Memoir

Amusing and stimulating small minds

EVERYONE KNEW HIS name was Michael, but no one whom he instructed in Latin would have dreamed of calling him anything other than Mr Keary. On the occasions we have met since my schooldays, in fact, the sensation of calling him "Michael" has seemed the most appalling breach of propriety. It even takes a certain amount of fortitude to write about him: I've been staring at the foregoing five lines for half an hour. But, as they say in the classics, alea jacta est (the die is cast). As I recall they do anyway.

For I was never a scholar of significance in Mr Keary's language. About the only phrase I retain today is one for use when people, learning that I studied Latin for six years, ask me to translate something into Latin: Illud Latine dici non potest (You can't say that in Latin). My ineptitude is revealed most starkly by mottos. "Oh," I say, "it's something about work. And God. That looks like the Latin for owl, too; no, it can't be. Might it be to do with cheese? Or a chair? Look, errr, I'm a bit, y'know, rusty." In other respects, however, Mr Keary taught me quite a lot of everything I know.

My secondary education was at Geelong College, then a small petit bourgeois private school. Mr Keary taught Latin there for 34 years, the reason being, at least to begin with, that he had no teaching qualifications to go with his classics degree and was therefore unemployable in the public system. On the face of it, he shouldn't have lasted a minute as a teacher. Mr Keary taught a dead language in a dingy room to boisterous, pubescent schoolboys. He was tall, lean, grey-haired with a neat goatee, and false teeth that didn't quite fit. He hurried around the campus with a busy, slightly mincing walk. He would wear shorts, long socks and a tie. He took his tea with seven sugars. Out of hours, we learned, he drove a dilapidated Austin Estate and rode to hounds – no, really, I'm not kidding. By rights, he should have been a butt of all manner of puerile humour and larks: we should have been putting tacks on his seat, smuggling stink bombs into the classroom, drawing dangly penises in our vocabulary books. And yet ... and yet ...

 

EVEN NOW, IT puzzles me that Mr Keary's classes were always so quiet, organised, rigorous and also fun. How did he do it? For Mr Keary was not a disciplinarian. I never saw him lose his temper. I never heard him raise his voice. Nor was he one of those teachers who pretend that their classes are involved in one big, happy educational adventure together. Mr Keary sat students in alphabetical order; he held tests of some sort in two out of every three classes; he set hard exams that he marked accordingly. Child-centred learning was coming into vogue in education at the time. It passed Mr Keary by altogether. He stood up the front, with a book – and there we sat, not just obediently, but admiringly, good, bad, clever and dumb students alike. I remember the contention in Year 10 of one friend of mine, a very good athlete with a sound intellect but no great grasp of the language, that the subject was secondary to the teaching: "We're not studying Latin, are we? We're studying Keary."

Because Mr Keary turned teaching into an art. Firstly, he knew everything. Of the language, he was the complete master; of the texts, he had every word at his command, whether it was Virgil, Caesar, Cicero, Suetonius or Petronius; he was never, ever stumped or at a loss. Secondly, he pushed us to the same ideal, even if we were far from it, and in my case a couple of post-codes away. He was constantly monitoring our degree of comprehension, rolling out exercises and bombarding us with questions. "What's the person, number, tense, mood and voice of amatus?" "Is fueram pluperfect or future perfect?" "Templum looks like what gender ... Gideon?" Somehow, of course, the question most dreaded was always addressed at you.

 

MR KEARY WAS also funny. He had the driest humour, the best timing, the deadest pan and the wickedest ear for a catchphrase I have ever encountered. In 1996, when Mr Keary retired, Geelong College held a dinner in his honour. Scores of students turned up. Scores more forwarded their recollections of his classes from all over the world. There were rhapsodies of praise from people who had become computer programmers, musicians, singers, pilots, nurses, engineers, farmers, salesman, town planners – which tells you something about the breadth of his influence. But these memoirs were chiefly arresting to me because they were so familiar. In 34 years, it seems, Mr Keary had changed as little at Latin itself.

First would come the heads up: "Now, Gideon, you look like an intelligent person ..." This would be followed with both a warning and pre-emptive exoneration of the respondent planning the obvious and incorrect answer: "Gideon, what might a lesser student make of fueram?" Alternatively, if the respondent started heading off on a folly of his own: "Now you're not about to say something stupid, are you Gideon?" If your answer was essentially wrong, one would hear the elongated: "Y-e-e-e-e-s, what you mean is?" If your answer was utterly and irredeemably wrong, which was a fate all too familiar to me, one heard the gentle admonition: "Keep calm." I heard this a lot. "Are you calm, Gideon?" "Yes, sir." "What you were about to say was ...?" Once, every so often, would come an outright joke. Who could forget the opening line of the Pompeii Comedy Gala? Nupenmme de Roma huc volavi, et Mehercle – brachia mea fatigata sunt! (I just flew in from Rome, and boy are my arms tired!) Otherwise, the humour existed as a subtle leavening for the seriousness of the study. You were alert. You were relaxed. It was hard. It was fun.

 

THE DISCLOSURE THAT Mr Keary had taught so long with basically the same technique, even the same jests, fascinated me. Education seems these days to be in a constant process of reinvention, in thrall to fashions and fancies. Mr Keary was studiously indifferent to them. We had a text. We studied it. Occasionally, discussion in the class would wander from the topic. Mr Keary would let it go aways then hold the text in his right hand and point to it with his left: "Gentlemen, the text!" If it happened again, he would point to the text; if again, he would simply glance at it. There was never a fourth time.

The text, moreover, needed little elaboration. Mr Keary cordially distrusted other teaching aids. Once in a while, he would show us a documentary on video. There would invariably be some technical hitch. "This never happened with clay tablets," he would say. Mr Keary was unmoved even by the clock. The bell marking the end of lessons was of no moment. "The bell," he would say, "is a signal to the teacher that in the near future the class may soon come to an end." If anyone stirred at the sound of it, he would ask: "What is the bell?" When someone had confirmed the bell to be 'a signal to the teacher that the class may soon end', Mr Keary would turn back to the matter at hand with a satisfied: "That's right." In the sweep of Mr Keary's ceaseless surveillance, wandering minds did not stand a chance. "Is that really necessary, Gideon?" Correct answer: "No, Mr Keary." "What do they say about small things, Gideon?" Correct answer: "They amuse small minds, Mr Keary." Or: "As Pliny was not distracted from his work by the eruption of Vesuvius, Gideon, then perhaps you should not be distracted by whomever is outside the window." Followed, just occasionally, with the reminder: "Pliny, Gideon. Remember Pliny."

One term, when Mr Keary took long service leave, we had another teacher. He was relaxed. He was easygoing. He wanted to be our friend. He heaped praise on our modest efforts. We detested him. Occasionally, he would turn and try to be strict. We laughed at him. Usually, he just waffled. We suffered him. We counted the weeks till Mr Keary's leave expired. When he returned for the first class in the next term, the class stood as one and bowed to him like unworthy supplicants. I will never be sure whether I saw the glimmer of a smile on Mr Keary's face as he said: "Turn to page 25 of Cicero's defence of Sextus Roscius of Ameria ..."

By modern lights, Mr Keary did lots wrong. He was pedantic. He was demanding. He never really praised anyone. He made no efforts to build anyone's self-esteem. Occasionally, he would hand back a test with the mark of 100 per cent and allow: "Not too bad." Seldom did he write any comment on work other more glowing than: "Good." Once in a while, an essay would be returned with the compliment: "Glimmerings of intelligence." Those moments, though – how sweet they were! Mr Keary was the man. If he commended you, by Jove, you'd earned it. It occurs to me now that Mr Keary's classes were the first time I ever encountered complete mastery; he handled Latin like a gifted musician handles his instrument or an accomplished sportsman his bat and ball. There is something about watching and experiencing mastery which you never forget. Latin was more than a subject he taught – it was something to which he had dedicated his life. He taught it with conviction, enthusiasm and delight. To measure up on his scale was its own reward.

You never forgot disappointing him either. One day, Mr Keary led the class on an excursion to an exhibition of Pompeiian artefacts, after which he set the essay topic: "Discuss form and function in the architecture of the Roman house." Unfortunately, being at my normal high pitch of acuity, I had absorbed that the average Roman dwelling had a roof (one), walls (generally several) and a front door on which was written Cave canem (Beware the dog) or perhaps Tibi gratias agimus quod nihil fumas (Thank you for not smoking). Form and function? I'm outta here. Or should I say: abeo.

Well, I had a bash. And, as page followed page, I started to quite enjoy it. My considered analysis was that Roman houses had form on the one hand and function on the other. Not only that, but they often had both. Sometimes – and I went right out on a limb here – there was more form than function. But the function was there, nonetheless, albeit in a slightly reduced state. In other houses, there was oodles of function. Function by the chariot-load. They had lumps of it round the back. On and on. It covered six A4 sheets. I submitted it, utterly convinced of my genius. Mr Keary allowed himself a rare comment: "Tendency to pleonasm should be resisted." Pleonasm: use of more words than necessary to express one's meaning. No editor or subeditor ever chided me so meaningfully. Twenty books later, I still remember that admonition. For, if I never found use for what Mr Keary taught, I have forgotten nothing about how he taught it: his calm, measured, meticulous, rigorous ways, his ability to be utterly himself. Nor, it would seem, have others.

 

LAST YEAR, WHILE in England, I visited an old school contemporary, now head of medicine at a college at Cambridge University. I had not seen him for perhaps fifteen years; in truth, we had been friendly but not especially close during our educations. We were chatting in his kitchen about the state of the world, finding common cause in the apparently ineluctable trivialisation of the culture, when I sighed: "What do they say about small things?" My contemporary nodded sagely: "They amuse small minds." As if to prove it, we laughed ourselves stupid.

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