Once, I made a difference, molding minds, and taking unnecessarily long bus routes to the place I called ‘knowledge.'
I'd been hired for said knowledge, but my skills were in writing, whereas I was teaching sports studies, cultural studies, and, on one particularly memorable occasion, some botanical hodgepodge that would give Peter Cundall a migraine.
Cultural Studies was part Dead Poets Society, and part Dangerous Minds, with me cast as a young Michelle Pfeiffer, and the students as, well, those students that were in Dangerous Minds (I never saw the movie.) The majority of my students were from an esteemed American university that sent its rubbish students to us as part of their cultural enrichment. More accurately, said students were taking the mega-piss. I don't want to be harsh but let’s be clear; if your students call you ‘mate,' and then laugh, you're not Mr. Chips. When an essay starts with the phrase, ‘Wikipedia defines Australian culture as' you're about to encounter a piece of academic dog-plop like none you've previously encountered.
All bets were off with these folks. One kid got seventy-five percent for a presentation he watched (he played Garfunkel to his much more talented female partner's Simon) and demanded a regrade. Another wrote ‘Australian dude' under teacher's name on his second assignment. One morning, late in the semester, I knew another boy was not in class…because I saw him chugging beers in a muddy courtyard as some Draconian re-enactment of the Battle of the Bulge…at least, I think that's what they were doing.
My favourite student was Elke (not her real name,) who was from further abroad, and who, once she'd completed the course, posted her essay online for other students to copy for the measly sum of fifteen euros. I like to think I got to her when I wrote ‘What the fuck?' in our final email correspondence; I mean, as if I'm going to pay fifteen euros for an essay I've already read.
And how did I go in Sports Studies? Well, in week one of my tutes I was waffling on about horse racing and handicaps when a girl raised not on chaff and stables, but on surf and sand, raised a tiny but well-manicured hand.
'Please, call me Mr Sir.'
'What's a handicap?'
I paused thoughtfully, as if weighing up the very term. Saw a boy who looked smarter than me in the third row, and gestured his way.
'Did you want to answer that?'
And he did, and I'll be damned if it was the only time I ever cared about anything to do with horse racing.
But then things changed, as I was given a real gig, not as a tutor, the ‘extras’ of the academic world, but as a lecturer, in publishing, alongside the best that ever lived, the almighty Stanley Unwin (not his real name).
Stanley was a man's man in a world of dickhead clowns, in that he was cultured, intelligent, and wore a beret like a boss, whereas other ‘men' shouted ‘oy' from moving cars, and peed on fences. He knew more about publishing than I knew about ice cream, and while he humoured me on the history of Hazelnut Rolls at our first meeting, I couldn't help but feel he would have rather been talking about paper stock.
To say we were equals is bull-puck, but I learned a great deal in our time together. We drank wine in Windsor; talked Dubliners on Bourke Street; and, over cappuccino, acted out our favourite scenes from Shakespeare's The Tempest*.
Sometimes, we also taught classes.
And what became of Stanley Unwin? He's now an academic Grand Wizard of some sort, a great conversationalist, and still the only man to quiz me on a dangling modifier in polite company.
But then, that's Stanley. Not only a lecturer but a mentor, and a great man, with stunning attention to detail, and a way to guide you out of the hodgepodge and into the heady, exquisitely rendered world of Australian publishing.
*May not have actually happened.