It wasn’t any better, unless a bigger building and a more pretentious name could be assumed to portend better learning. Our texts were the same dull books, our teachers were the same unimaginative task masters, and our hours comprised the same boring rote learning. In literature, I refused to write the silly formal essays others wrote and got reprimanded for submitting New Yorker-like tongue-in-cheek compositions that raised the tutor’s eyebrows sky-high. Of Pythagoras’s theorem, I found somewhere an alternative proof that I considered more elegant and drove my teacher up the wall for using it instead of the standard proof he had taught in the class. The first lesson was to conform; the last lesson was the same. Anything faintly original and slightly different invited derision and penalties.
My guerilla tactic was to take an inconspicuous rear seat – but not the last bench, for that would invite branding as a backbencher – and amuse myself in other ways. The central one was to bring an interesting book and focus on finishing it, looking up occasionally at the teacher or blackboard. The other was, especially when the teacher set a task to be completed in the class, to draw sketches of other students, the teachers or whatever I could see through the windows. Of the last, the most intriguing was the plump girl who brushed her long hair, standing at the window of a neighboring house. Often a portrait was accompanied by a satirical limerick, usually focused on what I considered the person’s most annoying feature or execrable habit.
I should explain that students were expected to carry as many exercise books as the subjects taught, with classwork in the appropriate notebook. I carried so many story books in my bag that I had space for just one exercise book, in which I recorded all classwork. When at the end of the class Walrus collected all the exercise books, so that he could grade them at leisure, he took away my only exercise book. The greater disaster was that the exercise book contained my entire series of sketches of the teachers, including Walrus, along with waggish limericks on each. I had nightmares of being summoned to the principal’s office and then asked to go home with my shamed parents, irrevocably expelled.
The next day, as Walrus walked into the class with a quizzical look on his face, I anticipated disaster. When Walrus somberly declared that he had made a strange discovery from the exercise books he had collected, I waited for lightning to strike.
Walrus took the pile of exercise books from his bag and placed them on his desk. Without a word, he took the exercise book from the top, adjusted his glasses and started reading. It was the story of a cricket match, unquestionably my essay. He read several paragraphs, then stopped and said, “I will not read all of it for a reason. The essay is not exactly what I expected to see, but it is a good essay, a very amusing one. I am impressed that someone in my class can write something as comical as this.”
It was not exactly what I expected to hear.
He added, “I will not read the whole essay, because I have something more interesting to read. I find in this exercise book a long series of sketches, each accompanied by a short poem. I could read them all to you, but I will selectively read the ones that are most likely to be of interest to you.”
He started reading the limericks on the teachers, and after each reading held up the exercise book to show the sketch. He began with the principal and went through all our teachers. Finally, as my anticipation grew, he came to the verse about him, read it and demonstrated the sketch and said, “I did not realize that my facial hair was the most noticeable feature about me! Well, now I know.”
The bell rang. The class was over.
Before leaving, Walrus said, “I believe creativity deserves some recognition. I have recommended to the principal that the author of the essay and poems should be the next editor of our school magazine.”
When the magazine came out six months later, I saw my writing in print for the first time in my life.