The secret life of Richard P.

2011-04-19 00:00

MANY teachers follow the successes of their former pupils with great interest and pride, perhaps with the feeling that a little of their input might have had some influence in the success. I was at an independent schools' rugby festival a few years ago and met an old family friend who taught Grade 1 and Grade 2 at an upmarket boys' prep school in Johannesburg. I asked what she was doing there knowing she had no interest in rugby. She had a programme with the teams' names and told me she was going around looking to make contact with her former pupils who were playing for some of the schools there. This was from a teacher who was on the verge of retirement, searching for her pupils from 10 or 11 years ago just to say hello and find out how they were progressing. Weren't her thousands of ex-pupils lucky to have such a caring teacher?

I feel a particular pride when my ex-pupils go into jobs that change people's lives. The doctor, who, on qualifying, worked in Eritrea for Doctors Without Borders or another doctor who chose to work in a rural hospital in northern KwaZulu-Natal until he fell foul of a politician. A rural community in Ghana is now privileged to have his services. And a girl who gave up a lucrative career in medical biotechnology to work in an Aids orphanage for no salary. And the zoologist who has made it his life's ambition to save Zimbabwe's rhinos. And the four former pupils who are now headmasters in South African schools. I probably had little, if anything, to do with the choices they made but it does please me.

I liked Richard P., who is now a businessperson in the area, and see him from time to time. However, I hope my input into his life was not the cause of a great confidence trick he pulled while still at school. It involved lies, but nobody was hurt or lost anything so perhaps no harm was done.

The story took place some years ago when I was teaching at a school in Rhodesia, or Zimbabwe as it is now. I was Richard's geography teacher and I was most impressed by his attitude, bearing, manners and his respect for authority. He was a model pupil but not a great academic. A pupil could write as many O Levels as he or she was capable of. Bright ones in the top stream might write seven, eight or even nine subjects with mathematics, French, Latin, physics and chemistry as part of the package. Those lower down might only write four or five, including subjects like woodwork for which less bookwork was required.

As O Levels were the main school-leaving exams, and many job adverts would specify something like "Five O Levels needed", many pupils would stay at school until they had passed a respectable number of subjects. Richard had written his O Levels the year before, but his results were not good enough to allow him to progress to the next level and so he was put into a repeat class. I remember the respectful Richard, resplendent in his newly awarded prefect's blazer and tie, coming to me a few days into the new year and telling me that the headmaster had given him permission to drop geography to give him more time to concentrate on his maths. I had no reason to doubt his honesty so I put a line through his name in my mark book and thought no more of it.

Richard was good-looking, big and strong, and could run like the wind. He was a certainty for the school's successful rugby team and once the rugby season started he thrilled everybody, especially the schoolgirls, with his dashing runs down the wing. He carried out his prefect's res­pon­sibilities in the school and the boarding establishment with commendable efficiency.

All went well until the end of the second term when it was time to send out the half-year reports. Richard's register teacher could find no marks or comments to put on his report. His report was blank. An investigation discovered that Richard had been to all his teachers and told them the same story that he told me, and for the first two terms of the year, apart from the first week or two, had not been to a single lesson and had spent the whole school day in the prefects' common room. Of course, Richard was asked to leave the school but it didn't matter — the rugby season was over.

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