Terence Blacker: Don't worry about a few swear words...

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The Independent Online

By an odd but telling piece of timing, two incidents relating to the inappropriate deployment of the English language have made the news on the same day. The American model Caprice appeared on ITV's This Morning, puffing her appearance in The Vagina Monologues, now almost a compulsory career move for the credibility-conscious female celebrity. Referring to one of the sillier segments of that gruesomely sentimental show, she let drop what we are obliged to call "the c-word". "One of my monologues is called 'Reclaiming c***.' It is very challenging," she said. A single viewer rang to complain.

Meanwhile Mr John Cole, a teacher from Little Wenlock, Shropshire, currently between engagements, is in deeper trouble. One of the first people to appear before the newly-formed General Teaching Council, he is accused of professional misconduct, most particularly in his deployment of language.

According to the prosecuting solicitor, terms such as "bastard", "shit" and "wanking" were to be heard in the classroom at the Grange School in Shrewsbury. Nothing too unusual there, you might think, but the problem was that it was the teacher, allegedly, who was using them. In addition, Cole referred to his charges in a manner that was not entirely affectionate. One was "Midge", another "skiving git". Apparently, a pupil was likely to be asked not to show his stupid face in class again.

In a game if somewhat desperate defence, the teacher argued that the bastard reference could have occurred during a discussion about illegitimacy. As for the wanking problem, that almost certainly occurred during religious instruction when Mr Cole had been trying to explain that moment in Genesis when Onan casts his seed on barren ground.

On occasions such as these, one risks appearing old-fashioned. With American babes talking dirty on daytime TV, it seems odd that the full force of the educational establishment is ranged against a teacher who called someone a midge and allowed a bit of street language to pass his lips. Although it was unfortunate that it occurred during a Bible reading class, Mr Cole might argue that he believed it was important for today's Church of England to speak to kids in their own language.

To anyone brought up at a time when teachers were not only allowed to do exactly what they felt like in the classroom, indeed actually seem to be employed on the basis of their eccentricity and incipient sadism, worrying about a few swearwords seems distinctly odd.

Had the inspectors of the General Teaching Council been around to visit the boarding establishment where I spent much of my childhood, they would have encountered far stranger and more robust teaching methods than those said to have been used by Mr Cole.

The English master liked to tug boys' hair as they tried to answer a question. The man who taught Latin was gentler: he would ask a boy up to his desk and insert a cold left hand under the child's shorts, accompanying his questions of grammar with tender pinches of the buttock – an unconventional teaching method, but one that worked surprisingly well.

The moustachioed colonel in charge of maths would, if he detected what he called "backchat", turn dark purple and hurl a wooden duster with all his force at the miscreant. The history teacher, said to have been rather shaken up in the war, would dive under his desk whenever he thought he heard an aeroplane flying overhead.

This madhouse was run by a headteacher who had an unquenchable enthusiasm for caning boys until they were black and blue and unable to sit down.

Maybe this sort of thing still goes on in grim, beautifully appointed private boarding schools. If it does, I hope Mr Cole will apply for a job at one of them and bring the joy of light swearing to its unfortunate little inmates.

terblacker@aol.com

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