The Evolution of the “Duffer”

It was so easy to recognize a “duffer” in the good old days. I refer to my school days. (A “duffer” was almost always a boy.)

He was no good. At studies. Which is what mattered the most then. “Nothing would go into his head”. He was bad with memorizing and at times could not comprehend basic concepts or even what the teacher was saying in the class. He would look blankly all around. And it was easy to recognize him at first glance. His “dufferness” was stamped upon his physicality. Since he was so out of touch with books, homework, subjects, teachers and the horror of ideas, it reflected on his personality too. Invariably, he was badly dressed. There were yellow stains all over his white shirt. It seemed that it was washed only on alternate weekends. (Sundays, that is. The phenomenon of the weekend is a very late entry in my life and my vocabulary.) He always had a runny nose. And he was blissfully, understandably unaware of it. A thick line of mucus always bridged his upper lip and his nose. It never dripped ahead. As if his nose had decided to encroach upon only that centimetre of the territory. And the bugger didn’t know how to wipe it properly either. Both the hallmarks of his “personality” illustrate that he was assumed to come from a “poor” family. Everybody presumed that his parents didn’t have money to buy him another uniform and so he had to wear the same one to school everyday, that his parents couldn’t afford to take him to the doctor and have him cured of his cold once and for all. And he had made peace with that.

The duffer is one of my most unsettling memories. Everything about it — right from the word itself to the type of persons it was automatically associated with — is a very cruel joke. It is bursting with all sorts of prejudices that our parents were passing on to us. Not that the rest of us in the class were rich in the sense of being diametrically opposite to the duffer’s “poor” family. All of us, including the supposedly richest student in the class, were in one of the three conditions — below the poverty line, on the poverty line, and slightly above the poverty line. The prepositions, like the line itself, were fuzzy, blurred.

But what we could extrapolate from a reading of the “duffer” was that he was not a well-dressed person. Forget charisma and fashion; he couldn’t tuck his shirt in properly. He had no idea where his hair was going. He didn’t care how tight and small his clothes were for him. I was scared that I too would be sucked into that category when my pinafores refused to grow with me. That I was among the top five rankers in the class didn’t console me enough. Nobody was lavishly dressed: after all, what could you experiment with in that repressive, government-aided school that strictly controlled your body? But the point was to cover your bodies with handkerchiefs if the uniform was not enough. Oh, and the “duffer’s” nails were a different story altogether!

Bad clothes always added to the iconicity of the duffer figure. The story was ditto in my college years. That was the time when I wanted to be interested in the guys in my class but they were invariably, well, duffers. Not that they showed any intelligence or any personality either. So the duffer was a constant: it didn’t seem to change.

Until I began to teach…

I walked into my class as an assistant professor teaching papers in undergraduate courses. At first glance, everyone seemed interested, bright, and listening. A few weeks later, I was catching up with reality. Students who walked in with a personality — cool clothes, hairstyle, make up, bags, shoes — were almost never prepared for the class. They would doze off in the middle of a session. And I kept wondering, how could they be so sleepy now? After all the work put in to be dressed like that? Being dressed like that takes a lot of effort. It takes waking up for good. And then it takes good labour with an attention to detail, a certain level of mindfulness to get everything right. That sort of impeccability requires consistency. I am sure you can’t sleep with all that on. You surely need to work on it in the morning itself, before leaving for the college.

I had begun to doubt my teaching ability and had assumed that the students don’t like me much but it was the same story with the other staff members too. The students had bags but not their stationery or reference material. They looked like they were headed towards a celebration or a decent occasion but they were drowsy. They seemed to be coming happily, their clothes reflecting oh-what-a-lovely-day experience. But they were reluctant to be in the class. I wanted to dismiss this as laziness, hormones, coolness, indifference, rebellion and what not. An interaction with them, whenever it happened at an individual level, taught me otherwise.

They didn’t know their spellings, punctuation, syntax, grammar. And I am not always a stickler for these things. I was searching for some sort of conviction, some interest, some aptitude, some attitude, a little something in them. And gradually they struck me as similar to the duffers of my school and college days. They had no clue what was happening in the class. When asked to write a paragraph, they would write an essay (not the case of well-argued extensions of a paragraph, but a simple case of not knowing the difference between a paragraph and an essay). They would claim they were from “English medium” schools and around 13 years of that schooling had nothing to show for it. Again, this was not a case of language courses. It was true of every subject.

So the duffer has come a long way. He was in a minority — the hopeless kind that need not be bothered with because there were only a handful of such category. But now he has imploded into many bodies. Duffers now dominate the classroom — the plural making a lot of room for women students. You must be quite a duffer to write in the teacher assessment form that she is no good because she does not give any ready-made notes or answers. Even mediocrity implies a certain level of common sense — a sense of what can be considered as negative feedback. Dufferness beats all kinds of abominations like stupidity.

The duffer’s personality has challenged. You won’t be able to spot one by looking at her. It surely takes at least five minutes of conversation now. Duffers may have evolved now in terms of looks, but haven’t changed in terms of the vacuum in their heads.

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