I’ve always felt that it is important to encourage the young, to drive young minds to grapple with the eternal verities which dominate the world of the arts. I learned my lessons young and am eternally grateful for the education I received from so many masters in the past. It was they who taught me the importance of such artistic practices as being paid cash in advance, and making sure you are owed debts of affection by all those standing between you and the exit. Hence when Charlon Drane asked me to teach a class at the University in Port Naain, obviously I agreed.
Apparently my reasons for doing so may not be obvious to the ordinary reader. Hence I will elucidate. Since Charlon Drane’s unfortunate ‘death’ and, in some eyes, the even more unfortunate discovery that he was still alive, I have been one of the few people to have been spared the joy of being the butt of his mordant wit. Still during his second, and much longer, phase as editor of the Port Naain Literary Review I made an effort to ensure I kept on the right side of him. Thus when he made the suggestion that I teach a class, I agreed to it.
At the University of Port Naain matters are arranged differently to other, less advanced, establishments. Here students decide which exams they wish to sit at the end of the year. Lecturers offer courses and students sign up for those they feel will most help them with their exams and then pay the lecturer in person rather than paying the University. As you can well imagine, having run this system since time immemorial, other systems seem peculiar and impractical.
Charlon Drane put forward two of us to teach a course entitled, ‘A life in modern literature.’ I would teach for one afternoon a week and Selain Dorit, a lady whose talent almost matches mine own would teach a morning session. While I hadn’t expected the position to be lucrative, I had expected it to be somewhat more amply rewarded than it was. After the first few sessions Selain and I compared our takings. She had a considerable advantage over me when it came to the number of silver-washed lead vintenars that had been dropped into the box on the desk. On the other hand I had a far greater weight of low denomination copper, including a fine selection of quarter-dreg coins from a selection of those small towns which still persisted in minting them; I assume for purely for sentimental reasons.
Still, I would have been willing to overlook the lack of silver being poured out in my direction, if the students had been lively, witty, or even engaged. As it was, because they felt they had paid for my services, they seemed to expect me to do all their work for them as well. Now it’s one thing for me to extemporise a short poem to show them how it’s done, it is entirely another for them to expect me to extemporise thirty so they can each submit one as their personal contribution towards the exam. Thus and so, by the time it came the year turned and we were close to the exams, it has to be said that relations between me and the class were less than cordial. Lest you think that it was some failing on my part, Selain was having even more trouble with her class who expected her to write their essays for them.
So at the end of the year, with exams approaching, we both felt that we had done our bit to enlighten the young, and frankly were agreed that any further enlightenment would best be achieved by igniting a conflagration under their seats. We did have the privilege of dining in the senior refectory; where the food was hearty rather than sophisticated but free to lecturers. Over a shared glass of wine with our lunch (one glass, on the money we were getting from the students we couldn’t have afforded one each) we were agreed that we were both going to retire from the world of academia. But on that day we were approached by one of the small handful of University staff and asked if we would act as Invigilators for the end of year examinations. We would have turned him down but then he mentioned that the position was quite generously recompensed. At this disclosure we both agreed to undertake this new role. So he left us with a copy of the examination timetable, a list of the rules for entrants and a slim booklet entitled ‘The powers of Invigilators.’ It was in our joint reading of this last booklet that Selain and I had a joint moment of revelation.
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Resplendent in our robes, (I do feel that black suits me) we awaited the students. They were all instructed to be present for the appointed hour or the gates would be closed against them. On the first day of the examination week we estimated that seven out of every ten did manage to arrive in time. None the less, as the rules insist, but as is rarely done, we had the porters close the gates and refused admission to any others. This should have caused a riot, but to be frank those who had been locked out arrived in a sporadic trickle as they sobered up or remembered what day it was, and finding the doors locked against them merely assumed it was the wrong day.
Selain and I assessed the students as they gathered in the outer hall. Even a casual inspection revealed to us formulae written on the backs of hands, notes written on cuffs and in the case of some of the girls; they had their hair worn up, almost concealing tightly folded papers. At this point we decided that we would move to our agreed second stage. Selain took the female students to one set of baths and I took the males to another. There they were forced to strip and dive into the waters to clean themselves. I noted several frantically trying to memorise notes even as they were washed away. At last with everybody cleansed to my satisfaction I led them out of the other side of the bath where they were allowed to towel off and each was given a simple smock to wear. Now clean and devoid of notes or other aids, they were finally allowed into the examination room. They were assigned randomly to a desk and the examination was started.
Whilst we were quietly pleased with how things had gone, Selain and I were not about to become complacent. Next morning virtually all the students were present before the doors were closed. They trooped placidly to the baths and after washing themselves accepted the robes and took their places. It was barely ten minutes before the first gambit was tried. There was a knock on the door and before we could do anything a liveried footman appeared holding a bottle on a silver tray.
I intercepted this individual just as he was about to hand the bottle to as student and asked, “What are you doing here?”
He produced a hand written note from one of the Vice-Chancellors without Portfolio (a corn merchant who was in the habit of making small gifts to the University) which stated that he granted permission for the student to take the tonic during the examination.
I looked at the bottle carefully. Obviously nobody can know all the patent medicines and similar produced by the various quasi-medical practitioners in Port Naain but I didn’t recognise this one. But I did note some interesting pin-pricks under various letters. I opened the bottle and sniffed cautiously. I may not have known the label but there can be few in Port Naain who didn’t recognise Tody Whissup’s patent laxative. I summoned a porter who brought a clean glass. I then poured a generous portion from the bottle into the glass and handed the bottle back to the flunky. I then passed the glass to the student and advised him that for the good of his health he would be wise to drain it rapidly. The porter took the empty glass and escorted the flunky out, relieving him of his key to the outer doors as he did so. He also physically barred the doors so no other bearers of strange tonics or other remedies could enter. I resumed my pacing of the hall. Perhaps an hour later there was a brief flurry of excitement when the student who had drunk the tonic leapt to his feet and fled the hall, to be seen no more that day.
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The following day Selain and I were both curious to see what might be tried next. Within the hall matters proceeded as graciously as one might expect. But outside the hall all sorts of strange behaviour could be observed. Any number of people could be seen climbing ladders to hang banners visible from the windows of the examination hall. This we managed to discourage by the simple expedient of informing the porters that they were entitled to keep and sell any ladders they confiscated. Admittedly we ended up having to apologise to the innocent window clearer who was a full two blocks away when his ladder was taken, leaving him dangling from a soapy window ledge until help arrived, but otherwise the day passed easily enough.
I confess that personally I felt let down. If these young people were the bright hope of for the city’s future, I felt that we ought to be seeing more initiative, more flair. As it was the penultimate day passed without incident. It may just have been that Selain and I missed something, but we noticed no poorly hidden jubilation amongst the students so on balance felt that we had not been deceived. It was on the final day that we had what I felt was the best attempt. Young Worrik, a charity scholar and a genuinely bright boy, had a seat by the window. His presence was really a formality, the University were by now discussing what capacity they could use him after his exams, and he was already teaching some courses. But today I noticed he was writing furiously. Barely an hour into the exam he raised his hand to attract my attention. I walked across and he proffered me his papers and explained he’d finished and because he was scheduled to deliver a lesson soon, could he be excused.
I consulted briefly with Selain and neither of us could see any reason to prevent him, so we took his completed paper, locked it in the chest and let him leave. Ten minutes later, a girl raised her hand. It was Liss Prusa, a remarkably pretty girl, but from a wealthy and well connected family. Selain went across to see her and came back to me with a note. This one, signed by one of the Heads of Academic Divisions, stated baldly that Liss had been suffering headaches due to working in the poor light and if a window seat became available she was to be given it. Selain and I pondered the matter briefly, and then we summoned porters. They took Worrik’s desk out of the exam hall, and then moved Liss Prusa’s desk into the place vacated and she was allowed to continue. One of the porters then returned from where they had deposited Worrik’s desk with several sheets of paper, covered with rapidly scribbled notes, which had been pinned to the underside of the desk. I glanced from them to Liss Prusa and judging by the look on her face I hoped young Worrik had received his payment in advance.
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Obviously there were repercussions. There were even complaints from the student body, which when boiled down to essentials complained that under the new exam system only those who were intelligent and had worked hard during the year had a chance of passing. These complaints were discussed by the authorities who gave them more legitimacy than I would. In the end the University authorities offered to issue a special degree specifically for those too stupid or idle to achieve the usual qualification.
At last the student body sought out Selain and myself. This was a restrained and courteous meeting, mainly because of the presence of several of Selain’s current or previous gentlemen admirers. In the end, in tones of some desperation, the student spokesman asked, “But will you two be invigilating next year?”
Selain answered for both of us. “We only invigilated because we needed the money, having been paid so poorly for our lectures during the course of the year.”
There was a long and thoughtful silence after her remark and the students then excused themselves. Selain and I did decide to teach for another year, and it was most gratifying to see the open-handed way in which the students recompensed us for our time.
But in reality one doesn’t do it for the money. It is the sheer joy of gently opening young minds to the realities of the world and enabling them to go forth into it, wiser and more thoughtful people.
It did occur to me that you might be interested in reading more about Tallis.
Described by one reviewer as “If you’re looking for some entertaining short stories to dip into, I can recommend this book. But don’t blame me if you read the whole book in one sitting the way I did.”