I was standing behind the counter at a bookshop. Working there.
With scissors in my left hand, and a precision now lost to me, I cut out Peter Bowles’ lower jaw and stuck it to a bookmark.
In my right hand I held a flyer for Moliere’s ‘The School for Wives’ at the Piccadilly Theatre on Denman Street – a fair trek from our bookshop on Charing Cross Road. The puckish, yet cherubic face of Peter Bowles (playing Arnolphe) took up a fair portion of the flyer’s real estate.
I then cut a groove into the flyer and ran the bookmark along it, in order that I might make Peter Bowles speak by moving the bookmark up and down.
I gave him voice, but the words he spoke that day are lost to me, I’m afraid. For at that moment, Tony Parsons (the author of ‘Dispatches from the Frontline of Popular Culture’) strode up to me and asked whether we had a copy of ‘Dispatches from the Frontline of Popular Culture’ by Tony Parsons. I checked on our system, made sure that Peter Bowles was safe from harm, his mouth closed, and I popped to the shelves to retrieve Tony Parsons’ book for Tony Parsons.
Having given a pristine copy of ‘Dispatches from the Frontline of Popular Culture’ by Tony Parsons to Tony Parsons, I paused with Peter Bowles in hand and thought, ‘I know! I’ll become a teacher.’
Ask anyone who is or was a teacher how they came to decide to become a teacher and they will more than likely fashion a narrative not unlike the one above. There may be subtle variations in the narrative: perhaps substituting Felicity Kendal for Peter Bowles, or – instead of dealing with Tony Parsons – having to break to Leslie Crowther that, no, ‘The Bonus of Laughter – the Autobiography of Leslie Crowther’ is not currently stocked; nor is it (as he really ought to have known) available from the publisher.
That said, believe it or not, people become teachers for other reasons, too.
One friend (also in London) became a teacher because the Reverend ‘Cupcake’, so called because he used to gift cupcakes to local booksellers, gave him a cupcake. He looked at the cupcake and thought, ‘I know! I’ll become a teacher.’
Another friend of mine decided to become a teacher after having been given a ‘voice lesson’ by Ivor Cutler. He’d spent about an hour in Ivor Cutler’s flat, doing various breathing exercises and reciting nonsense verse expressly designed to develop one’s enunciation. When the lesson was done and as he walked down the shiny green painted stairwell and out into the street, he thought, ‘I know! I’ll become a teacher.’
Yet another friend of mine was sat in his car. He was supposed to be driving home from his workplace, but had pulled over to have a think. He’d completed a project that involved selling a large quantity of waterproof MP3 players to a chain of shops that specialised in getting rid of manufacturers’ overstocks. It was a weight off his mind and a new space in his warehouse – soon to be populated by iPod speakers. He called his wife and said, ‘I know! I’ll become a teacher.’
So, as I have demonstrated, there are a range of reasons why one chooses to join the teaching profession: Peter Bowles, measuring things, bookmarks, spreadsheets, Tony Parsons, reporting, waterproof MP3 players, a love of data, and Ivor Cutler.
However, what is common to all teachers is the meaning we find when we emerge into the strip-lit glow of the classroom: each child is its very own, sentient and self-expressive Peter Bowles, with no requirement for animation on our part. The words we offer become their own.
Somewhere in London, there lies forgotten a flyer fashioned into a fully-fledged talking Peter Bowles. As teachers, it is our burning desire to seek out these Peter Bowleses and give them voices – not so that we might put words into their hastily cut-out mouths, but so that they may make new statements from the bricolage we lay before them.
Perhaps now I do remember what Peter Bowles said that day when Tony Parsons came in to procure a copy of ‘Dispatches from the Frontline of Popular Culture’ by Tony Parsons. Perhaps he said this:
‘Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask itself: what until now have you truly loved, what has drawn out your soul, what has commanded it and at the same time made it happy?
Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield you a law, the fundamental law of your true self.’*
For many, most, if not all teachers, amongst these objects of reverence lie a rusted MP3 player, a penicillin-riddled cupcake and a long-forgotten, two-dimensional, animated Peter Bowles.
*from Neitzsche’s ‘Untimely Meditations’