(This is a prequel anecdote to a much longer upcoming piece I am writing for the blog. Writing this episode got so digressive and detailed that I am publishing it as a stand-alone piece.)
Fifth grade had been traumatic for me. It was marked by a ‘it’s-so-crazy-I-still-can’t-believe-it’ incident; the loss of innocence that irreversibly advanced me in one bounding leap from child to adult.
When I was in 3rd grade, Ms. Hydon, the 4th grade teacher, got married to Mr. Lawrence, the 5th grade teacher and became known as Mrs. Lawrence. Young and pretty, Ms. Hydon was considered the most glamourous teacher in school. Getting married —to another teacher, no less— added to the aura of fairy-tale romance.
For 4th grade, I had Mrs. Lawrence. She became pregnant, and was out on maternity leave for the second semester, so we had a long-term substitute. Mrs. Cox, who ended up in our class photo, was middle-aged and decidedly less glamourous.
For 5th grade, I had Mr. Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence was the only male classroom teacher in our school. The rest of the male teachers were specialists: Mr. Butterworth taught French to the 5th- through 9th-graders; Mr. Somkid taught PE for all grades; and then there was Mr. Lawson, the headmaster.
Mr. Lawrence had a reputation for being strict. In fact there was a kid named Steven who was transferred from the other 5th grade class into our class, because his parents wanted more discipline for him. Steven’s mother was the school nurse.
Since I was a quiet and conformist kid, I didn’t think I would have any problems with Mr. Lawrence.
He turned out to be — how can I put it mildly — a pompous, thin-skinned megalomanic jackass.
Mr. Lawrence was actually one Lawrence Kow from Malaysia. He was addressed by his first name. It wasn’t unusual for teachers in our school to go by their first names. For some, they were addressed as Mrs. Suchada or Ms. Sukon because they were Thai. Or they had polysyllabic Thai surnames that were difficult to pronounce by non-Thai students: Mrs. Angela, Mrs. Christine instead of Mrs. Bankerdmuangnorn, Mrs. Namlaifaidap. The only teachers who were addressed as Mrs. <PolysyllabicThaiSurname> were British women who had married Thai husbands . . . and kept the perverse European practice of being addressed by their married surname, like Mrs. Phavantha, Mrs. Sananikorn.
(I guess I should have explained this at the start, but you’ve probably figured out by now that I went to a British elementary school in Thailand. In Thailand, the universal convention is to address someone by their first name, not surname.)
Now Kow is quite easy to pronounce, but worried about students mocking his name with bovine jokes, he went by Mr. Lawrence. That’s how insecure he was. In matrimony, Mrs. Lawrence had taken not just his last name, but his first name as well.
There’s a section in Roald Dahl’s “Danny, The Champion of the World” where Danny is unfairly accused in of cheating in class. Mr. Lawrence’s psychological abomination against me played out the exact same way. Except I was charged with lying. And that even Mr. Lawrence knew better than to try inflict corporal punishment on me…
In 5th grade, I was pretty good about doing my homework. As much as my dad nagged me about other things, even he didn’t bother to see what homework I had each day, he knew I’d finished it.
We had been doing a series of spelling lists. Mr. Lawson had announced an upcoming school-wide spelling competition, and Mr. Lawrence wanted his class to have the best showing. Especially since Mr. Lawson’s daughter was also in our class.
We were supposed to write down each day’s words in a notebook, and bring it back to school each day, even though Mr. Lawrence wasn’t consistent about collecting them to check. It was more for practice. On the one day I had left my spelling notebook at home, Mr. Lawrence asked the class to hand them in for a spot check.
“I left mine at home,” I told him.
“You’re sure you didn’t just simply not do your homework?”
“I DID do my homework. I just forgot to bring it.”
“LIAR!” Mr. Lawrence thundered. In front of the entire class. Without a shred of proof.
“I am not lying!”
(The funny thing was for once my dad knew what my homework was and that I had finished it the previous night. I had asked Dad for one of the definitions. ‘Why don’t you ask my dad,’ I wanted to say to Mr. Lawrence, but of course this was before the age of cell-phones. It was inconceivable to trek down to the school office to use the only telephone on campus and call my dad at work, just to ask if I had done my homework.)
Mr. Lawrence launched into a slanderous tirade against me, fueled by a vehemently insane conviction he had to be right. There was no room for him to be wrong because he was the adult/teacher, and I was the student/child.
I was rooted to the spot, unable to believe what was happening. I had always turned in my homework, complete and on time. I’d never been in any trouble with Mr. Lawrence before. I had never thought that adults could be so blatantly unfair and such bullies. Now I knew, I was blown away, shell-shocked.
I don’t know why Mr. Lawrence did what he did. The only remotely plausible reason I can think of is that somehow he was trying to discredit me. In class, I was one of the kids with the best grades, along with the headmaster’s daughter. Mr Lawrence had shown signs of favoritism towards her, to curry favor with his boss, I guess.
I can’t remember if I told my dad about the incident. Whether I did or not, I knew nothing would happen. My dad didn’t call up the school to make a fuss, to have Mr. Lawrence punished, nor to have me transfer to the other 5th grade class.
(I also did wonder about Mrs. Lawrence, did she know what kind of abusive man she had married and fathered her child?)
After this episode, I resolved to never become a teacher. I knew that as a teacher, I too would become prone to biases, favoritism, and dislikes with my students. If I could not hold myself to treating all my students equally and be fair to all of them, then I would not be a teacher at all.
BACK TO POST  Excerpt from “Danny, the Champion of the World” by Roald Dahl
A teacher called Captain Lancaster [taught] the nine- and ten-year-olds, and this year included me… He had been a captain in the army during the war… and that was why he still called himself Captain Lancaster instead of just plain mister.
We were having our first lesson of the day with Captain Lancaster. I was sitting next to Sidney Morgan in the back row and we were slogging away.
Sidney Morgan covered his mouth with his hand and whispered very softly to me, “What are eight nines?”
“Seventy-two,” I whispered back.
Captain Lancaster’s finger shot out like a bullet and pointed straight at my face. “You!” he shouted. “Stand up!”
“Me, sir?” I said.
“Yes you, you blithering idiot!”
I stood up.
“You were talking!” he barked. “What were you saying?” He was shouting at me as though I was a platoon of soldiers on the parade ground. “Come on, boy! Out with it!”
I stood still and said nothing.
“Are you refusing to answer me?” he shouted.
“Please, sir,” Sidney said. “It was my fault. I asked him a question”
“Oh you did, did you? Stand up!”
Sidney stood up beside me.
“So you were cheating!” he said. “Both of you were cheating!”
We kept silent.
“Cheating is a repulsive habit practiced by guttersnipes and dandyprats!” he said.
From where I was standing I could see the whole class sitting absolutely rigid, watching Captain Lancaster. Nobody dared move.
“You may be permitted to cheat and lie and swindle in your own homes,” he went on, “but I will not put up with it here!”
At this point, a sort of blind fury took hold of me and I shouted back at him, “I am not a cheat!”
There was a fearful silence in the room. Captain Lancaster raised his chin and fixed me with his watery eyes. “You are not only a cheat but you are insolent,” he said quietly. “You are a very insolent boy. Come up here.”