The Power of the Pen

I can remember it as if it were yesterday. December 1964: my final day at high school. My final exam: English Language and Composition. I was sixteen years old and in two weeks’ time my family would board a train in Aberdeen that would take us to London, and another train to take us to Southampton, and a ship that would take us to Australia to begin a new life. I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going back to school. I’d already attended four high schools in four years; attending a fifth, in another country, half way around the world, with a different education system – no way. This was my final day at high school. My final exam: English Language and Composition.

The exam took place in the school hall. The desks were set out in rows and columns like a chess board. I’d already completed my exams there in French, Geography, Physics and Chemistry and Maths. Yesterday, it was English Literature. And now, the last day of many days, all beautiful and bright as thou[1] – English Language and Composition.

The exam duration was 2 hours. Fifty per cent of the mark allocated to language comprehension, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary; the balance for composition. I thought about Part I and shuddered; then thought, what does it matter? By the time the results come out I’ll be half way around the world, working, and hopefully playing in a band. Who cares if I split infinitives or misrelate a participle? What can they do to me?

The exam papers were already on the desks, facing downward, when the teachers opened the doors to let us into the hall. I found a place somewhere near the middle of the room and sat, as instructed, with arms crossed until the invigilator announced we could begin reading; ten minutes. I turned my paper over and read Part I. It looked horrendous.

I hated grammar. I hated the regimentation; the rote learning; the pronouns and prepositions and participles; the clauses, compound and complex. I just wanted to write. I didn’t want to memorise rules. I wanted to break them.

I looked at Part II: Composition. There was a list of topics from which we were required to choose one and write an essay on it of at least six hundred words. Scanning down the list, one topic caught my eye; and after that, it was as though I couldn’t even see the others. Right then, I made up my mind to get through Part I as quickly as I could and devote the bulk of my time to Part II: “Thoughts of an examination candidate.”

When it came time to tackle the composition I closed my eyes and let my mind drift. I was an examination candidate; what was I thinking about right at that moment? I found that I was thinking about the girl, one row ahead and three rows across, a girl that I had yearned for since I first saw her shortly after arriving at this school but had never summoned the courage to speak to. I wrote that down on my exam paper. I didn’t care. In two weeks I’d be on the high seas and I’d never see her again. I didn’t name her, of course. That would have been ungallant. But I wrote about her smile and the gentleness of her eyes and the softness of her voice and the smoothness of her skin. Then my mind drifted away from her, to girls I might find in Australia, and what my new life there might be like, and how excited I felt about embarking on this adventure, not even thinking about what I’d miss from the place I called home. I wrote about everything and nothing; whatever came into my head. About the band I played in. About my dreams of breaking into the music scene, having legions of fans, loads of money, and touring, travelling the world to perform, maybe coming back here, back to my home country, yes, I still thought of it as my home country, returning triumphantly, the conquering guitar hero. And when that topic was exhausted my thoughts turned to more mundane things: what we’d be having for dinner that night; what would be on television; the programs I liked and the ones I didn’t like and why; and the school, and the subjects I liked and the ones I didn’t like.

Over the duration of the term, the school had been renovating its gym and the school hall had been commandeered for use by gym classes. This resulted in some minor damage in the form of a cracked window and a misplaced lampshade on one of the hanging lights. First thing every Monday morning, the whole school would assemble in the school hall for prayers and school announcements and week after week I’d see the same cracked pane of glass and the same cockeyed lampshade. So, I wrote about them in my essay. I didn’t care. That’s what I was thinking about as I sat in the exam room and that’s what my essay was all about: Thoughts of an examination candidate.

At the end of the exam period the invigilator’s assistants came round the room collecting the papers. Once they had all been accounted for, we were dismissed and I walked out of the hall and the school for the last time. Or so I thought.

In the week before Christmas, prior to our departure on Boxing Day, the school was holding its senior school dance; what Americans call a Prom and Australians, I was soon to find out, call a Formal; only ours wasn’t all that formal and we didn’t prom, whatever that meant. I had not been planning on attending the function – as far as I was concerned, school was out for me, forever – but a phone call to my parents specifically requesting my presence on the evening in question changed all that.

With some trepidation, I walked through the school gates and across the quadrangle. The night was particularly dark and the air was bitterly cold with a faint whirling of sleet in the wind. Entering the main doors was both a relief, to be out of the cold, and a chilling experience, to be back in the place I earnestly thought I’d escaped. And across the foyer, at the entrance to the school hall, I could see my English teacher, standing with a group of other teachers greeting pupils as they arrived.

Mr Ludwig was a tall, thin man. I remember him now as being very tall and very thin but that might be a distortion of memory since fifty years have elapsed between then and now. Of all the teachers I ever had in all the schools I ever went to, regardless of the subjects they taught, Mr Ludwig was my favourite. He brought English to life – even Shakespeare – with a manner that was respectful of the language whilst revelling in its possibilities. But the sight of him, on that cold winter’s night before my escape to the antipodes, filled me with misgiving. I couldn’t get into the hall without passing him; and I couldn’t turn and flee because my parents had dropped me at the gate and wouldn’t come back to pick me up for another three hours; and it was too cold to hang about outside until they arrived.

I walked to the door, fearing the worst; and when Mr Ludwig looked up and saw me my heart sank and I braced myself for the tongue lashing I was certain would ensue; but to my surprise, he stepped forward and extended a hand for me to shake; then he introduced me to the teacher standing next to him, a woman whom I didn’t know but who, apparently, had marked my final exam composition: Thoughts of an examination candidate. And she smiled knowingly, and she too shook my hand. Then Mr Ludwig walked into the hall with me and pointed up at the ceiling, to where the misplaced lampshade was, only it wasn’t misplaced anymore; then he smiled and winked and said:

‘And the glazer is coming on Monday to replace the window.’

[1] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Recollection (1875)


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