I have decided to start writing about specific characters who impacted on my life-mainly brief sketches. The first is one of my high school teachers
Even after all this time I can’t say Brian Hopper—he will always be Mr Hopper to me. Which probably means that some part of me is still that 15-year-old who was awed by this big, slow-moving man. Movie-star handsome, built like a brick shithouse and always immaculately dressed, he had gravitas to spare. He took over our year 10 classroom for maths and science like some general with the power of life and death. His was a very quiet room, and I can’t recall anyone taking him on, not even the class smart-arse, who stayed wary like the rest of us.
I guess he was not yet 40, which in those days we thought of as middle-aged. He had a stiff right arm, legacy of leaning it on the window-sill of the car when he was driving. Hit by another car, he was lucky to keep the arm, but his football career was over. South Australia may not be the centre of the sporting world, but in 1961 a guy who had been a star forward for Glenelg Football Club, before being cruelly sidelined by his injury, stood on a pretty big pedestal even before he displayed his teaching skills.
Which were very good, now I stop to think about it. With a deep, clear voice, and mastery of the black-board, he took us through facts, theories and problems at a measured pace, always checking we were with him. Sometimes he would stand behind your desk, put his big hands on each side of your book, and softly growl something like ‘Show me how this equation works; I just want to be sure you’ve got it. Take your time.’ Over a few weeks, blind terror would gradually be replaced by the feeling you were in safe hands.
But the incident that always brings Mr Hopper to my mind is one that affected my self-esteem for many years. I should set the scene by admitting I was a very lazy boy, relying on my smarts to get me through with reasonable results without ever pushing myself. One day I’ll make sense of that, given that it doesn’t look anything like the adult I became, but it won’t change the student that Mr Hopper found in Class 3A in Mount Barker High School. He’d let me know a few times he was unimpressed with my efforts, telling me that with my brains I should be at or near the top of the class. This day, he was checking our maths homework, set the day before.
Not unusually, after hanging out at my best friend’s place, I’d had a great night listening to the radio, then read a book. Homework could wait until I got to school, when I’d race through the exercise just before maths class. By the time I realised it wasn’t working out, because I hadn’t been paying attention the day before, there he was, coming up my aisle. I started working on an excuse—I was quite gifted in that department. I polished the story as he spent time with the boy in front of me, patiently explaining his errors and helping him get it right. Then he turned to me. As I started to speak, he made a hushing motion with his hand. After a few seconds silence, he said quietly ‘Meldrum, I just don’t care.’ Then walked past me to the next student.
It happened so quickly that I’m not sure if anyone else noticed. But that moment has stayed with me ever since. I felt like the least of my fellow-students, a privileged, clever but spoilt and weak person who wasn’t taking anything in life seriously. I was wounded, starting to concoct defences in my mind, but not believing them. And I think that part of me that pipes up in my psyche, sometimes even now, to say ‘Any minute now they’re going to be on to you’ was shaped on that day. The hot flush when I was criticised, the angry retorts when people close to me would say I wasn’t trying hard enough, were all about trying to throttle that awful feeling that flooded me when Mr Hopper told me I wasn’t worth his effort.
Was that good teaching? Or just a moment of exasperation from a busy man? Was he particularly irritated by me, or barely aware of my presence? I have almost no insight into him as a person. I can’t even remember if he seemed happy, although I do remember him the following year saying something gloomy about the Cuban missile crisis, when any well-informed adult had every reason to be scared. With his star-power, why was he a base-grade teacher at his age? How little I really know about someone who looms so large in my memory.
Whatever his reasons, he marked me that day. A few years ago, a colleague told me he saw signs of “imposter syndrome’ in me, the condition where deep down you think you’re faking it, or at least that people will think that. It didn’t make much sense to him given my generally solid performance and achievements. ‘Where do you reckon that started David?’ OK, I can weave my father and a few others into the answer, but as a simple explanation, Mr Hopper will do.