A Vocation


Pupil: I’d prefer you to draw it though, and then explain it. If it’s no trouble, of course.


Teacher: I think you just like wasting time.


Pupil: But surely it isn’t wasting time if it will help me?


Teacher: Let me explain it first, and then if it’s not clear I’ll draw it.


Pupil: Please just draw it first. I’m what you’d call a visual learner.


Teacher: Pass the pencil.


Pupil: You don’t mind?


Teacher: Just pass it. So look, we have a train hurtling down this track.


Pupil: The stubbiest little train in living history.


Teacher: Why do you keep saying ‘living history’? Where’d you pick that up?


Pupil: I imagine somewhere.


Teacher: The train is flying down this track here. And it’s going to hit these guys who-


Pupil: It’s a runway train?


Teacher: Runaway, you mean. Yes, it’s a runaway train, and these five lads here-


Pupil: Of yeh, course, because a runway train would be full of models.


Teacher: That’s very sharp. I thought you said this diagram would help you? It’s only distracted you so far.


Pupil: Is your girlfriend a model?


Teacher: No, she isn’t.


Pupil: Too fat?


Teacher: No, not too fat. She’d be too short though.


Pupil: Anyway, please go on.


Teacher: Don’t ask me about my girlfriend.


Pupil: Here comes this train.


Teacher: The train’s coming, and it’s going to wipe out these five chaps here, unless-


Pupil: What are they up to, anyway?


Teacher: Probably engineers. Though that’s not the crucial concern here.


Pupil: Or twitchers, maybe. Wait, is that what you call people who spend all day watching trains?


Teacher: Twitchers are bird watchers.


Pupil: Ok.


Teacher: Shall I carry on?


Pupil: Not very bright of them, is it, to stand about like that? Amateur hour.


Teacher: Listen, you’re wasting my time.


Pupil: A glib little saying, “amateur hour”. Aren’t you going to ask me where I picked it up?


Teacher: A glib little saying? And no, I’m not.


Pupil: Well then please, do carry on.


Teacher: Unless you pull a lever and divert the train onto this second set of tracks here. Where there’s just this one guy.


Pupil: The lone wolf of the engineering community.


Teacher: Yes, if you like.


Pupil: Would you mind drawing a control tower?


Teacher: Why?


Pupil: I need somewhere to sit comfortably while I pull this lever.


Teacher: You’re testing my patience now.


Pupil: I’ll draw it then. There you go. Although it’s got a sort of death camp feel now. It all suddenly feels chillier, don’t you think?


Teacher: I have to email progress reports to the agency.


Pupil: Do you know what the opposite of a death camp is?


Teacher: Detailing your work, engagement, what we’ve yet to cover.


Pupil: What’s the photographic negative of a death camp?


Teacher: What are you talking about?


Pupil: I asked you twice what you’d oppose a death camp to.


Teacher: Is that a real question?


Pupil: It’s a sanitarium.


Teacher: Very well.


Pupil: There’s one connected to where my family live in Moscow. Everyone who stays there smokes, though. So they can’t be getting that much better.


Teacher: We need to get this work done.


Pupil: Here comes the train.


Teacher: Yes, and it’s going to hit these guys here, unless you choose to flick your lever and divert it to this second set of tracks. So. Do you divert the train?


Pupil: And hit lone wolf here?


Teacher: And hit lone wolf here.


Pupil: Sure thing.


Teacher: And why is that?


Pupil: Because these guys are closer to my watchtower. It would kill the vibe around my tower if I let the train hit them, wouldn’t it?


Teacher: Did you talk like this to the last tutor?


Pupil: Try not to bring that colossal wreck into this. You know what he’d often ask me to do? To “use my head”. My head!


Teacher: What’s wrong with that?


Pupil: Ah, come now. Think about what he was asking of me! What was this imagined faculty that had declined the services of my own brain? I am a fucking head! No, keep that filthy dualist out of this. If you don’t mind, of course.


Teacher: Let’s stick to the exercise.


Pupil: Yes. Look, obviously saving five is better than saving one. Even a monster would concur with that.


Teacher: Which is a kind of moral reasoning based on…


Pupil: Keynesianism.


Teacher: Now we both know you don’t think it’s that. How depressing to come so late to this game of yours. You’ve been brilliantly convincing.


Pupil: Utilitarianism. And I’ve no idea what you’re implying by that.


Teacher: Lovely. So you’d make that choice. But now the plot thickens.


Pupil: The thot thickens, you mean.


Teacher: What?


Pupil: Well, that seems to be the general trend anyway, if Instagram’s anything to go by.


Teacher: I don’t understand why that’s funny?


Pupil: It’s not. Please, carry on.


Teacher: The plot thickens, because there’s a second scenario. Imagine there’s a bridge here.


Pupil: Hand. Pencil. Draw.


Teacher: Fine, then, a bridge that starts and ends here, built over this first track where the five friendlier engineers are working.


Pupil: No, no, not like that. Where’s the infinite care that should go into every piece of work we produce, as our teachers ask us for? This won’t do. Pass me that rubber please.


Teacher: Hurry up.


Pupil: Yours looked like it had been built in a real hurry. Mine looks planned out, see? Yours didn’t seem to have had a planning stage at all.


Teacher: Finished?


Pupil: You bet.


Teacher: At the top of this bridge, then, is a considerably fat man.


Pupil: Pass the pencil please- this calls for a professional. The considerably fat man will need even more care than the bridge.


Teacher: Hurry up.


Pupil: Big enough?


Teacher: You’re being ridiculous. Make him normal sized. You know your parents have asked to see any notes we make.


Pupil: Better?


Teacher: Better.


Pupil: Yes, much better. Seems like your fat shaming helped him along a bit. What’s his role, anyway? He’s probably too unfit to be darting around on the tracks with the others?


Teacher: He’s fat because he needs to be able to block the train should you decide to push him off this bridge.


Pupil: I’ll do nothing of the sort! Anyway, I rarely leave my watchtower these days.


Teacher: What are you talking about now? Can’t you just be serious for a second? Because we’re getting to the crux of the matter.


Pupil: Fine, I’m listening. But you’ve shocked me to my core.


Teacher: If you push him off this bridge, you’d be saving the group of workers here.


Pupil: Where does the lone wolf of the engineering world come into this?


Teacher: He doesn’t.


Pupil: Lone wolf is out of the picture now?


Teacher: Yes.


Pupil: Then I’ll need the old rubber to indicate that.


Teacher: Christ, hurry the fuck up!


Pupil: Your mask just slipped!


Teacher: Please, just hurry up.


Pupil: Not before you adjust your mask a little- your pain is still visible. I need that studious detachment that used to be your hallmark.


Teacher: Please, just get on with it. We’ve absolutely no time for this. But you’ve put up a great show, a really great show. You should throw yourself busily into some youth theatre.


Pupil: You feeling a little like Minerva’s Owl?


Teacher: What?


Pupil: Flapping your wings in the twilight of our lesson?


Teacher: What?


Pupil: You know, the idea that things are only understood once it’s too late. Minerva being the Roman goddess of wisdom, who was typically represented as a darling little owl. Off it flaps in the dusk, sure, but, you know, hate to ask and everything, and it’s probably none of my business, but is it perhaps too little too late? That sort of thing. Hegel is probably better on this than me.


Teacher: Listen, if you’re going to rub him out, get on with it.


Pupil: Yes, you’re right, can’t put it off forever. One of life’s dreamers, and driven out of it so brutally. Goodbye old friend.


Teacher: I guess we’ll just have to go over the hour until we’re done.


Pupil: If it comes to that, then I’ll understand. I’ll go anywhere you go.


Teacher: The trash you talk. I’d much rather we get this done in the remaining ten minutes.


Pupil: That seems to me the thing to strive for.


Teacher: So for this essay they’ve set you, you need to explain why it would be less acceptable to throw this man to his death than it would be to flip the lever in the first scenario.


Pupil: I feel like you’ve put me on the spot, but it just kinda like feels worse, you know, to kill something that’s bigger? How’s my valley girl accent?


Teacher: Distracting. And you won’t be awarded marks for that reasoning, but I suppose you know that already. I’ll be going now.


Pupil: No, you’re right, let’s be serious for a second. I just couldn’t throw that lump to his death, even if it meant saving the merry five. Couldn’t get my hands dirty like that. Yes, I see the instructive force of the thing now. Taken a while, but my eyes have been opened. There’s a qualitative difference, or at least I imagine there is felt to be one by those who have struggled merrily through this dilemma like I have, between flipping the switch and slaughtering the lump.


Teacher: There we are then. You’ve got all you need. Make sure you hand this essay in on time.


Pupil: We’ve still got a few minutes.


Teacher: I really should be going now.


Pupil: If you leave I’ll blow my brains out.


Teacher: What?


Pupil: Haha, come on now! With what indeed? I heard that line a film. Some blonde was irked by a husband’s double life. There were lots of shots of Central Park. He spent a lot of time brooding in this diner with a coffee he never touched.


Teacher: Why am I even here?


Pupil: The thing every tutee dreads hearing. Like sitting on a plane and having your pilot ask over the PA what it’s all ultimately for.


Teacher: I’ll see myself out.


Pupil: Aren’t you even going to set me a parting spelling test? My other tutor would do that. Consolidation of learning, and all that.


Teacher: I won’t bill for the whole hour.


Pupil: And that’s the thanks I get for refusing to do something monstrous?


Teacher: The agency will be in touch.


Pupil: I’ll head them off.



Pupil’s report:


With no family in sight, and with the prospect of yet another middling English boarding school all set to grudgingly accept me, I need some stability like that which Mr Gough is able to offer. Gough’s a distillation of everything true pedagogy should combine: a terse wit; a fanatic about his subject; a man who lets the teaching mask slip occasionally, who isn’t afraid to open up about his own life, who is prepared to let daylight, from time to time, in upon the magic.


We’ve covered some fantastically insightful topics, such as his girlfriend’s struggles with heightism in the modelling world, and the tragedy of male suicide, which he bore out with a terrible tale of a man who, after having gone to seed, found himself on a bridge facing the void below; we looked at the historically uneasy alignment of art and fascism, which I’ve no doubt he could example with another penetrating illustration of his- although the hour, as it so often does, bore down on us with its terrible weight at the point at which he’d been about to pick up the pencil again.


But of course the surest sign of improvement (and of a parent’s tuition money paying off) is the student’s ability to not only recall but apply what he’s covered. And this is what I’m proud of having done with Gough, and why I’m sure he’s the ideal tutor to lead me to success in all of my essay-based subjects. An example? During our first lesson we covered the bildungsroman (you know, that literary form which sees a gauche little waif develop into an impressive and mature adult). Well, I got the hang of the thing alright, and practice makes perfect, of course, so I thought: what better way to really get to grips with the bildungsroman than by turning our very lesson into one? So I played the ingenue at first (complex ideas slipping through my clammy grasp, that sort of thing) and slowly developed under Gough’s nose into one who can give a fairly decent account of himself.


The Goughster also has a great grasp of what makes a phrase glib and unattractive; he just seems to really care about the sentence. Which got me to thinking once he’d left about other sayings that I just can’t bear, such as when people who otherwise have no understanding of marine ecosystems or even the natural world in general talk in that satisfied way about whales breaching because they’ve heard it said by someone, somewhere, that that’s what whales do; or the positively medieval idea that muscle turns into fat; or calling anything that slows your progress Kafkaesque (two train delays, my dear friend, wasn’t what our Franz had in mind when he was busy allegorising the complex bureaucracy of Austro-Hungary, when he was busy seeing in advance all of the totalitarian madness of last century’s mid-point). Or perhaps the worst for me: I just don’t want to bring kids into this world– a world that has never been safer, saner or more hygienic. But of course kids will continue to be brought in by the boatload every minute- because, let’s face it, words are the cheapest thing there are.


In sum then (and I think this is the best thing one man can say of another): Mr Gough is not just someone I can happily share my desk with for an hour each week, but also someone I’d happily go for a beer with afterwards. If only the fucker didn’t keep rushing out the door!



Joe is an English, London-based writer, and a recent MA Literature graduate of King’s College London. He is currently writing a novel which will explore the lives of three generations of lighthouse keepers living on one of Georgia’s barrier islands throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

%d bloggers like this: