I was going about my business when my friend Stu, a painter and decorator, texted me out of the blue. The chap whose house he was working on had told him he was once my science teacher. Not Mr Macey, surely? Yes, Mr Macey.
I realised at this moment I couldn’t take the responsibility of being a teacher. I couldn’t bear the sheer weight of being indelibly embedded in the minds of your pupils for the long lives they go on to lead. It was more than 40 years ago that Mr Macey taught me, and I honestly think he’s come to mind, if only fleetingly, at least once a week ever since. Some teachers live in your memory less than others; some are in there for all the wrong reasons. Mr Macey was in there for all the right reasons, but my God he was scary. He was incredibly tall and sported a forbidding jet-black beard. He also had a strong north-eastern accent, which was something of a rarity in my part of the West Midlands and added to the overall don’t-mess-with-me aura. He was never without his Sunderland 1973 FA Cup-winners mug.
It fell to Mr Macey to teach us the facts of life. He was perfect for the job; such was our respectful fear of the man, there would be none of the sniggering often associated with such classes. Ahead of learning about our own reproductive organs, I seem to recall we kind of warmed up for the big day, in the weeks preceding it, by drawing diagrams of lupins. I was baffled as to the relevance of this but dared not question it. I had not come across the word “lupin” for four decades until the TV series of that name popped up recently. Obviously, Mr Macey came to mind.
Having mastered the lupin, it was time for the real thing. Word had got around the playground that this was the day Mr Macey would be really telling us what was what. As we filed into the science lab I was all a-tremble, fearing I’d be the one to involuntarily let out a snort of laughter.
The mighty mackem began by drawing a diagram on the board. It wasn’t of a lupin. “This,” he said, turning to us, “is a penis.” He paused, for what seemed like half a school day, before continuing: “And a penis is a penis.” The silence was complete. He may or may not have said: “Anyone got a problem with that?” But that was what his demeanour undoubtedly conveyed. If anyone did have a problem with that, they weren’t sharing it now. And no one sniggered. Silence reigned for another eternity before he cracked on with the class. Job done.
I don’t know how to put this but, not infrequently over the years, when I’ve caught sight of my own, I’ve been unable to stop myself hearing Mr Macey say: “This is a penis. And a penis is a penis.” Sorry, sir.
The other Mr Macey silence, which deafens to this day anyone who was there, occurred during a Subbuteo tournament the great man organised for us. This was something we were over the moon about; we talked of nothing else for weeks on end. Mr Macey even brought in his own Subbuteo team, hand-painted Sunderland colours. He refereed the matches; there was no dissent. It was as we gathered around to watch one particularly tense match, possibly a semi-final, that the calamity came to pass. A poor lad called Mark will to this day, I promise you, still be shuddering at the memory of what happened next. Craning to get a better view, this hapless spectator knocked the referee’s Sunderland 1973 FA Cup-winners mug off the table. No one in that room will ever forget the silence that followed the sound of it smashing on the floor and Mark’s heart-rendingly meek: “Sorry, sir.” I swear even the hand-painted Sunderland Subbuteo men were seen to wince.
Stu sent me Mr Macey’s number. I stared in joyful wonder at his WhatsApp picture. There he was, bar a greying of that magnificent beard, unsullied by age. I called him, and the mackem accent is still there too, as is the pain of that smashed mug. The memory of these things never fades.