From Prep through to Grade Six, I attended a public school near my house. In Year Seven (the official point at which you stop using the term ‘Grade’ and start using the term ‘Year’), I moved to a new school – a private school – where we had to wear shirts and ties and have our socks pulled up at all times. On the first day of term, we all nervously trudged in through the large rusted gates of the campus, some of us holding briefcases to complete the look (these kids would (rightfully) have their heads stuffed into a bin before the end of recess) eager and ready to commence the next stage of our education.
My form teacher in Year Seven was a guy called Mr. Vergona, who remains to this day as one of the most demented, unstable people I have ever encountered. I also, given what I just said, should probably have changed his name. Oh well.
Mr. Vergona was an ex-VFL umpire in his 50’s. He was maybe five feet tall; he always wore immaculate designer suits and expensive designer shoes and would bang on about them at length. ‘See these?’ he would say, pointing down. ‘Sergio Rossi. No twenty dollar hush puppies from K-Mart for me!’
It’s worth highlighting that at the time, we were twelve years old. I only know what Sergio Rossi is now because I googled it just then. Also, he would pronounce ‘K-Mart’ in this really off way that I can still hear in my head. It’s hard to convey it exactly in words, but here’s as close as I can get: say ‘K’ out loud. Now wait one second. Now say ‘Mart’ out loud. Didn’t that feel and sound gross? We had to hear that at least three times a day for two years.
In addition to being unable to properly pronounce the name of a major department store, Mr. Vergona was also a strict disciplinarian. On our first day in his class, he laid down the law: ‘you are to speak only when spoken to. You are to raise your hand if you have a question. You are to address me only as “sir.”’
This last condition was terrifying to me. For reasons that are still unclear, I invented a scenario in my head wherein after strict conditioning from Mr. Vergona, I would find myself physically unable to stop addressing people/ animals/ inanimate objects as ‘sir.’ I imagined a life wherein I would be in the milk bar buying redskins, and after receiving my change I would say ‘thank you sir!’ Then I would walk outside and almost trip over a dog. ‘Sorry sir!’ I would say to the dog. In this invented scenario, my manners were like a form of Tourrette’s; my saying ‘sir’ to everything was unintentional and uncontrollable. I built this, my personal episode of Round The Twist, after just half an hour in Mr. Vergona’s company. That’s the kind of intense figure he was.
In addition to being our form teacher, Mr. Vergona was also our Latin and French teacher. He was obsessed with Latin, and everything to do with ancient Roman culture. Three minutes into our first class, he told us all about how he genuinely believed that he was the reincarnation of a Roman gladiator, who had perished in battle.
When we were in Year Eight, the motion picture ‘Gladiator’, starring Russel Crowe, was released in cinemas. Mr. Vergona went and saw it on opening night and told us the next day in class about how it “brought back so many painful memories” and that he was “weeping openly for the last twenty minutes of the movie.”
So this is all pretty wild stuff so far, and guess what: I’m not even halfway through describing him.
One of my school’s attempts to keep it’s students in line was a humiliating system of ‘reds and blues.’ We had to keep a diary with our homework in it, and if we did something good in a class, we got a blue; if we did something bad, we got a red. Four reds in one week equaled a detention. Six blues in a week equalled a school stamp. Four school stamps in one semester meant that you got a special pen with our school’s logo on it. Think about that for a second. If you regularly brown-nosed your teachers to the point of exhaustion, your reward was a pen. You have been literally the best student you could possibly be, for six months, and your reward is something that costs $1.10 at the newsagents.
Here’s the worst thing about this scheme: it worked. As I mentioned before, Mr. Vergona had previously been an umpire for the VFL. On the first day of term, he told us that there was a book in our school library that had a photo of him from his umpiring days, and that if we photocopied it and stuck it on our school diaries, he would reward us with (deep breath) two blues! Two of them! That’s halfway towards a school stamp! That’s one sixth of the way towards a pen! That’s one hundred percent of the way towards bugger-all!
At lunchtime, we all bustled in to the library, found this fabled book, and then gathered around the photocopier. As copy after copy was made, a UHU stick was passed around the group, and Mr. Vergona’s smiling mug was plastered permanently onto our school diaries, forever declaring to the world that we were mindless idiots, who would do anything for even the slightest hint of approval.
After lunch, we shuffled single-file back into our classroom, and showed Mr. Vergona our handiwork. He would nod approvingly and then pretend to be flattered and humbled by the fact that we had done something that HE ASKED US TO DO. Then he would open our diaries, remove the blue stamp from his desk drawer, stamp the page twice, sign his name underneath, feed us a delicious liver treat from out of his hand, rub us on the belly and say ‘good boy! Who’s a good boy?’ (I might be remembering that last part a bit differently to how it actually happened, but that’s definitely how it felt.)
Okay, I’ve almost finished listing the crazy things that he did.
Here’s one that seemed kind of normal at the time, but through hindsight’s harsh lens stands out as something that is abnormal: Vergona was a fanatical weight-lifter, and so in our second year in his ‘company’ he started up an after-school weightlifting program, where he would take a group of thirteen year old boys to our school gym and teach them the fine art of pumping iron. I could be remembering this wrong, but I think he may have charged each student a little bit of money to do it, which would certainly explain the cloak-and-dagger nature of the whole operation.
One time he caught a kid in our class, Charles, smoking during lunchtime, and when we returned to class, he lectured the boy at length. ‘Smoking is no good, son. It bloody stunts your growth! Everyone knows that!’ Charles’ response was admirably quick: ‘they say that weight lifting at a young age stunts your growth too, sir. Have you ever read up on that?’ The class fell silent. Mr. Vergona spun around, red in the face and peered up at Charles from the wrong side of five feet tall. Then he marched outside in a huff, only to return five minutes later and continue on with his lesson as if nothing had happened.
He was supremely proud of his body, and would brag about being able to do one hundred push-ups in one minute. This disturbing level of vanity masked a hidden bonus for us, the students: if we didn’t feel like doing work in class, all we had to do was say ‘Sir, can you show us again how you can do one hundred push-ups in one minute?’ Now, one minute of an activity on it’s own is not enough to waste a decent amount of time. However, Mr. Vergona’s sixty second workout carried with it a monologue that could (and would) go for anywhere from five-to-ten minutes (depending on how spry he was feeling) and would feature segments of the Mighty Mouse theme song, sung at full volume, in Vergona’s impressively operatic voice.
You may be wondering how someone so cartoonishly out of his mind managed to get away with this kind of behaviour in front of an age group not traditionally known for their maturity and social graces. That’s a fair question. Here’s the answer.
It was obvious to anyone, no matter how inattentive, within three minutes of meeting Mr. Vergona that he was wearing a wig. So obvious in fact, that during our first lesson with him, a particularly daring kid in our class called Ralph (seriously) put his hand up and asked ‘Mr. Vergona, are you wearing a wig?’ Needless to say, Ralph got some reds for that one! No special pens for him, that’s for damn sure!
Anyway, one week later, the following rumour started circulating around our class: back in the day, Mr. Vergona had been a Year 12 teacher. One day, one of his students had pulled off his wig, as part of what he thought would be a hilarious prank (to this student’s credit, I think he was right.)
According to this legend, Vergona had then gone utterly apeshit and punched this student in the face. That was the reason that he was now teaching Year 7 students, instead of Year 12 students.
We had seen how crazy he had gone at the mere accusation of wig-wearing on our first day, so of course we believed it. It wasn’t until I was maybe twenty years old that I thought over that story again and first realised how obviously untrue it is.
For this rumour to be true, one has to believe that we live in a world where a teacher (to recap: a person whom a parent places in charge of their child for extended periods of time) who physically assaults a student who is in their care, is then punished not by trial in court but by being busted down a couple of ranks, not unlike a television detective who’s forgotten to file the right paperwork after a case.
My question in this scenario, if it is indeed true, is this: what if he then decked a Year 7 student? Is his punishment to then teach Grade 2 students? Presumably, that would put an end to the cycle; children in Grade 2 being too young to either properly notice someone wearing a wig, or recognise the hilarity to be had by yanking it off someone’s head.
As I get older, I find myself thinking about Mr. Vergona more and more. It’s only recently that it occurred to me that his quirks might have merely been affectations: manafactured to incite discussion in the schoolyard in order to cast himself as a mythical unhinged beast. Did this work? It’s hard to say. I should qualify all of this by saying that, for all his insanity, Mr. Vergona was an excellent teacher. I learnt Latin from him for two years, qutting after I realised it was a dead language (he would literally murder me in my sleep if he knew I’d said that) and nearly all of my friends from school are the same. In spite of having not looked at a single Latin textbook in over a decade, anytime I see people who were in that class, we can all conjugate a verb together without even having to think about it.
Maybe this was all part of some genius plan to stand out across the broad spectrum of his student’s academic career, a sort-of cross between Walter White and Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society. I hated him with a burning passion while I was at school, but I remember him now in enough detail to tell all these stories about him, and that’s way more than I can say for any other teacher I had.
It’s possible that this was by design. But then again, it’s also possible that he is merely a vain, beefed-up, violent little man, mentally incapable of such a cunning ploy to gain respect. Either way, wherever he is right now, for the sake of those close to him, I hope he’s found a way to keep his wig securely on his head.