Yankings, Twankings, Cuffs and Clouts
Monday, 6th November 1967, 9.15 p.m.
An unconventional mercy to-day at school: the heating was not functioning in the annexe, so Stanton dismissed the first three years. My luck was in; it meant I had the afternoon free.
It seems fantastic after eighteen years, but I still find myself dreading certain classes. Not perhaps with the same degree of dread that I have dreaded other classes at other schools, but still – “dread” is the word. It’s terrible. In each class there is a nucleus of boys whose behaviour is irreproachable, while in the fifth there is a minority of raggers and in the fourth the rest of the class just talk quietly, or chew quietly, or get on with other work than mine quietly. The mechanics of the school don’t help. No blackboards can be turned over (as with the obsolescent blackboards on easels) or covered prior to their being used for a particular lesson. Hence one has to write with one’s back to the class. There is only one break (apart from the dining hour, and it is just one hour), and even if I were prepared to sacrifice my own break by keeping boys in, I couldn’t, as my own form room is occupied. I do have two or three boys “outside the staff room”, but will have to change this, as it looks bad vis-à-vis the rest of the staff. One of the troubles in the 5th is that half of the class haven’t got the slightest interest in French. They don’t need it for O-level and so are a nuisance in class.
Sunday, 19th November 1967, 9 p.m.
Have had trouble at school – “twanked” one fifth form boy. I wish people who think of masters using the cane as sadists could have my feelings: the point of no return, thinking, why must I be the only one to cane (Stanton had recently said any boy etc. will be caned, and had, at a staff meeting, told the staff they could cane without reference to him).
Actually, I’m hoping not to have further 5th form trouble. At another staff meeting, Stanton said boys could be dropped from certain subjects (at Head of Dept.’s? Set Master’s? discretion) in the course of the next month or so, there was to be no “mock”. Am interpreting this as the green light to tell those boys who don’t want to take “O” level French to drop the subject and keep quiet, and I will leave them alone.
Sunday, 24th December 1967, 5.10 p.m.
On Tuesday last, I think, Ordman read out a report he’d written which went something like this: “Unless there is a change in his outlook the continuation of the course . . .” Here Ordman said he’d got stuck, would it be all right to finish “will be questionable”? I said I thought so, “will have to be reconsidered” or “will be questionable”.
Sam Balin, next day in the staff room, said he did not think the word “questionable” was right. I was tired, and was busy writing my own reports, so made no comment, merely thinking: a) that “questionable” was perfectly all right (one knew about the “questionable” taste that Sam mentioned, but, I think “questionable” can have the neutral, literal meaning, with no pejorative suggestions, of “arguable” “debateable”) b) that Sam himself had written on one report: “More determined necessary” (obviously he had meant to write “more determined efforts” or “more determination necessary”, but in the hurry his pen had slipped into “more determin necessary”, which he had then mis-amended to “more determined necessary”).
In commenting on one boy’s conduct I had written: “Good, (except for his tactlessness in trouncing his form-master at table-tennis)” – he had beaten me in the staff v. School table-tennis. As I expected, it was returned by Stanton with a note to the effect that facetiousness was to be avoided. I did a little routine grumbling in the staffroom, saying I could see Stanton’s point, but felt it was not necessary to make me inconvenience other masters by asking them to re-write their comments on a fresh report. Sam Balin, after a certain amount of friendly discussion by other people about all this, observed that it might be as well for Stanton not to get the impression that all Masters were like this. “What,” I said, “all as facetious as this?” “No,” he replied, “all as unintelligent.” And then things escalated. I made one or two cracks – trying to play it cool – on the lines of “I don’t know whether I’m intelligent enough to make this suggestion, but . . .” whereupon Sam: “If I were you I shouldn’t boast about your lack of intelligence,” to which I: “Since you’ve chosen to promulgate my lack of intelligence I’ll give it maximum publicity – and – if I’m not too unintelligent to be allowed to quote a French saying: Toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire,” winding up with: “And although I hadn’t wanted to say anything about this, you wrote on a report ‘More determined necessary'”. Sam made no rejoinder, somewhat to my surprise. He could see I was het up. Anyway I phoned him up today to wish him a Chag Sameach, which was the best way I could think of intimating to him that I still hold him in the highest regard – which I do. (But the crack about unintelligent was not necessary, surely: it was not as if it had been made in a bantering tone. If he’d said: “Johnny, you can’t put this kind of thing in a report . . .” I wouldn’t have worried.) And, finally, I still don’t think my facetious comment was so terrible. It’s true I may give a boy lines for facetiousness, but this is only because his facetiousness holds up the lesson.
Sunday, 28th January 1968, 6 p.m.
Parents’ evening at the School last Tuesday. Again, the sort of thing one should write up: The parents: “He’s got a kopp.” One mum: “Oi vai, he won’t work, norr football.” This mum’s husband: “You haven’t changed, Mr Witriol, since you taught me English for Foreigners at the Stepney Institute eighteen years ago.” By contrast the professional-class parents worried about their boy. All rather touching, how parents strive for their children. School itself continues to be a daily battle. I can only be sure of surviving the day without major disasters if I am in bed by 11 p.m. the previous night.
Wednesday, 21st February 1968, 9.45 p.m.
A routine day at school. Every day I resolve to take things in my stride, every day I blow my top. Amazing to think I have been doing this two hundred days a year for nearly twenty years. I find it hard to believe my lessons are all that much duller than those of other teachers. Typical incidents to-day: 1) Audible announcement by boy in 4th year group: “I hate French”. No action taken. When I had kept the boy in previously and had told him and another lobbess I didn’t care whether he found French boring or not, he reacted with “I never said I found French boring” and in fact when I question him in class he’s obviously interested and has at least some sort of clue. Deflect your attention from him to someone else, or to the class in general, and he engages in conversation with his neighbour, or asks can he have a drink or indulges in any of the other chicanes, each one of which is insignificant, but the cumulative effect of which is to make one want to throttle a kid. 2) Three lobbesses came in after, eventually, had settled down to another lesson. They were three I had warned the previous day for coming in last. Sent them up to Stanton. He sent them down to me at the end of the lesson. Have told them to lose every mid-morning break, and quarter-of-hour at beginning of lunch break. 3) Another boy, in another lesson, sucking orange. Confiscated orange. Subsequently boy reading a non-book (i.e. not the text-book for the lesson) or doing something else he shouldn’t have been doing – can’t remember what. Yanked him out with controlled violence. A harmless boy, nebbich, just bored by the lesson (but, H.L. [see 22nd December 1966 entry in Part I]), smart Aleck, there were some boys, at least, who were not bored, and you give thirty lessons a week none of which will ever bore anybody), and during the change-over to the next lesson he was in tears over a scuffle with another boy. And this is how it goes, every day.
Monday, 26th February 1968, 8.45 p.m.
A good day at school to-day. Sic, yet note well: Free first period. Second period 5th year French, now whittled down to nine. After a few routine warnings told one Alan Marks to get out. His sparring partner, Landsman, said it was his (Landsman’s) fault. Told them both to exit, which they did. A few minutes later, a brush with Lebor, sitting with legs outsprawled. Either then, or previously, I had asked him why he hadn’t his text book. He: “If you saw my house, you wouldn’t ask.” (He moved house, from North Finchley, incidentally, a few days ago.) A propos of something or other I said to him: “I can do without you.” Lebor: “I can do without you, too.” Whereupon I told him, too, to exit, and not to give me any work to mark. He went out, taking with him, I believe, some HW he’d given me to mark. Period 3 – marked. Period 4 – German 2nd year, and Period 5, German 3rd year – no incidents. Check – Period 4 was French 4th. No incidents, in considerable part due to the fact that the French Assistant took six of them off my hands. Period 6, after lunch, French 3rd year. No incidents, but following one boy asking me the French for “miser” – I was giving them questions on “Combien d’argent de poche recevez-vous par semaine?” – and my writing up “L’Avore”, I told four boys whom I had booked to write me twenty lines on Molière, or to quote ten lines from any one of his plays, or at least ten of his works. Period 7, German 2nd – no incidents, Period 8 French 2nd also passed off without undue strain, due possibly to my adopting carrot- (house-mark) rather-than-stick policy.
Wednesday, 28th February 1968, 9.15 p.m.
Air of mourning in staff-room this morning. Infant child of Jacobson had died suddenly. He is a young man of 29. Had been telling us only a day or so before that he owed his life to a miracle. His parents were on the train leaving Germany taking him, then ten months old, with them. The Gestapo threw all other Jews off the train; but left his mother, who was feeding him, and his father alone. He is head of science at school, rigidly orthodox, and had just moved into a bigger house to accommodate his bigger family – the infant who died was his fourth child.
Anyway – death, cabinets, bathroom plugs [in this entry dad also noted with some satisfaction his DIY efforts], vanity of vanities – I must keep repeating this as a corrective to my fairly euphoric mood. Due probably to the fact that I went to bed not too late last night, and hence was able to cope reasonably today (after being told politely but explicitly by a charming – I am not being sarcy – boy yesterday that it was notorious that I could be played up without any difficulty).
Wednesday, 12th June 1968, 10.15 p.m.
Went to bed after midnight yesterday. Expected to have a bad day at school in consequence, but strangely enough was serene all through. This is not to say that I did noticeably less bawling, less hands-on-heads-ing, but I had the feeling that I could see it through. But the reaction came this evening. The kids [me, my brother and sister], delightful really, high-spirited, shouting, screaming, squabbling – but one just wanted to sit down in an armchair and read in complete silence.
Thursday, 4th July 1968, 9.45 p.m.
Last Sunday, on way to Cheder, a boy in a track suit came running up to me and greeted me with “Hullo Joe”. It was one Waldorf, whom I take at Hasmonean and who is also a pupil at Cheder. I had warned him a couple of days previously at school about uttering the word “Joe” in my presence (to forestall the “Please, Sir, I was speaking to Joe Plotak” ploy). Somme toute, I cuffed him – in the street. A woman’s head emerged from a coach: “Why did you do that?” A man standing on the pavement outside the coach, presumably the father: “Why didn’t you reprimand him?” Me: “I’ve reprimanded him, given him lines, detention, it has no effect. The only thing that’s any use would be six of the best.” He: “Why don’t you give them to him then?” Me: ? (I think I said something like “It’ll come to that,” but I can’t remember what I really did say – I couldn’t very well say “because I’ve been the only master at the Hasmonean to have used the cane this session – fact,” and yet Mr Myer says to me: “Sie sind, viel zu anständig, Mr Witriol.” He: “What’s your name, first name, address?” I gave them to him. So far I’ve had no Court Summons, but it’s a possibility I must reckon with till the end of term. After that I shall feel safe. The kid himself is one of the school’s half-dozen blackest sheep, but if I survive this business unscathed I’m hoping I shall benefit inasmuch as from now on, at last, I will keep my hands off boys unless I cane officially, and I don’t want to do that, even. Take a running jump at yourself H.L.
Yesterday, while invigilating during my form’s exams, four bright youths flicked ink on my summer light-weight jacket. I got their names by correct C.I.D. tactics: “If the boy doesn’t own up will keep whole form in.” “Please Sir, I wasn’t the only one, etc.” Reported the incident to Stanton, who wrote letters to parents. Myself, after the Waldorf incident, all passion spent. One of the boys’ mums came up to me to apologise. Told her she had nothing to apologise for. She told me (what I already knew) that her husband had left her two years ago, that the boy had seen a younger sister die, that he looked after his mother’s blind mother, and, I think, had at one time looked after the mother’s blind grandmother. She drove off in a swish car. She said she kept him on a tight rein at home. Simon [not clear] was in bed by eight-thirty every night.
Ah well, as I believe I said before.
Monday, 21st April 1969, 8.45 p.m.
My 57th birthday coincided with the rentreé . . . one or two boys at school wished me a happy birthday – apparently I had told them last term when my birthday was – and the news spread quickly.
The usual lack of enthusiasm on my part for the return. Instead of, as one would think, after ten years or so of teaching French, being able to turn on my lesson like a tap, I still find myself wondering what to do, and reduced within five or ten minutes of starting the lesson, to saying – not even “Open your books at”, but “Where did we get up to?” It’s going to be a long term – 13 weeks, with only one day off for Shavuot and another for Whit Monday.
Wednesday, 7th May 1969, 5.15 p.m.
School finished at 3 p.m. today as we have an evening for parents of third-formers to-night.
There seems to be a slight air of demoralisation generally. Classes seem to be disintegrating, what with Lag B’Omer holiday yesterday afternoon, which gave my small French “O” Level group a chance to evade the lesson they should have had last period in the morning, and when I try to get down to marking in the staff-room people are always nattering.
Wednesday, 4th June 1969, 9:30 p.m.
Gave a drooshe in school the other day, on Adon Olam. Won’t write about it here, taped my recollection of it. Seldom have to give more than four lessons a day, as my three 5th year groups are not in school, on study leave. Even so, each lesson seems an ordeal. I cannot say less than thirty times a day on average: “I won’t tolerate it, I’ll deal severely with the next boy, you will lose your break, stay in at four-fifteen, et palati et palati” – How do I survive? How does Klopholz, from Israel, with his fractured English, survive? (But I suspect he may not be much happier with his classes in Israel either.) Ah well, must live for the next hour, perhaps a read, a spot of telly. (Incidentally, does Sam Balin pinch my Times? We finished the X word yesterday – I had started off with about half-a-dozen clues – a record.)
Wednesday, 25th June 1969, 9.30 p.m.
On Monday I clouted a boy. It was at the end of the lesson, he was holding a chair in his hand, in what may have been a mock – or genuinely menacing – fashion, at another boy. He fell to the floor and then sat down holding his hand to his face.
He’s a nice lad, red-cheeked, who does a wonderful “Gemooorra laurnèn” act. I was as usual dreading a father or mum coming up and making “shvarts Shabbes” – the boy had a sticking plaster on his head the next day. He heaped coals of fire on my head by smiling at me on his way home last night.
I say, I keep on saying, I will keep my hands to myself – but it doesn’t help. If only I could remember, if I must touch a boy, to push him on the shoulder or something.
I delivered another drooshe the other day – on mevorchim ha-chodesh. I taped it, the recording, technically speaking, was quite good.
I sometimes find myself doing Times X word puzzle with Sam. If I am doing really well I can solve about 1/4 to 1/3 unaided, and Sam (Balin) finishes it off. Harrison almost invariably does it unaided.
I’ve made a note of three clues . . . think I’ll remember them to-morrow – a nekhtiger took (incidentally, a good example, surely, of independent lexical development in Yiddish, about which I was arguing some time ago with Sam B. He was trying to say, or rather was saying, that every phrase in Yiddish was straightforward German or Hebrew. I tried to point out that there were cases where Yiddish had put German words together to make a phrase which did not exist in German, or if it did exist, did not have the meaning it had in Yiddish. The first time I had this argument with Sam I couldn’t think of any examples, the second time I came up with geh in drerd. Another example is in shteyns gezoogt.)
Anyway, here are the X-word clues . . . “Pious saint and Latin version of matter in question” – POINT AT ISSUE (incidentally, it was Bloomberg, not a crossword addict, who “saw” the clue “Pious saint and (Latin); version of; = matter in question.”)
Friday, 18th July 1969, 5.30 p.m.
The back of end-of-term has now definitely been broken. I teach only about four periods on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday morning only a couple of periods and then we break up. In any case no doubt one of those periods will be spent with form masters, and for the last couple of days I can take the line of least resistance and let the kids do as they like short of inflicting mayhem on each other.
I doubt whether I shall ever have such a cushy year again. I had three fifth year classes, all of which, after the mock, were small. This meant that for a couple of weeks study leave preceding O level, for another couple of weeks during O level, and for the rest of the term afterwards (when the 5th form followed the Upper 6th time-table) I had an extra eleven free periods. I had no form this year, clearly because Stanton thought me incapable of controlling a form, which I should find humiliating, but don’t, or not particularly humiliating. (Young P. [dad’s initial], who was given a second-year form – I had a second-year form the previous year – was not able to keep his form room in a more salubrious state than I had. The difference is that when I came into his form room and found it littered with orange peel and other refuse, I merely got some boys to clear it up. S.B. would dilate on the filthy condition of this or that form room and say he wondered whether a sha’ale ought not to be asked about the permissibility of davenning in such a room.)
In spite of the cushiness, the struggle persists. Not a day passes without my laying hands on a boy. Well, I won’t go into all that now.
Thursday, 7th August 1969, 10 a.m.
[The Monday before last] we [our family] went to see The Merchant of Venice at the Open Air Theatre [in Regent’s Park] . . . I went largely because I understood the “school” was organising the visit, and seats normally 17/6 could be got for 7/6. In the event, I doubt whether more than ten boys were present from the school, and I was the only master.
The evening turned out to be disastrous – on the way back Edith [my mum] said we couldn’t really afford the time, which I felt to be pretty ungracious. I said nothing, but there was tension.
All this because the Bloombergs [Alan and family] were coming round on the Wednesday. In the event their visit proved quite enjoyable. I was afraid that we would be unable to entertain them. They have a fine collection of records; it so happens that even our tape recorder had gone kaput – the tape had twisted, probably because I had moved the knobs too violently. But the time went, and they didn’t leave till past eight.
[Next on Hasmo Legends: The Witriol Diaries, Part III: A Wall is a Wall and a School is a School: Deconstructing Marx. For The Witriol Diaries, Part I (of V) – followed by A (Hasmo) Son’s Introduction – click here.]