Thursday, 11 July 2013
For five years, between 1953 and 1958 I was a pupil at a run down Secondary Modern School in Hampshire. The first three years of that schooling were grim and dispiriting ones. The teaching team, led by an ineffective and irascible man, seemed disheartened and struggled to find ways of engaging us in the classrooms. We in turn, being 11+ scholarship ‘failures’ and subversive to boot, disrupted their attempts at pupil control whenever we glimpsed a chance. I for one, frequently removed from class, spent many hours during those years standing, or working alone at a table, outside the Head’s door gazing into the teeming aquarium, placed there as entertainment for visitors. I heard and saw many canings and was familiar with the range of beating sticks he kept in his cupboard.
I lost all my friends when the great sheep/goat separation happened at the age of eleven and the effect of that crucial loss, in addition to the abiding sense of not measuring up to expectations, left me mute, mulish and deeply hesitant.
Then in 1956 Mr ****** arrived at the school as our new Head and in his enthusiastic wake came a distinctive uniform, a school badge with a motto, a new curriculum, the opportunity to sit national exams, refurbished classrooms, new books etc. He even introduced a school song, Forty Years On which we sang each Friday and which ironically, I realised later in life, was ‘borrowed’ from Harrow School.
But for my class, by then just entering the 4th year, the most joyous and momentous thing of all was the coming into our lives of a newly appointed teacher Mr ****. He was a Cambridge graduate whose beliefs in how Secondary Modern kids could achieve, led him to our ailing school and our classroom. His instant and constant belief in us brought about some kind of wondrous alchemy. We were transformed from a disaffected group of pupils into one that wanted to show our clever, kindly, attentive teacher that we valued his friendship and his teaching.
I remember the frisson of his opening up his bashed up brief case each morning, his full name and Cambridge college inked on the inside flap. It would be heavy with our books and we knew that, on opening our own, his encouraging comments would nourish us. Those comments were real gifts to young people whose work had never been much valued.
That teacher was the most significant person in my school life. His belief in me, his passion for literature, his youthful coolness, his quiet caring, will always remain. He taught me French poetry (I still chant on sleepless nights, ‘Rappelle-toi Barbara….’), how to read a novel and a Shakespeare play, how to write a critical essay, how to love words, how to make a cogent point, how to value others and to feel valued….. and above all, how to look forward.
In after school chats he impressed upon me that I should not leave school at sixteen but after ‘O’ levels, must move on, not only to join old friends in the Sixth Form of the Grammar School but also how I should set my sights on Higher Education. He gave me, in his quiet committed way, the confidence to slowly, slowly achieve those things.
So I did move on. I trained as a teacher, taught for thirty years, studied at the Tavistock, did a Higher degree and became a University Lecturer.
Now, retired but still working with children and books, taking stock of a life filled with teaching other people’s children, bringing up my own, I find myself thinking about where I would have been, would be now, without the timely wisdom and guidance of an inspiring teacher.
(Copyright of the Author, not to be reprinted without permission)