by Allan Hunter
When I was a teenager we had a history teacher called Mr. Carew-Hamble. Inevitably this elderly, tall, awkward and desperately short-sighted man was made fun of, and eventually condemned with the nickname of Screwy. His poor eyesight meant he couldn’t keep control of the back rows of any classroom, and his old-world dignity merely made us guffaw. Because of this he was relegated to teaching only those classes that were considered hopeless. Every year, so the rumors went, he was invited to tea with the headmistress, who would ask him if he perhaps felt he would like to retire. Every year he politely declined, saying he felt he still had a few good years left.
The rest of the school prided itself on having younger and more energetic teachers, the ones who could push us through our exams and get laudable results. Screwy in his tweed suit was in direct contrast to this.
One day, much to our amusement, we saw a notice that invited us during lunch break to visit the History Exhibit put on by Screwy’s class. The subject was World War Two (we all yawned at this familiar theme) and of course we knew Screwy had been in it. It was common knowledge that anyone could get him to digress from whatever lesson he was supposed to be teaching if only we asked him what the war was like. Standing around our classroom (it was raining, so we weren’t about to go outside) a bunch of us thought this might be a laugh. We’d get a chance to see just how bad this exhibit was.
We made our way in raucous spirits to the classroom a few doors beyond ours and entered to see Screwy slumped in his chair, looking blank. There, on the walls, were student projects about World War Two, with the obligatory maps, typed pages of exposition, red arrows showing advancing armies, and so on. Pictures of officers and soldiers were arranged, one or two with “my grandpa” written on tags below them. All pretty standard stuff, we thought.
Then we turned to face the back of the room.
There, laid out on tables were several empty artillery shell cases, some large fragments of shrapnel, a grimy and stained flag, and shockingly, four very used looking rifles. One had a sniper’s telescopic sight. Beside it was a rusted helmet. On one side of this was a single bullet hole. On the other a huge tear in the steel where the bullet had exited.
We were speechless. I think tears came to my eyes, but I wasn’t going to let anyone see that. It was clear that these were Screwy’s own collection, brought in especially. He’d been there, in the thick of it, and who knows what he’d seen, what he’d had to do. I for one knew that I had no reason to mock him now. The unmoving figure behind the desk was no longer the Screwy we thought we knew. He was a messenger from another time, telling us of things were fortunate to have avoided.
No one spoke as we walked back to our class.
Screwy may have been the butt of many jokes and in conventional terms was an utterly ineffective teacher when it came to getting pupils through exams. Even though I had other teachers I can honestly say I don’t remember much of the history I learned for my ‘O’ levels.
But none of us ever forgot the haunting, visceral lesson of that day. And I am forever grateful for that.
The name of the exhibit? Peace in our Time.