Friday 17 August 2012

Mr Jones Mr Jones Calling Mr Jones Mr Jones Mr Jones Wake Up Now

This happened many years ago, when I was a schoolboy. I don’t recall the year, but I must have been in seventh or eighth grade, so I’d have been twelve or thirteen years old.

We had this English teacher, a blond man of Welsh extraction by the name of Jones. Mr Jones was quite a young man, I guess, certainly younger than I am now, but he seemed a terrifying authority figure to us pre-teenagers. I remember him for several reasons, all out of the ordinary...

One time, Jones had asked us to write an essay as homework. The essay was to be on a chemistry diagram which was, for some unaccountable reason, in our English textbook. The experiment was a fairly straightforward one, something we were familiar with, so it wasn’t much of a job to write the essay, and I wrote it that night in my exercise book. Jones had told us to bring the essay two days later – and I’d have done that. Only, I forgot. Yes, I forgot to put the exercise book in my satchel.

I still remember that Jones was in a properly foul mood that day. “Woe betide anyone,” he declared on stepping into the classroom, and in exactly those words, “who hasn’t brought the essay with them.” As I said, we were all terrified of this guy. Anyway, he then glared around the room and said, “Stand up whoever hasn’t brought the essay.” A scattering of people actually stood, I not so brave as to be among them. Jones stared at them, and just when we were all expecting him to call down the fires of heaven on their heads, he just said, quietly, “OK, bring the essay next time.” Then he turned to the rest of us. “You,” and he was pointing right!!..."yes, you. Am I cockeyed or something? Come up here and read your essay.”

Now I may not be a quick thinker most of the time, but on this occasion I acted with commendable efficiency. I got out an exercise book from my bag at random, walked up to the front of the class, opened a page at random, and began “reading” the essay out loud (making it up as I went along, of course – remember that the experiment was nothing unknown to us). And I must say i did it rather well too. I was terrified that Jones would ask for the book at the end of it, but all he did was glare around at the class. “See,” he said. “That’s the way you should write an essay!”

And then the bell rang for the next period. You should have heard my sigh of relief.

This particular episode had a sequel. For Jones’ next class, of course, everyone made perfectly sure to bring their essays, and Jones took them for correction. He called me over to his desk. “Somehow,” he muttered, as he went over my effort with a red pen, “it doesn’t read quite as well on the page as when you read it out to the class...”

If he only knew.

On another occasion we were doing a story from the English textbook, which was about an ancient mammal being sassy to a dinosaur and informing it that it would soon be extinct. I don’t remember much of the story now except the splendid phrase “Jehovah’s jejune juvenilia,” but at a certain point there was the word “mastodon.”

Jones looked around the class and defined to us just what a mastodon might be. “It’s an animal with horns on its nose,” he declared. “A dinosaur, which gave rise to the rhinoceros.”

To this day, when I think of his statement, my mind boggles. All right, I accept science wasn’t Jones’ thing, but if you don’t know something, “keep your trap shut” (a favourite Jonesism) about it until you do find something out. I knew, of course, that

1.    A mastodon is a member of one of the two branches of the elephant family, the other being the mammoth;
2.    The dinosaur he was talking about was the Triceratops or one of the other species of horned dinosaurs, like Styracosaurus; and
3.    Dinosaurs didn’t, for Darwin’s sake, give rise to any damned species of rhino. It’s just a case of evolving to fit a particular ecological niche.

Now how do you go about contradicting a teacher you’re terrified of, and when the mess he’s created is so convoluted as to defy disentanglement, and he’s moved on far beyond anyway long before you’ve managed to channel your outrage into a coherent argument?

If to this day any of my then classmates thinks a rhino is an archaic elephant’s descendant, Mr Jones is to blame.

And then there was the time Jones asked us to write a story as homework. The only criterion was that it should be about a crime; length, style and content were up to us. My own not particularly distinguished effort revolved around a pair of crooks, a male and a female, who used to break into people’s houses on false pretences and steal things. Finally they were arrested by a cop who caught them in the act of...

Now at this point I stopped.

You see, there was a fancy word I was trying to think of, a synonym for burglary. The problem was that the word had for the moment totally slipped my mind, and – try as I might – it was slipping further and further away. I didn’t possess a thesaurus (hell, I didn’t know what a thesaurus was), so I couldn’t open it and discover that the word I wanted was larceny. Another word finally came to mind, a nice word, whose meaning I wasn’t quite sure of, but which I thought was the right one (I’ll tell you in a minute which word it was). The cop caught them in the act of...

I put my pen on the paper to write the word and hesitated. After all, I wasn’t quite, one hundred per cent, sure. But still...

I thought and thought about it and finally chickened out, and wrote that the couple were arrested for burglary, and submitted the story, still wishing I had the moral courage to submit the word I’d wanted.

A day or so later I found a dictionary. I decided to confirm that I was right and the word was in fact a synonym for burglary. I opened it to the A’s, found the correct page, and ran my finger down the column of words until I found it. There it was, in bold type:


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