I remember exactly the hour that I abandoned my childhood dream of becoming a Biology teacher, because it began as the most boring hour of my life thus far and ended with Norman’s famous outburst. It was double ‘A’ Level Biology on a muggy Thursday afternoon at my local junior college. The usual suspects were all there, we’d spent an hour or two at lunch time drinking in the Red Lion. We wanted to continue drinking and just like we did every week, almost said, ‘to hell with it’. But we believed we had to get our ‘A’ levels or we’d more than likely be stuck in crap jobs for the rest of our lives. It was this thought and this thought alone that dragged us back across the big, soggy common field and up to our white, airless room for one hundred minutes of the Krebs Cycle.
It was the Krebs Cycle that finally killed it for me really. All through school Biology had been my best subject. Not an attentive student at the best of times, biology and geometry were the only subjects in which I excelled. Biology: big friendly organs with clearly delineated functions all working together to keep us going. The science of life; what could be more fascinating than that? Terrific! Thinks the young me, I’m not going to be wringing my hands thinking about what I’m going to do with my life. I’ll stick with this easy subject that I enjoy and end up teaching it to kids like me who also enjoy it; Lovely. But ‘A’ level Biology isn’t like ‘O’ level Biology. ‘A’ level Biology is essentially Chemistry and Chemistry is hard, and so boring.
We piled in, hot, beery and sleepy and sprawled on the desks waiting for the teacher to show. There was me and Rob and Martin was there too. Martin was a few years older, twenty-two or maybe even twenty-three! He was a messy red head, doughy but handsome with pale skin and clammy hands. He dressed always in layers of faded, threadbare cotton. With his famous, voluminous, day-glow orange Marxism Today newspaper sack slung over his shoulder with Kicking Against the Pricks scrawled across it in black marker. Martin was a committed Socialist and had been approached by the other committed Socialist, (our Psychology teacher) who was always trying to get Martin to mail pamphlets and vote and stuff like that. Martin was the one who knew all about the Beats, The Velvet Underground & Camus; things that sounded really great. He’d grown up in a Council House and was the most exotic person I knew.
“Look buy Lust for Life.” Martin was saying now. “It’s an A plus plus album, Bowie produced. It’s only four quid right and if you don’t like it, I’ll buy it off you.”
“Ok, fair enough.”
“And get Half Man/Half Biscuit as well.”
“I’m not getting Half Man/Half Biscuit, its shit, I’ve heard it.”
“Shit? They’re the last absolutely genuine..”
As he’s extolling the virtues of Half Man/Half Biscuit, I’m in a chair and Martin is on a table, in front and slightly above me. His legs are open and there’s a rip in the crotch of his trousers. I can’t help noticing he’s wearing baggy, hairy, flesh-colored underpants. Then I make a face like Stan Laurel gradually assimilating a new piece of difficult information. “Ah! Those are not underpants.’
Norman walks in. He’d been in the pub too, but not really with us. “Hello chaps.” he says in his usual nasally, patronizing tone.
“Norman.” We all reply.
Norman wanted to get into the Royal Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot, a fighter pilot. This was his dream, his passion, he wanted it more than anything, but it was never going to happen. To put it simply – he wasn’t smart enough. But Norman did have the persona of an RAF pilot down pat. He had the smart, clipped tones of a well-heeled, upper-middle class airman. His back was ramrod straight, shoulders thrust back and rigid, he had a short back and sides with a big mop of black, fly boy hair up on top and of course a soft, tan, leather flyer’s jacket with applets’ and a flap for the hat and everything. All that was missing was the pencil moustache; missing perhaps because he didn’t want to draw attention to the big nose and his two, quite prominent, front teeth, which gave him a bit of a rodenty look.
Norman was not well liked, because although he was personable enough, he looked down his nose at us, condescended along class lines; as if he were an enlisted officer and we were just rowdy squaddies. He treated us like clueless no-hopers, when it has him that had applied and failed again and again. But he wouldn’t give up. It was the RAF or bust for Norman. We couldn’t even tease him, as ridiculous as he was; there was no point of entry for our sarcasm or ridicule. He was always unruffled by any kind of ribbing we gave him, his time with us was simply a means to an end, there was nothing going to stand between him and his dream. Our opinion meant less than nothing. He was, in the end, too bizarre to tease. He couldn’t even be niggled over the fact that he never had a girlfriend, although he had systematically asked and been turned down by every girl we knew and a bunch that we didn’t. “Nice girl, too bad, her loss”. As crazy as he was, I guess we had to reluctantly admire Norman’s great British, stiff upper lip. In a weird way, he was the real thing, but this bogus calm, this pathological conviction that he would one day be joining the RAF… Well, the center could not hold; success was impossible. The first crack was about to appear.
The week before, Martin had let it drop casually, “His dads a plumber you know?”
“F#@k off! His dad’s an accountant or something isn’t he?”
“No, he’s a plumber. They live on Bogton Road.”
“But what about the accent? Did he go to public school?”
“No, he went to school round here. It’s all bollocks, it’s all just an affectation. He’s nuts.”
“Wow.” Was all I could say.
How did Norman get like this? Well, my guess would be that at some point during his formative years, ill with the Measles or the Mumps and home from school on a dreary Wednesday. His parents must have stuck him in front of the TV with an eider-down and a jug of orange squash. Two PM on BBC 2 and the feverish Norman is staring at the wobbly intro to a classic British war film, The Battle of Britain or The Dam Busters, one of those where young men casually embark on suicide missions for king and country, “Chocks away Ginger!” The life of a brave pilot during wartime really appeals to Norman’s addled brain. ‘This is what I want to be when I grow up.’ Norman – chip set.
The teacher shows up five minutes early and apologizes for being late. She’s a tall, thin woman from some foreign, commonwealth country. Her florid blouse is buttoned to the neck, there’s a brooch, her perm sprayed to within an inch of its life. She gets stuck right in and after sixty seconds I feel like I’ve already been there for half an hour. The only person listening is the kid who will end up going to Oxford; the nutty guy that trots out long, un-solicited passages from Shakespeare. His hair is so black and his skin so pale that when he shaves, his face is blue. He looks like a dog that had to be shaved for an operation. Blueface is down with the Krebs Cycle today, he gets it. The teacher is jazzed that he gets it and now they’re both excited. I don’t get it. It’s impossible to understand. I’m never going to understand and I don’t want to hear about it anymore! My whole career plan is going up in smoke. How did this subject get so crap, so fast?
An hour later and we are only halfway through. I’m literally counting the seconds on the clock above the teacher’s rigid hair. Finally I feel myself drifting. I’ve abandoned all hope of understanding the Krebs Cycle and just have to count on it not coming up in the final exam. The room is too warm and the beer is working on us. I glance around and see that more than half of the class, Norman included, are drowsing in their seats. Ms. Rigid’s voice is becoming a drone, as if she’s murmuring now in Farsi. A fat, lazy bee comes in through the window and then goes back out again. Wait, the tone of her voice just changed, she’s asked the class a question. Must concentrate, something polynucleotide what?
Here it comes, bubbling up through Norman in his semi-conscious state, and the answer is; “GONADS!” The word is flung out of him like a rock belched from Krakatoa. “Gonads!” he shouts, in his perfect, golden age of British Cinema accent. A little hasty – I have to be first! A bit ecstatic – I’ve got it right! Wholly without his usual composure, Norman, half asleep, has just yelled out, ‘Gonads!’ by mistake during a quiet class on respiration. Startled fully awake, I look at Rob, I see shock on his face too. We stare at each other. ‘Gonads?’ Rob mouths the word for me to confirm. I nod and I can see the beginning of a massive grin breaking across his face. I start with a chuckle, how is this possible? This is priceless. Oh my God. I can’t believe it. ‘Gonads’ – how perfect. Laughing harder now I glance over at Martin who, instead of sharing in the glee, has decided to milk the situation perfectly and is simply nodding slowly with a look of concern and gravitas – sad, but of course we knew this day would come.
All laughing eyes are tuned in Norman’s direction, could he have been joking? Was he serious? No; he was half asleep, even better! How bizarre! What kind of crazy, dirty, confused little dream had Norman been having? And just conscious enough so that the teacher’s question had worked its way in and just out of it enough to yell out the answer without any checks and balances in play.
The teacher looks put out for only a second. “No.” she says, which should have been doubly hilarious but because of who she is, it sucks the laughter out of the room and Blueface immediately trots out the correct answer. I finally join the others watching Norman. He’s trying, not very hard, to smile. He looks confused, he’s trembling. There’s a light sheen of sweat on his face, he looks both vulnerable and hateful the dual emotions of humiliation and contempt play around his quivering mouth. Is it possible that he’d simply glimpsed Martin’s nut sack as he entered the classroom? Were these the Gonads that crept into Norman’s subconscious, or did something very private just spill out in a very public setting? He was usually so careful, so restrained, almost wholesome – this would taint.
The class settles down and an hour later it finally grinds to a close. Afterwards in the student union café, there is an endless, hysterical analysis of Norman’s outburst. We go over it again and again, like the Zapruder Film, looking for clues.”Of all the things he could have yelled.” Say’s Rob, ”He yelled gonads not pyruvate, the right answer by the way, not help or mother but Gonads!”
We tried to imagine what his little waking dream must have been about. What was the question he heard? Maybe a game show, with a Diana Dors/Betty Grable type of USO broad cooing: “Ok boys, I want fingers stroking the buzzers for this last question; now we know it starts with the letter G, that should narrow it down for you. We’ve got a dead heat remember so the hunk who answers correctly now, wins and becomes a fully trained RAF officer and will almost certainly ravish me and go on to save hundreds of British lives and be decorated by the Queen herself in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace, with cucumber sandwiches and free gold bars to take home afterwards. OK then; ‘Every brave RAF fighter pilot must have a sturdy pair of these in his cockpit before takeoff.”
The real question is probably lost to us now but the answer was definitely wrong. Norman would never be wearing the goggles of an RAF man, I believe he eventually followed his father into the plumbing trade. I barely managed to get a passing grade in ‘A’ level Biology and soon enough I escaped, flying out of that white, airless room forever.