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.


english inukshuk said...

toga, togam, togae, togas, togarum, togis. . .

. . .or something like that

as you can see, I sat somewhere in Latin - but have blanked it from my mind so can't tell you where

does that help?

(the worst thing about classroom seating arrangements is when the person you sit next to moves to sit next to someone else. . . and you're left on your own)(*sob*)

english inukshuk said...

oh, and I do believe "Happy New Year" is in order too. . .

. . . felix sit annus novus

may it be a very good one for you and yours, dear Christopher


Spadoman said...

If we had used Mrs. Crumbie's system for any year I was ever in school, you'd see me behind the back row, as far back as possible.
I can remember just about every name of every teacher I had in elementary school, (grades Kindergarten to 8th grade), and some of my grade 9-12, high school, teachers as well. I was smitten with one young large breasted English teacher in high school during my hormonal raging years, (11 to 36 or so). But forgot her name.
None of them wore frocks except for the biology teacher, one Mr. Otto Boldt, who died in class while having his arms extended showing us how the scavenger remora eel latches on to its host. (This is what I remember from sophomore year biology)
Sorry to comment so long about me, you just inspire the conversation so. I appreciate your visits to my blog and I am pround and honored to have you as a blog friend.
The best of the New Year, every day of it.

Peace Always

Z said...

As soon as I knew how it worked, I would have deliberately plummeted in the rankings. I was, by nature, a back-row skulker, and would have made sure I'd stayed that way.
As it was, I was always in the top three, later settling for second. I could sometimes beat Jill, but never could consistently outrank Lynn.

Eloise and Alex's prep school had a fortnightly 'form order' in the first year. If you came top or went up in the ranking, you received a Mars bar. This worked fine, unless you were second brightest in the class, which unfortunately seemed to be an inherited tendency. Weeza soon learned to work the system, dropping one or two places one time, to get her reward the next. Al continued to try to improve, but the teacher liked girls best and sneaked the rival odd extra points 'for effort' (this is absolutely true, I saw Al's work, he'd get 10/10 and she'd get 11/10). In the next class, he fared no better. The best work was read out to the whole class. Of course, Al made sure such an embarrassing thing never happened to him.

Z said...

By the way, if I'd ever met a man with the wonderful name of Zygslič, I'd have made every effort to persuade him to marry me.

english inukshuk said...

Z has reminded me of twins who were born around the time I had The Teen - their mother called them Amelia and Zoe

Christopher said...

Thank you, I. And to you too. And I'm sure it will be.

Good to see toga declined. I see even the vocative toga (for use when addressing your toga, e.g. Toga! Quantum pulverem cretae collegisti!) is there. Clearly you went to a very good school. But I'm sure others would have been queueing up to sit next to you. Had Vicus and I been there, there might have been an unseemly brawl for the privilege.

Spadoman: You sell yourself short, surely? In any case you don't seem to have had much trouble catching up. Impressed with the vigour of your hormonal rage, though sorry it appears to have been truncated at 36. Was this bromide in the US Marines' coffee?

You never sat next to IE at school, then?

Z: So you might have been ZZ. And I'm sure it would have been a wonderful relationship if you could have managed to stay awake.

moreidlethoughts said...

Dullards to the rear?
In my early school days the naughty ones were up=front, where the teacher could easily ad minister the corporal punishment that was then still legal.
At high school, some teachers were more empathetic and brought those with sight or hearing problems to the front.
Really disruptive kids were sent to stand in the outer corridor.
In winter,we all wanted to be at the back, near the stove!

Spadoman said...

NO, I didn't get to sit next to any of the pretty girls, I was always very easily distracted and passed the day passing notes inviting them to go outside during study hall to smoke cigarettes and make out. I certain;y didn't take any Latin classes and am very impressed with, what I see as, the conjugation of toga, (which I always thought of as a white sheet)
I was in the Army, and was told we received a steady diet of something called Salt Peter to quell the storm down below. I find later that if I salted it, it might have been better preserved for use later on in life. The Marine Corp never use theirs as they are too busy speaking latin as in their battle cry, Semper Fidelis.

More Peace sent your way.

Christopher said...

MIT: No jet-lag, then? Yes, dullards to the rear as described, but it all changed very rapidly after different ideas of class grouping came in, not before time, and the old desks were sold off and in some cases became valuable antiques like some of us bloggers.

Spadoman: Salt Peter! I thought this was a necessary ingredient of gunpowder. Maybe its use was an early form of homeopathy?

Thank you for the kind things you've said. They're reciprocated 100%. Peace, dear friend, and know that the door here is always open.

Dave said...

I remember being forced to sit at the front in some classes where we were seated alphabetically, but otherwise my natural habitat was the back row. Still is.

Sarah said...

Re my comment on previous post. Always at the back.

Rog said...

The back seat in classes, lectures and busses was the natural default for moi aussi. I declined the Toga as well.

Rosie said...

Being a W, I was always at the back apart from music where the teacher used to sit me on top of the piano so he knew where I was. But I had a great english teacher who always called me "second on the right." He didn't believe in the alphabet system either...and he had a toga...

letouttoplay said...

I always sat somewhere in the middle if possible. My aim in school was to be noticed as little as possible either by teachers or those outspoken, disaffected, dangerous people at the back. I don't think I ever went to a school where it was decided for you.

Anonymous said...

In a school I knew once where "The 1st (first) shall be last and the last shall be First (1st)" a religious school you can tell from the seating of zees (zeds) sat at the front and Ay's (not necessarily boffins always with hands up) skulked at the back. It was found in this particular skule (50's funny spellin') that the important bit was that the inbetweeners invariably shined better in class by being alphabetically-contra-counterbalanced with dolts and know-it-alls that didn’t know whether they were coming or going in Miss Prossit’s constantly term-to-term rearranged seating scheme. She, diminutive and untidily bun-haired who, if a pupil dared speak out of turn, grabbed their books and hurled them out an open summer window to demand in frightening masculine timbre “Fetch thee thy scribbled tomes ye scurrilous wretched brat!” Oddly, it was found that whatever permutation of named positioning in class the one’s at the front invariably had hands up most to answer whatever unanswerable question was wanting to be simply answered.

Christopher said...

Rosie: Fascinating, thank you. I now have this vision of a small girl sat between busts of Beethoven and Bach, who could sometimes be heard saying to each other...but you're the expert in speech bubbles.

Mig. Very wise. Μήδεν άγας, as Socrates used to say when his wife when they were walking out and he had particularly enjoyed one of her jokes.

Blue,: Your writing is so reminiscent of Ronald Firbank. In fact I think you probably are Ronald Firbank.