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by Graham English

Jozef Maurer was a Hungarian who fled Hungary after the 1956 uprising. I met him when we were teachers together at Brigidine College. He was a very good Maths teacher. The staff and the girls liked him. Some of his Maths scholars were very gifted and he helped them love Maths. At least one has gone on to be a leading engineer.

Jozef and I were the only two males on the school staff except for the tennis coach. So we often sat in the staff room and yarned. He fascinated me. He told me that each afternoon after school when he was a teacher in Hungary he and a group of friends would sit in the same café and drink coffee while discussing politics, religion, economics and the state of the world. ‘If you wanted to find me after school you knew exactly where to go.’ It seemed to me the height of Eastern European sophistication and I envied him. I still do.

Jozef spoke excellent English though his pronunciation was not always orthodox. This showed in his teaching. The girls all pronounced ‘parabola’ with the accent on the second last syllable because that was how he pronounced it. He said to me one day that when he left Hungary for Australia he thought, ‘I am fluent in Hungarian, Russian, Latin, French and German. One more language will not be a problem. But,’ he added,’ I have not conquered English. It is harder than I thought.’

Jozef seemed to like people. He spoke well of them. Except for Communists. He detested Communists. One day he was telling me about how he gave up teaching in his last years in Hungary. ‘I went and worked in a factory making chain wire,’ he said. ‘Why?’ I asked.  I have done some manual work in my time and can see some of its virtues but I always prefer teaching. I am sure he did too. Jozef did not look like a factory worker. ‘Ah,’ he said, with an anguish I can’t hope to produce here, ‘they put an idiot in charge of my school.’ Jozef pronounced ‘idiot’ with the emphasis on the ‘o’. Id-ee-ot. It made ‘idiot’ sound even more stupid than it usually does. ‘They’ in this case were the Communist authorities and the way Jozef said ‘they’ made them all sound like ‘id-ee-ots’ too. ‘Why did they put an idiot in charge of your school?’ I asked. I too have known a few idiots to be put in charge of schools but I had the impression from the way Jozef told it that this was more distressing than the idiots I had experienced. This was not just an honest mistake by an education authority, it was malice aforethought. 

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘they think that ideological purity is more important than competence. They will put an id-ee-ot in charge if he is ideologically pure. They don’t really care if the school is ruined. They don’t want sound teaching, they want ideological purity. So I left teaching and made chain wire. Actually I made more money. I felt sorry for the kids being subjected to id-ee-ots, but I couldn’t stay and be part of it. Then in 1956 I had the chance to flee Hungary and now I teach Maths here where I am valued because I teach well.’

Jozef is now dead and I hope he is resting in peace. He deserves to be.

One of the signs of a seriously good teacher is that she or he teaches not only the students but also colleagues. Jozef Maurer taught me no Maths but he taught me about id-ee-ots. What he taught me is worth passing on because ‘they’ did not disappear with the Communists. ‘They’ are still appointing ‘Id-ee-ots’.

Graham English teaches in Sydney.

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