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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

95. First post for 2012: Faux Pas/ Bloo Per

I was reading a posting on Blogfarm. It concerned a lecture on the topic of PUBLIC RELATIONS. The speaker's very first Power Point slide contained a simple error - the sort of error any time-starved public speaker can make during a hasty preparation: the letter L had been left out of the word PUBLIC.

It reminded me of a most regrettable public faux pas perpetrated by an old colleague of mine. As they used to say on "Dragnet": Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

It happened in the mid 1980s at a Secondary Technical school in Victoria, Australia. [At the time, State Secondary education had "high schools" for the academically inclined, and "technical schools" for those headed for apprenticeships in woodwork, fitting & turning and the like.] It was a co-ed school, covering years 7 - 11.
The new Assistant Principal, Mr. Powers, was being introduced to the students - and to staff - for the first time.
"School - attention!" said Mr Harvey, the teacher running the open air assembly. There was a shuffling of feet as the boys and girls took their time to 'stand to attention'. The 800 or so students stood in lines facing the raised platform at the front of the assembly. In the front row were the year 7 girls, and behind them, the year 7 boys; behind them were the year 8 girls ... and so on. Everything in good order.

This careful organization – with a place for everyone, and everyone in their place – was quite common in the 1980s. Many Australian schools in that era continued to have assemblies that ran on military lines.

"Stand at ........ ease," came the order. The working class kids did as requested, albeit somewhat sluggishly.

The new Assistant Principal came to the microphone. Students and teachers stood, waiting to hear what the new second -in-charge would have to say.

He began confidently. He had a booming voice. He'd come from a country school where discipline was highly valued. He was in his element.

"Good morning, school. I'm very pleased to be here. However, I did notice that some students did not seem to fully understand the para-military instructions being given by Mr. Harvey. Now, when you are ordered to 'Stand to attention', you should move briskly and efficiently, bringing your heels together with an audible 'snap'!"
And he proceeded to demonstrate, his back straight, hic chin up, his heels snapping together.
"Similarly, with the order 'Stand at ease' ..."

And he went on to demonstrate how to move from 'standing to attention' to 'standing at ease'. At this point - and one can only guess at what motivated him - he turned his attention to the year 7 girls standing directly in front of him.

"Now girls," he said, "I know that you are new to the school, and perhaps you don't yet fully understand what is required of you. Let me explain it clearly: When I tell you to 'Stand at ease’, I want you to spread your legs!"

Mr Powers paused. And what happened in the briefest of moments that followed was to haunt the unfortunate man for the rest of his time in the school. The teachers responded first - mouths dropped in disbelief, eyes rolled, some staff moved uncomfortably; a couple turned away, trying desperately to stifle their laughter. But the most common response was disbelief.

Among the students, the sniggers began at the very back of the assembly, among the Year 11 boys, and moved forward, a wave of stifled sniggering. Even some of the more street-wise, knowing kids at year 7 realised that Mr Powers had erred.

For his part, Mr Powers seemed to be unaware of why there was unrest among the troops.

"Settle down, settle down. Now let me explain a little further. These para military commands are essential to the maintenance of good discipline in a school ..."
Thus, and much more, Mr Powers.

Decades later, those who were present - when they get together for a reunion, to celebrate the 'good old days' - recall, with glee, Mr Powers' first speech at the school assembly.

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