Quiet, the Inspector Is Here!
During the sixties and seventies, teacher promotion depended on years of service (seniority), and a satisfactory performance review.
The bastions of this assessment and promotion process were the School Inspectors. These stolid gentlemen, (there were no women inspectors), were the epitome of everything that was accepted as right and proper in the field of education.
School Inspectors were lords of their manor, enjoying all the privileges of autonomy. They were responsible for the governance of their realm, which comprised the cluster of primary and secondary schools in their district. In addition, they had the mandate to determine staffing and training, curriculum delivery, student assessment and discipline, and the power to open a new school or to shut one down.
It was therefore not surprising that Inspectors were feared by all. School principals would lay out banquets in the staffroom for them, teachers dressed in their “I’m going to a wedding/funeral” finery, and students quaked whenever rumour-mongers used the school grape-vine to promulgate an impending visit to the school.
It was within this framework of authoritarian leadership that our story begins.
“Bonjour (Hello)”, Mr Prentiss stated brightly. We always commenced our language class with greetings spoken in French.
“Bonjour Monsieur Prentiss (Hello, Mr Prentiss)”, we stated in unison, each of us standing behind our chair.
“Comment allez-vous? (How are you?)”, he added, taking us all in with one glance.
"Tres bien, merci (Very well, thanks)", we replied, parrot fashion.
"Asseyez-vous, s'il vous plait (Sit down, please"), our teacher instructed.
We sat dutifully and waited for the lesson proper to begin.
“I have some news for you,” Mr Prentiss began. “Next week, the school inspector will be visiting us.”
Each of us groaned softly.
“It’s important,” he continued, “that we are fully prepared. He was once a teacher of French himself, so we must make sure that everything we say and do on the day is perfect.”
A chill ran down my spine. I dreaded the imminent visit, certain that the Inspector would catch me out for something, and I will be severely punished.
“So, starting today, I want each of you to work hard and make me proud of you,” Mr Prentiss pleaded.
We all liked Mr Prentiss. And we soon found out that the Inspector was really coming to assess his fitness as a teacher, not to assess us.
I was an average student, my knowledge of the French Romance language was limited to the bare minimum required to pass the vocal and written tests that I passionately dreaded.
Over the next few days I gave this matter serious thought. And then came the inspiration. I concluded that the best defence is a good offence. I would blindly try to answer each and every question.
The big day was here. As usual, we stood behind chairs, nervously waiting. Mr Prentiss entered, looking very dapper wearing the special suit he reserved for parent interviews. The Inspector followed, a tall “fifty-something”, balding gentleman sporting a beard and moustache, with pince-nez glasses accentuating a thin face. He carried a leather briefcase, held closed by two straps.
The ritual started. “Bonjour”, came from Mr Prentiss.
“Bonjour Monsieur Prentiss,” was our reply.
We dutifully responded with “Très bien, merci.”
“Asseyez-vous, s'il vous plaît”, Mr Prentiss pronounced, and we sat.
“This is Mr Rogers, our District Inspector,” he stated as an introduction to the proceedings.
The Inspector nodded in our direction and stared at our teacher. Mr Prentiss appeared on edge, probably because he was worrying about us.
The Inspector took his place behind a desk at the back of the room, where he had full view of all that was to follow.
“Good, now let’s see,” Mr Prentiss began. “I will write a word on the blackboard and ask something about it to the first person who raises their hand.”
Sir took a stick of white chalk and, rather unevenly, wrote “menteur (liar)”.
“Right.” He turned to face us. “Who wants to try?”
I knew this one. In English it’s mentor, someone smart that teaches, like a teacher.
Up went my hand immediately.
“Okay, George, am I a menteur?”
“You’re the best in the whole school, sir,” I blurted out cheerfully. “I even heard the headmaster say that menteurs such as yourself don’t come around too often.”
“What?” Mr Prentiss retorted, momentarily incapable of speaking further. But I sensed that he may have figured out my game.
“Let’s move on, now,” he said, after finding his voice.
I stared hard at the next word he wrote, “bras (arm/arms)”. Was he joining the game?
Mr Prentiss, still ostensibly unnerved, slowly asked, “What about this one?”
“Of course,” I mumbled to myself, “it has the same meaning in English.”
I was taken aback that a teacher should write that word, but my hand shot up again faster than anyone else’s.
“Yes, George,” was the acknowledgement from the teacher. “Tell me, when I write on the board, are my bras moving?” He barely concealed a smile.
I was nonplussed.
“Think, George. Please tell the whole class how many bras you have,” sir stated, now knowing which direction to take.
“Er, none, I think, sir. I’m not sure,” I stammered.
An interval of silence was the prelude to the next question.
During these proceedings I had been surreptitiously observing the Inspector. There was a copious amount of note taking as his fountain pen furiously raced across the page.
“Last one,” Mr Prentiss announced, after he wrote “facteur (postman)”.
“Too obvious,” I thought, my mind taking me to the mathematics word, ‘factor’. My hand rose again, albeit hesitantly, but again fast enough to earn the right to answer.
“George, since you are so keen to answer everything, let’s change it around a little. Use ‘facteur’ in a sentence, but say it in English.”
“Sure, sir,” I replied, thinking this was an easy task.
“My house is number 6, and it has four facteurs in it,” I offered confidently.
“Are they related to each other?” Mr Prentiss asked, quite puzzled.
“I don’t know about that, sir,” I confessed. “You’ll have to ask our maths teacher.”
“Does he live there, also?” sir quizzed.
“Lives where?” It was my turn to be puzzled.
“At number 6,” answered the confused teacher.
“No, only me, my mum and dad live there,” I tried to explain.
This farce continued for several more minutes, until the Inspector stepped authoritatively to the front.
“Mr Prentiss,” he interrupted sternly. “You obviously lack a number of critical teaching skills. Sit down and observe how a lesson should be conducted.”
Mr Prentiss sheepishly sat where the Inspector had been sitting earlier, no doubt contemplating the end of his promising career.
“Attention, class,” the Inspector began. “I want someone to demonstrate their knowledge of two words by using them both in a sentence written in French.”
“Both words must relate to the sea.”
The Inspector sat down at the front desk and waited for a response to his challenge.
This was my chance for infamy.
“Sir, I think I know,” I said, as I raised my hand.
“Ah, it’s George again, I see. Very well. Come to the front.”
I was handed the chalk and began to write, in large letters, a single sentence.
“la coque aime un phoque”
“The sea-shell loves a seal”
The following year, radical initiatives were implemented that overhauled the teaching of French. Mr Prentiss went on to many years of happy teaching and the hapless Inspector enjoyed many years of therapy, refusing to ever step foot in our school.