Thursday 17 June 2021

500 Words a Day - Mr Bartleby

The other students hated him, of course - but not me. I didn’t love him either, he was impossible to love, I think. Mr Bartleby was by turns boring, strict, impulsive, cruel and lazy. But almost worse than any one trait in particular was his unpredictability.
For example, a couple of weeks into our second year, he had turned up to class ten minutes late, leaving us standing in the corridor to get into trouble with passing teachers. Obviously we weren’t just going to stand there in silence while we waited. The first we knew of his arrival was the sound of his low, rumbling voice rising in pitch and volume as he roared across the hallway: “Second Years!”
At once, we all scrambled to our feet and stood to attention, with all conversation dying away mid-sentence.
“What do you call this disaster?!”
Mr Bartleby strode towards us in huge, leaping steps, his trench coat billowing behind him like the sail on the Mary Rose.
“Well?!” he bellowed, his puffy face turning a bright red everywhere except his mustard moustache.
“Sorry sir,” we mumbled, looking dejectedly at our feet and expecting a detention to land like a hammer blow.
A pause.
“Ha ha ha!” he laughed, “never mind, never mind, it’s all fun and games in the end. Carpe diem and all that. In you go, in you go.”
And in we went.
Little Dave thought this was his chance to make a joke but Mr Bartleby was having none of it and in an instant was starting him in the eye, lip twitching and a ruler appearing out of nowhere in his hands.
“Not… one… word…” Mr Bartleby whispered, “or it will be the last word you ever utter.”
And so it went. From minute to minute you never knew where you stood with Bartleby. If you made a face he might burst into laughter or throw a chalk at you; if you got all the answers right in a test he might give you a commendation or accuse you of cheating; if you were late for class he might make you stand outside the remainder of the lesson or give you a copy of his notes so you wouldn’t have missed anything.
You can see why the other kids hated him.
But there was something about him that spoke to me, even as a young man just finding my own sense of self. He seemed out of place, out of time. I never saw him chatting with a colleague, never heard anything of his life beyond the school (the idea that teachers had a life beyond school was still quite new to me). There was a sadness I thought I could detect in his eyes, behind the rage, behind the smiles.
Mr Bartleby treated me differently as well. I like to think he recognised a kindred spirit. “Never mind, lad,” he would say when I invariably messed up again, and again, “you’ll get it next time, right?” And I would promise to try my best.
Then the day arrived when Mr Bartleby never arrived for class.
After twenty minutes, the head of history arrived to cover for him, looking very flustered and put out. He didn’t know where Mr. Bartleby was. He didn’t know when he would be back. He never did come back.
Sometimes I like to think he sold his house and went to tour the world, having adventures in his trench coat, waving a machete in the jungles of the Amazon or riding a sled pulled by huskies as he tries to reach the North Pole. I wonder if I’ll see him again.
But then sometimes I recognise the same pain I saw in his eyes when I take a long look at myself in the mirror. I must be close to the age he was. Behind my smiles I know I feel the same bitter sadness as poor old Mr Bartleby, and I know that he’s never coming back.