Sunday, 2 January 2011

A to Zee


In the course of New Year greetings a long-silent American friend called Greg Abbott phoned. There was a long rambling conversation, of the type you have when you're catching up with friends you haven't spoken to for several years. You can maybe judge how rambling the conversation became: at one point he spoke about a schoolfriend called Zygslič. Their class was seated in rows, and where the kids sat was determined by the first letter of their surnames. Accordingly Abbott sat at the very front, while Zee for Zygslič was assigned an obscure desk at the end of the back row.

Now in his 80s, Greg wondered what effect this ordering had had on his subsequent development. Had the limelight of the front row caused him later to shun exposure? Had back-row obscurity turned Zygslič into a kind of lowly, furtive troglodyte (or poor worm of clay, as Dave might have it), desperate for attention? How would Greg have turned out if he'd been called Zygslič, and vice versa? There are no answers to questions like these, of course. Maybe with a phonetic name like Abbott you tend to have fewer problems with spelling than the eternal suspicion and self-distrust you possibly have about it if your name's Zygslič. (I'm very tired of typing this wretched name, so this is the last we'll hear of him.)

When I first went to do my stint at the chalk face in Scotland I had a mixed class of 10 and 11-year-olds, known in Scotland as Primary 7. There were about 40 of them, great kids. I was surprised to find that each one of them knew exactly where to sit, at which individual desk in which row.

I asked one to tell me how this was. The lad stood up, shoulders back, chest out, feet apart at an angle of 45º, thumbs pointing down the seams of his shorts, as though he was standing to attention in the Black Watch or the Gordon Highlanders. (It wasn't a military school in any sense. It was an ordinary primary school in a North-east fishing village. However, this lad belonged to the Boys' Brigade, I discovered later.) As Primary 6 they'd had end-of-year tests the previous June. If you failed the tests you stayed in Primary 6 and repeated the year. (Very few did.) In Primary 7 you sat according to the marks you got in your tests. The brightest kids sat at the front, the average in the middle, slowest at the back.

I thought this was an iniquitous system and, after a week or two in which I'd got to know the children, I changed it for something less pointedly segregational. Their Primary 6 teacher, a Mrs Crumbie, was furious and there was a big staff-room row. It was as though the purpose of Primary 6 tests, indeed of the whole Primary 6 syllabus, was to determine seating order for the next school year. I'd just arrived from teaching in England. Clearly I represented everything that undermined and devalued the order and discipline that made Scottish education famed throughout the world. I was a dangerous threat and ought to go back to England. This was a heavy charge, but I stood my ground. I expect I seemed very arrogant.

I didn't know Greg Abbott then. If I had maybe I would have used the A to Zee system.

This isn't Mrs Crumbie in the photo above. The kids I'm writing about wore uniform, and teachers were expected to wear academic gowns, called togas in Scotland. I suppose they protected clothes from chalk dust.

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