Miss Battleaxe entered the classroom. Strangely enough, she didn’t suddenly appear out of the blue, but came down the corridor slowly, and sat quietly at her desk. Perhaps she was unwell, or the police had refused to return the metal ruler they had confiscated from her on our trip to the zoo? Whatever it was, she wouldn’t have told us anyway.
‘Now,’ she asked, ‘Do we have three volunteers to help Mr Brush, our caretaker (or janitor), after the parents’ meeting tonight? You’ll only need to be here for an hour or so, and there may be some treats for those who stay behind.’
At the sound of the word ‘treats’, Basil Burlap perked up, as did Danny Dingbat, the class dunce. And then, before I knew it, they had volunteered and included me in their work party.
‘Why did you volunteer me?’ I asked Basil.
‘Well,’ he said’ ‘We were coming back to have a kick around on the sports field this evening, and we can still do that. Then we can help old Brush, and get our reward.’
The guests, that evening, were parents who were undecided about which school to choose for their children. Several girls had volunteered to escort them around the school, before they listened to a talk from Mrs Whiplash, the head teacher.
‘Why can’t we do that kind of work, Miss?’ asked Basil.
‘Because girls are far more intelligent, smarter and cleaner than boys,’ replied Miss Battleaxe. ‘Mrs Whiplash wants us to make a good impression on our visitors. She doesn’t want to see a queue of parents edging towards the fire exit. ’
‘But it’s not a girls school,’ protested Basil.
‘I know that, dear boy,’ added Miss Battleaxe, ‘And more’s the pity.’
Later, that evening, the three of us came back to school and knocked a football around on the sports pitch until the parents started to leave. Mrs Whiplash stood on the stage looking very pleased with the way the evening had gone. At least someone hadn’t stuck a sign saying ‘Visitors WC’ on her office door. The four girls stood at the entrance to thank the visitors for coming and to wish them a safe journey home. Among the first to leave was a tall man in a grey suit. He stood watching us for about half a minute and then asked in a rather pompous voice,
‘Do you children have permission to be on the sports field at this time of night?’
‘Yes Sir,’ replied Basil, ‘We are part of the school’s security team, and playing football is just a disguise.’
‘Explain yourself, young man,’ demanded Grumpy Grey Suit.
‘Well, we keep an eye open for anyone damaging or nicking cars from the car park.’
‘Yes,’ added Danny Dingbat, ‘It’s a bit rough around here. Even his dad’s in jail.’
He was, of course, pointing to Basil Burlap and not me. The man in the grey suit looked stunned and headed off in the direction of his car. He was probably having second thoughts about sending his precious child to the Martin Bormann Academy.
With the hall emptying, we began to move chairs back to their classrooms. The real flowers at the front of the stage were placed in Mrs Whiplash’s office; the rows of fake flowers, which included some plastic cannabis leaves, were stored backstage. Then Mr Brush gave us a couple of large brooms and we swept out the hall, the stage and the buffet area. Mrs Whiplash said that there was a pile of cakes and sandwiches for us in Mr Brush’s workshop. On hearing this news, Basil Burlap perked up considerably and insisted on carrying all the rubbish sacks out to the bins.
Mr Brush had a radio in his workshop. While we were greedily tucking into cream buns and ham sandwiches, the radio announcer introduced the next programme which was called ‘Top of the Class’. This was a general knowledge quiz for teams from different schools. Mr Brush said he liked the programme and listened every week but found most of the questions quite hard to answer. We’d never heard of it because we rarely listened to radio in the evenings, and were much more likely to be watching TV. That evening, there were three teams competing to be ‘Top of the Class’, the Royal Victoria and Albert High School, Ponsonby Manor Science College, and Pegs Lane Community School. It didn’t take us long to work out the losing school even though the quiz hadn’t even started. We decided to stay and listen which pleased Mr Brush as he thought he might get a few more questions right.
‘Don’t count on it,’ said Danny Dingbat.
The questions were set for students a year or two ahead of us and we found them quite hard. Sometimes, they were multiple guess questions, such as What is the capital of Finland: (i) Oslo (ii) Madrid or (iii) Helsinki? or, Which planet is nearest the sun: (i) Mercury (ii) Jupiter or (iii) Mars? We liked the multiple guess ones because at least we had something to offer even if it was wrong. With other questions, however, you either knew the answer or you didn’t. What is the cube root of 27? How many squares are there on a chess board? How many players are allowed to score in a netball team?
We learnt that a cyclamen was not a roman soldier or a mechanic, but a flower, and that a mosaic was to be designed, not danced or eaten. At one stage, the presenter asked one of the teams to name the miller’s daughter who had to spin straw into gold. As quick as you like, Danny Dingbat answered Rumplestiltskin and was the first one in the workshop to gain a point. Later, we were to discover that there was rather more to Danny than meets the eye. Mr Brush said he had a trick for remembering things. When you learn something new, try to link it with something silly and it will stick in your head longer. For example, when we discovered that Canberra was the capital of Australia, he said think of a thirsty Aussie drinking a can of beer. Basil Burlap said his brother taught him how to remember that guitar strings are tuned to EADGBE by saying Elvis Ate Drugs Good Bye Elvis. Mr Brush said he didn’t play a guitar, but if he ever took it up, that seemed like the kind of thing that would help.
The competition came to an end and we had tried to answer every question even if we didn’t do very well. We had also discovered some interesting facts, like snakes have 200 teeth, a pregnant goldfish is called a twit, and women blink more often than men. To the sound of a trumpet fanfare, the quiz presenter than announced the winning school. Our prediction was completely wrong; Pegs Lane Community School won by a mile and hurled their lucky mascots at the losers.
A few days later, Miss Lovelace, who is very pretty and easy going, was taking our class for general studies. Whenever a teacher is off sick, we get general studies. This time it was Miss Battleaxe’s turn to be away, and Miss Lovelace announced that we would have a general knowledge quiz. There would be several small teams and each team would take turns at answering questions. If a team couldn’t answer the question, another team could try and gain an extra point if they got it right. As usual, Winnie Wickers, Greta Grunge and Jasmine Juxtapose, all got very excited and soon formed teams for the competition. Basil Burlap, Danny Dingbat and myself found ourselves in the same team at the back of the class because no one wanted to pick us.
Miss Lovelace explained that some of the questions would be rather hard because they were intended for older pupils. Winnie Wickers and the brainy ones all rubbed their hands together with pleasure. We didn’t pay much attention to the first couple of questions until one of the teams couldn’t say which planet was nearest the sun. Without thinking, Basil Burlap put up his hand and said ‘Mercury.’ The next question, which was ours, was the number of squares on a chess board. We all looked at each other and said ‘64.’ Something funny was happening, and it became clearer as Miss Lovelace fired off more questions. How many snakes do teeth have? What is the capital of Australia? Do you eat, dance or design a mosaic? It gradually dawned on us that she was using all the questions from the radio quiz ‘Top of the Class’; the very programme which we had listened to in Mr Brush’s workshop.
‘Don’t say a thing,’ whispered Basil Burlap as our team started to build up a good score.
The next question was about the name of the miller’s daughter who had to spin gold from straw. Greta Grunge and her tongue poking friends shook their heads and the question passed to our team. Danny Dingbat immediately shouted out ‘Cinderella.’
As everyone laughed, we looked at him in amazement.
‘You knew the right answer the other day,’ I whispered. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘But we musn’t keep giving the right answers,’ whispered back Danny, ‘Or they’ll know we’re up to something.’ That was the moment, we discovered there was rather more to Danny Dingbat than we had realised. Despite throwing in the occasional and deliberate wrong answer, our team continued to collect points and no one said anything. Sometimes, we pretended to be discussing the question and said things like ‘Gosh, Miss, that’s a tough one,’ or ‘I read about this in the library during playtime.’ At the end of the classroom quiz we were the winning team, and everyone applauded us, apart from Greta Grunge and her tongue poking friends.
‘Well,’ said Miss Lovelace, ‘That was A+. I must let Miss Battleaxe know about your amazing general knowledge skills when she returns. Unfortunately, we haven’t got any prizes today, but I’ve got an idea which may surprise and please you,’ With that mysterious statement, she left the room while we punched the air and called out ‘Give me five!’ Danny Dingbat said that he’d never been given an A+ for anything, apart from his blood group.
Miss Battleaxe was away for some time. In her place we had a teacher from the USA, Miss Tanya Tenafly from Tallahassee. She was great fun and taught us the correct way to pronounce lots of words, like aluminum, math, and leisure (as in seizure). She showed us how American schoolchildren give an oath of loyalty with hand over heart and facing the flag. The nearest we had to that was ‘God Save the Queen’ which was sung at the start of the cup final or to empty a cinema. Miss Battleaxe returned on prize giving day. She looked a little pale but assured everyone she was much better and ready for action. In a strange way, we had missed her, but not a lot.
Basil, Danny and I sat at the back of the hall as different students were called up to collect their prizes for being top in different subjects, for being punctual, or for being well-behaved. To our relief, none of us got a prize for ‘effort’ because we knew this meant that, despite trying your heart out, you were still a dimwit. Then, to our surprise, Miss Lovelace called out our names and invited us to join the prizewinners proudly clutching their books and certificates. Confused and puzzled, the three of us trudged up to the stage, and wondered what we had done to deserve a special mention at the annual prize giving. Even Miss Battleaxe, who had only just returned, glared at us in suspicion.
‘The three boys who stand before you,’ gushed Miss Lovelace, ‘Gave a truly remarkable performance in a recent general knowledge quiz. As a result, they have been chosen to represent our wonderful school in the new ‘Junior Top of the Class’ radio series to be broadcast later this year. I think they deserve a warm round of applause.’
During the cheers which followed, we exchanged sickly grins. No one noticed that Miss Battleaxe had fainted.
Tony Crowley (c) 2011