A Silly Man

He had curly hair, black, and there may have been a lock which was consciously grown long enough, cultivated, encouraged, so that it could flop down over his eye on one side of his face, to convey the impression of a poet, or at least someone of an artistic temperament. Maybe I’m making up the lock of hair thing – it was quite a long time ago. You could describe him as prim. I don’t think anyone did describe him as prim at the time, but he was. He was an English teacher and he was absurd, but he never taught me, and perhaps that’s where the trouble started.

When I say trouble, I’m not about to relate a story characterised by extreme violence – there was no hammer or other blunt object or even a sharp one – in fact there was no incident and there is no story. That’s kind of the point. I hardly even knew this man and I’m still trying to make sense of him, many years later. The strongest memory is laughter. We laughed at him. Those who knew him and those who didn’t found him equally amusing.

He was amusing because he was absurd. The school I attended was a good school, with very solid academic values and a focus on traditional subjects taught the traditional way. But this man, I’ll call him Mr. da Silva, seemed to think that instead of being at a day school in Sydney he was actually at a boarding school in England. He wore his academic robes at prize giving ceremonies when none of the other teachers did, and some of them had much more impressive degrees than he had, and he spoke with a plummy accident which doesn’t really exist anywhere geographically but sounded like a BBC radio announcer from the 1950s. Mr. da Silva was almost certainly born in Australia, and while his parents may not have also been born here, his background was definitely not from the Home Counties. It seemed affectation, and I’m not sure if I would have called it that then, but it was artificial and forced and, most of all, silly. He dressed like a figure from another era, with trousers often a different colour from his velvety jacket – I could be embellishing again here, Mr. da Silva was that kind of man – but my impression is of his clothes being an ensemble: matched morning suit-style stripey pants with a darker coat and some sort of co-ordinated silk tie with handkerchief poking out of the top pocket. Maybe he didn’t dress quite like that, but that’s how I remember it.

His office was on the top level of the school, away from where other teachers had a desk and a pigeon hole and were crammed together, and he had a small sitting room, but cosy, and big enough to sleep in if Mr. da Silva ever needed to. A mate of mine once described Mr. da Silva’s office as a house. It had an armchair and a standard lamp, with a tasteful shade, and a desk made of quality materials, and many book shelves crammed into the modest available wall space. You would hardly ever see Mr. da Silva. We guessed he was always in his office. He never seemed to be rostered onto supervising at lunchtime, or any of those other public duties which all teachers seemed to have to do occasionally, and one wondered if these were all just perks of being Master in Charge of English, but that couldn’t be right, as you would see the teachers in charge of maths, history, geography and so on all the time. When Mr. da Silva made his way to class, and he only seemed to teach the HSC, as if spending time with boys below Year 11 was beneath him and a waste of his titanic intellect, he seemed to glide. He may have had a problem with sweating and was certainly a rotund chap, but the flutter of small steps he used to get around had the effect of making his progress seem effortless. Perhaps that’s what he wanted. If you had dressed him up the right way, in a lady’s mourning clothes, he would have looked surprisingly like Queen Victoria.

On the top of English exams which he had composed would be the name of the term if we had been at Oxford or Cambridge, but as we weren’t the fact that it might say Michaelmas Term at the top of the paper only served to confuse some students who weren’t used to his pompous ways.

I think that’s it: he was pompous. He behaved in a ridiculous manner, as if acting a frankly unbelievable part, and he wasn’t actually the English genius he thought he was, and he always handpicked and taught the top class, and I never made it into his class, and he gave his own students preferential treatment when it came to marking, and he failed to recognise the talent of certain students who weren’t in his class but should have been although they didn’t really want to be, as he was a bit of a duffer and his class wasn’t worth being in anyway. Or something.

Maybe I secretly envied his office then. Maybe I still do. It was self-contained and snug.

Mr. da Silva was ineffectual, conceited, and arrogant, and he resembled a cartoon of something foppish and worthy of ridicule. But he was funny, and we laughed at him, and I think he knew we laughed, and he didn’t care.

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Published in: on December 10, 2012 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

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