All teachers like to think that, as well as dispensing information and essential skills, they are moulding young minds, inspiring the next generation, and leaving wisdom in their trail. It is perhaps an optimistic view, but not a bad one nonetheless, and occasionally may even prove to be correct. For me, the teacher who achieved these heights, who left in me a clear and distinct idea that would guide my young mind, and which I still remember now, was Mr Wearne,
Mr Wearne was a big, tragic, disappointed man who taught history in my secondary school. He was one of those whose bodies are too big for their personality. He did not tower impressively, or fill a room with his presence: rather, he hunched awkwardly and apologetically, trying to hide his bulk. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his crowd control skills were desultory and, in a large school in the somewhat rough and rowdy city of Plymouth, this made him an instant target. Children can smell weakness, and they will exploit it mercilessly. I have no count of the number of times that he was driven to storming out of the room or throwing a pile of books on the floor in frustration. We were not kind to him; and I must confess that—having worked out early on in my school career that as a smart, glasses-wearing, posh-voiced boffin, I needed to obtain the respect of my classmates to remain safely unbullied, and had selected upon exploiting and exaggerating my natural disrespect for authority figures to achieve this end—I was often one of the ringleaders.
There is no doubt that Mr Wearne was a failure. He was almost certainly one of the most intelligent teachers in the school, he had—and very occasionally succeeded in demonstrating—a real passion for his subject, and I suspect that when younger he had been an idealistic and energetic educator. But he had been pounded into disappointment, misery, and almost certainly alcoholism by decades of the relentless awfulness of massed teenagedom.
Even the nugget of wisdom he left us, and which still inspires me, was a failure.
One day, when we were being unusually co-operative, Mr Wearne decided to take it upon himself to offer us his Words of Wisdom, his Design For Life for our formative minds. I forget the exact circumstances which led up to this, all I remember is the sense of profundity in his voice as he declared to us:
“The majority of your lives will be boring, and they should be. You will have moments of excitement and wonder in your lives, but for these to stand out, to really stand out, the rest of your lives should be boring and ordinary.”
That is, I think fairly verbatim, Mr Wearne’s Words of Wisdom, and they had an immediate effect on me. Even then, beneath the rabble-rousing, disobedient little oik I had made myself, I flatter myself that I was humane enough to see through my contempt for him to the tragic awfulness of his existence and I hope I felt then, as a certainly do now, a level of pity for the man who had been roundly beaten by life. But the message that I took, and hold on to, was simple: that I will have failed in life not when I am bored, not when I am poor, or miserable, or weak. I will have failed when, like Mr Wearne, my ambition for my own happiness has so desperately collapsed that not only is the very best that I can hope for boredom, but that I must rationalize that boredom into a virtue to retain what few scraps of self-respect I have left.