If you got sent back in time to your own body as a teenager, still in full-on high school mode, what would you do? I’m not talking first-things-first, panic-stricken, knee-jerk behaviours. I’m talking a bit further down the line. In my case the panic response was looking for my partner, and our child.
What has been burning a hole in the back of my mind for the last few decades? Which wrong against me would I like to see put right? That’s right: misandry. Most teachers that I have encountered have been lovely, hard-working human beings who lived to inform, to improve the lives of the children in their charge. Others have been furious puritans with no right to shape the minds of a generation.
Who do you think I take issue with? I was never blessed with a human being for Religious Education. RE, in my school at least, was the preserve of two fascists, hell bent on putting forth their view, and accepting no dissent. Yes, there were some who liked the way they did things, although I suspect that that was because it benefitted them directly. Not I. Rather than learning a subject, I learned only to hate the person standing at the front of the classroom twice a week. Not very Christian.
For years I had been taught by the head of the department; a lunatic who actually got away with punishing me by making me kneel on chalk. This was the late 1990s, not the early 1890s. I had stood up while she was out of the room, so I was to be treated like a disobedient dog. Not very Christian.
One year I was assigned to the class of her second-in-command, a rabid man-hater who barely even registered the presence of the male members of her class, choosing instead to focus her attention on the practically perfect female members of her class. Positive discrimination is probably how she saw it, but we saw it as punitive action on people she had absolutely no time for. Not very Christian.
Only a Catholic school would divide Religious Education classes by ability, but ours did, and this was the top set. For reasons beyond understanding this put the boys in the minority: there were four of us. Precisely four. And we sat together at a table in the back of the class. We worked hard for the most part until one incident. I had spent my twenties and thirties angry about this incident. So much so that every RE lesson was spent looking out for signs that it was about to happen all over again.
Go on: I’ll be damned. I’ll tell her what a misandrist fool she is, and how she had done us wrong. I’ll stand up to the bully and tell her that she needed to wind her neck in. I was a grown up now, one with the courage of my own convictions. I may look like a lank, greasy teenager, but I am very much an adult.
First time round a table of girls next to us had been talking, but we got blamed for it. A nasty piece of work at a nearby table had pointed the finger at us, and our protestations were ignored. We were made to stand up, to pack up our things, and to move to the desks next to the class teacher, so that we could be watched more closely. Humiliation was very much second to the ignorance of our pleas.
I spent weeks watching, waiting, hoping for the moment when it would come, and I would be able to serve up her just deserts. The thing is that we were a hardworking and diligent bunch: we kept our heads down and did precisely what we were told. I watched out for instances where we were being told off for something which was not of our doing, but none came up. Where would my opportunity to right this most crushing of wrongs come about? Had I misremembered the situation entirely?
And then it happened. I was asking to borrow a ruler from one guy while being annoyed by the chatter from behind me. My ears pricked up, as they always do when this arises, and I waited for the question: “Who is that talking?” At last. A haughty girl responded: “It was Richard, Miss.” It was on.
“I asked Michael if I could borrow a ruler.” Silence. “You came to school ill-equipped?” The tension throughout the room began to rise. Everyone had stopped what they were doing. “Actually, I am beginning to get sick and tired of telling you four to stop talking…” She hadn’t told us off all term. “I think you need to change desks…” And here it came, once more. “So that I can keep an eye on you.”
“We weren’t talking, miss. And I have no recollection of having been told by you to stop talking. I’m not sure why you’re singling us out for punishment, miss.” I could see the fury rise on her face: first time round we had simply done as we were told, and moved desks as indicated. That was not going to cut it this time around. As the others began to move, I held my nerve. The teacher was less than impressed by my stance. “I have told you off every lesson, Richard Brink: you will move here now.”
I suppose that this is the point for which I had been waiting for months. I knew that I needed to keep my nerve, to respond calmly with the truth, and that all would be well. Except that all would not be well. You see, the cut of my jib is a tad laconic, especially as an adult. I just seem to wind people up.
The teacher found my reaction this time around to be far more infuriating than my protestations of eternal innocence. I looked her directly in the eye, while I spoke with what I was later told was a look of “bored contempt”; I may at some point have raised an eyebrow. I was trying to retain calm and composed in the face of what I perceived to be a wall of indefensible hypocrisy. I came across badly.
The rest of the class looked upon me with absolute horror. Here was I, a six foot tall man, taking an obnoxious stance against a five foot tall, elderly lady. No matter how young she dressed, no matter how she tried to be down with the kids, that was the reality. I may have achieved my life-long dream of standing up to the class bully, but in doing so I had made myself the big bad. Not very Christian. In the end I had to cave. “Yes miss” I responded, as I packed up my things and moved next to her.