on their students’ lives, much less the memories they’d keep of their school experiences. For me, Mr. Goodall and Mr. Firth were brief oases in a desert of math desolation before I moved to a large city to finish off my schooling. They were polar opposites of the Mr. Powells of the world, and I’ll always be grateful to them for reaching out to the vulnerable and sensitive young teenager that I was.
Mr. Goodall, you’ll be long-since gone. Mr. Firth, you were a young man, but you may be gone by now too. However, you live in my mind to this day. Thank you, both!