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When to apologise

February 6, 2009

I know about apologies. I was a serial apologiser in my youth and long into my adulthood too. Some might even argue that I always assume everything that’s wrong or anything that goes wrong is down to me show through from time to time. It’s something I’ve spent many years trying to iron out.

When I was at school my grasp of basic mathematics was pretty poor, so much so that when I entered the middle school I was judged to be so bad at it that my membership of the C-Group Maths was justified.

Fortunately, however, us dregs of teenage humanity were blessed with a brilliant and unfeasibly old mathematics teacher. He might have felt denied the opportunity to teach advanced mathematics to the intolerable swots sitting in the classroom up the corridor, but us bunch were transfixed.

Our teacher made us laugh and kept us in control. He made sure we paid attention. He drilled into us the importance of SOHCAHTOA. This man inspired us.

Being old as he was, his retirement from teaching was closer than we’d expected. In the final year of our GCSE studies he was replaced by a younger, slightly odder looking man with a receding hairline, wearing shoes which we suspected he’d purchased from a safety clothing catalogue. He had no discernible sense of humour either.

Judging by our new mathematics teacher he also had plans for the future which went further than teaching us the subject. There was more than a sniff of a desire for world domination, it seemed to me.

“Things are going to change around here,” he snapped when the class failed to pay him due reverence during the first lesson. “None of you are very good at maths and that’s displayed in your marks last year. So get used to it. You’ve got between now and half term to buck your ideas up. I’ll be writing a half-term assessment and sending them to your parents. Don’t think I won’t.”

The class veered between taking him deadly seriously and sniggering uncontrollably.

Then came the final death blow.

“I don’t know what your previous teacher was doing but he doesn’t seem to have done much good.”

Jaws dropped to the floor. What did he say? Had he met our previous teacher?

Collective shock slowly passed as the stark reality of the situation hove into view. Within the space of only ten minutes or so, he’d not only failed to assert control but also spectacularly failed to ingratiate himself by insulting his much-loved predecessor.

Two members of the class looked at one another across the sea of desks, one privately deciding to take action.

“Sir,” I said standing in front of his desk as the rest of the class filed out, “I really don’t think you can say the things you did in class just now. There isn’t an assessment before half-term. No other teacher does it. The reports go out at the end of term. You can’t say things like that which aren’t true.”

I stood resolute in front of his desk, staring him in the eyes certain that he would understand the error he had made and rescind on his threat.

He wasn’t quite as open to me questioning his new regime as I hoped he might be.

The man went ballistic. I saw a white, slightly gnarled looking face turn bright red in a matter of seconds. He slammed the board rubber down on the desk and shouted.

“You don’t speak to me like that, my lad,” he bellowed in my face, “kids like you obviously don’t have any respect for authority. It’s about time you learnt some? Who do you think you are speaking to me like that?”

“All I’m saying is …”

“Get out!” he screamed back at me, pointing to the door.

I was petrified by his response. I had been scolded severely with the power of words and the sight of someone’s unusual physical manifestation of anger. I’d never seen that before, not to that extent. Although completely unexpected at the time, I now realise that perhaps me challenging the accepted convention of the teacher-pupil relationship may have had something to do with it.

I was embarrassed too. My contemporaries had witnessed from the relative safety of the corridor. I was an individual as opposed to being part of the crowd. This little escapade wasn’t going to help with my popularity.

I shuffled up to the dining room for lunch alone, still shocked from the incident and wondering if there was anyone who would signal their support for me.

Queuing up for lunch, I glanced at the head of the mathematics department. Normally a jolly individual who usually smiled and said hello to me, at this moment in time his face looked like thunder. He came straight up to me and made his feelings quite clear.

“There’s nothing to say to you Jacob apart from this. Your behaviour was totally inappropriate. Now go and apologise.”

I did. I did it straight after lunch standing in front of my weird looking maths teacher, my tail between my legs. I can’t remember what I said or what he said in return but I know I did it.

Now I come to look on that incident I wonder whether I had anything to apologise for. What had I said that was so incredibly wrong? I might have been cheeky but I hadn’t been rude. I hadn’t sworn or insulted him or waved my genitalia in his face. Did I feel guilty at having made my new maths teacher lose his temper? Hardly. I didn’t know him and based on the first lesson I’d had with him I didn’t particularly like him either.

So why was I apologising? I felt ashamed for something which someone else (the head of the department who didn’t witness the incident) felt embarrassed about. I ended up apologising because the head of the department was the last person I wanted to upset. I was expecting him to provide support not to find that I had seriously annoyed him too.

Thinking back on that incident I realise one absolute truth. The person who should have been apologising was my new maths teacher, not me. His reaction was totally disproportionate to what I had said. I ended up feeling scared as a result of that disproportionate reaction as though I was the entirely to blame for the situation arising.

He may well have had a serious problem with anger – it would be unreasonable to judge entirely on the basis of one incident, although it’s interesting to note that as I recall he didn’t stick around on the staff for long -and in that moment totally lost it with a kid who had been a bit cheeky (albeit extremely protective of the memory of his previous teacher).

I wouldn’t have done it any differently but still it underlines something a lot of people forget: apologies are difficult things to handle and they should be asked for lightly. The effects can go on for a lifetime.

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