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‘How’s the maths coming along?’ I asked Thoko.
‘Terribly,’ she said sadly. ‘I don’t know the difference between indices and indecision.’
‘Well just tell the teacher you don’t understand it and ask for help.’
‘Hah!’ scoffed Thoko. ‘You don’t know Mr Zulu. His attitude is that if we can’t understand what he’s scribbling on the blackboard, then we are too stupid and shouldn’t be in his class. He even punishes us if we get the answer wrong. He’s really frightening.’
‘He rules by fear,’ I suggested.
‘Exactly,’ she agreed. ‘We are so frightened of him that we can’t think.’
‘But he doesn’t want you to think,’ I said. ‘His idea is that your job is just to follow the mathematical rules that he gives you.’
‘Is that how it was when you were at school, Grandpa?’
‘Pretty much,’ I said. ‘I went to a boys’ secondary school where most of the teachers ruled by fear, and we hated them. And of course we never learnt anything from them, except to hate the subject they were teaching.’
‘What about the headmaster?’ she wondered.
‘Ho ho,’ I laughed. ‘If there’s one way of bringing out the worst in a teacher, it’s by making them the headteacher. They either turn into King Money or King Fear. King Money does the job for the pleasure of stealing from the PTA, but King Fear is more dangerous, he does the job for the pleasure of exercising power and humiliating his victims.’
‘So which one did you get?’
‘I got King Fear, in the shape of the dreaded Mr Tremble, all six foot four inches of him, complete with a first class degree in philosophy from Oxford, and a huge voice to match. Everybody used to tremble in front of him, even the teachers. He ruled by fear. His word was law. He ordered the teachers what to do, they ordered the prefects, and the prefects ordered the rest of us. It was academic terrorism, a bureaucracy of bullies, with each one bullying the one below. At the apex stood King Fear, who enjoyed undisguised sadistic pleasure from whipping the tender bottoms of little boys.’
‘Are you making all this up, Grandpa? This was a boys’ school in England! I thought England was a democratic country!’
‘The school had a very democratic vocabulary, but what was actually going on was something else entirely. The School Prospectus spoke of students learning to think for themselves, discovery learning, learning from others in group work, independent thought, freedom of expression, and so on. That book was so beautiful it could bring tears to your eyes.’
‘Like the Zambian Constitution,’ suggested Thoko.
‘Exactly,’ I laughed. ‘Most beautiful of all was the separation of powers between the headmaster, the Board of Governors, the staff meeting, the prefects and the School Council.’
‘But in practice the headmaster appointed all of them, and fired anybody who disagreed with him.’
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘The nice School Prospectus wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. All that mattered were the School Rules, just as they had been written by the medieval monk who had founded the school in 1584, long before the English ever heard the word democracy.’
‘Just like our Public Order Act,’ laughed Thoko.
‘Exactly,’ I said.
‘So did Terrible Tremble come to a terrible end?’ wondered Thoko.
‘Of course,’ I laughed, ‘just as all dictators do.’
‘One morning, all thousand of us were standing quietly in the school hall, waiting for Terrible Tremble to arrive to conduct Morning Assembly. But he was late.’
‘Everybody had to be punctual except the Big Man,’ suggested Thoko.
‘Exactly,’ I agreed. ‘But then a funny thing happened. The school wag, a tall sixthformer called Wagstaff, came onto the stage dressed like the headmaster in suit and gown, and began doing a perfect parody of Terrible Tremble, saying It is with grave disquiet and anger that I have to report that earlier this morning, in this very hall, a sixth former had the temerity to stand on this very stage and address a meeting of dissidents and malcontents, and all this was done without first seeking permission from the School Council, as is clearly required in the School Rules.’
‘How we laughed and cheered as Wagstaff’s arms now began to flail around just like those of Terrible Tremble Tornado in a temper, his hair falling down over his eyes and his face turning purple, shouting There is within this school a covert and evil lunatic fringe that is working day and night to ruin our school’s reputation and to subvert all legitimate authority. I therefore have no choice except to exercise the powers vested in me and declare a state of emergency. Now Wagstaff began shake and scream Prefects are hereby ordered to hold all boys in this hall until such time as the culprits report to my office, whereupon I shall ensure that they are immediately expelled and their future careers entirely ruined!
‘Hurray!’ we all laughed as Wagstaff left the stage, to be replaced by the real Tremble, looking more Terrible than usual, and performing an excellent parody of Wagstaff, although looking even more ridiculous.’
‘And everybody just kept laughing?’ suggested Thoko.
‘Yes,’ I laughed. ‘We laughed and cheered until he turned and went back to his office. Later that morning we heard the siren of the ambulance that took him away. He’d had a nervous breakdown. The very thing feared most by every King Fear had actually happened to him.’
‘To be laughed at?’
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘That’s always the end of a King Fear. Once everybody starts laughing, they’re finished.’