Forty-four years after I left school, I still find myself thinking of some of my teachers and the things they said. I am tempted to say they don’t make them like that any more.
Some of them are certainly dead by now. Old George, who taught me history, had retired at least twice before he taught me. Some are certainly still alive, some being fresh out of university. (Quite obviously in a couple of cases.)
I was seven years at a 450 year old boys’ grammar school, now a sixth-form college. (Gasp! There are…… girls there!) Latin and optional Greek were taught, but there were good modern science facilities. It was formal (we wore uniform until we left at 18) but, despite rumour, I think there was no use of anything as archaic as the cane. Describing the school is however not the point. To the teachers.
I am still grateful to Mr Pilgrim. I hazard a guess that, like others, he had been in the army. He was a PE teacher. We hated him. He was nicknamed Bas, because it was felt he was a real Bas****. There was a biblical spoof about him that went: “In the beginning there was a piece of wood. Out of it I made the gym. My gym. And in my gym, all boys are equal. Except for my son Bruce, for he shall be more equal than others.”
I did very poorly in my second year maths exams, and ended up, to my horror, in a set taught by Mr Pilgrim. He was superb. He was calm and controlled. Best of all, his explanations were clear and understandable. I did really well, and ended up years later with half of my degree in mathematics. Mr P., I wish I had searched you out and thanked you.
Then there was the incredible rarity, a maths teacher, who told us to call him by his Christian name (but who nevertheless had complete control). He regarded triple maths A-level sessions last thing on a Friday afternoon as a cruel and unusual punishment, so we’d end up discussing apartheid (he was South African) and music.
Classroom control is a funny thing. Miss Old, a very old-school (and very good) English teacher had it, without ever raising her voice, or ever, as I remember, making an effort. You would just never have thought of messing her about. Others could shout, bluster and punish, but never gain respect.
Then there was Mr Martin, known rather unfairly as Spock, because of his ears. He taught English. He introduced me to Shakespeare, as well as Hardy, Browning and E. E. Cummings. OK, all but the last were set authors; but quietly he enthused me with a love I have never lost.
We did art lessons in a little hut, for some strange reason. The teacher was R.T Hull, known as Arty Hull…. get it? I enjoyed art, but the best gift he gave me was his part of some ‘Integrated Studies’ sixth form lectures, which introduced me to modern art, and especially Monet. (The same series also introduced Satie and philosophy.)
In chemistry Mr Arthur (for forgotten reasons known as Dan) has left me with words I still use to my children. “Sir, do we have to do…. (whatever task we thought unnecessary), Sir?” To which his answer was always: “Smith; you don’t have to do anything in this world.” The inference was clear. He also recommended a bucket of sewage as the very best fertiliser and made us jump off our stools when he left some unstable iodide compounds on a radiator. He had the greatest pair of eyebrows ever.
The nicknames were a very traditional phenomenon. Alliteration was a favourite, as in Percy Porlock. (From him comes another memory: “Smith, there was a dirty great trap waiting there for you, and you fell into it with both feet, didn’t you, Smith?”) Real or imagined first names were popular. Physical attributes were favoured, too, as in Spock, and also Hitler, a German teacher with a conveniently Hitler-like moustache. If all else failed, euphonious initials were good, like for Ras who taught PE with Bas. Sometimes the name itself worked, as for Mr O’Connor, known universally as Okie: who sadly died at the end of our second year.
Last I will mention Jim, the music teacher. He was very traditional in his material, but I’m still grateful for having to learn how to construct a scale. He played us music as well. He was apparently a very good jazz pianist as well as a church organist. Best of all, from his end of term free-for-alls he left me the life-long love of Django Reinhardt.
There are so many more I have left out or forgotten. Many of them- perhaps most of them- taught very well. A few were rubbish, some in the wrong job. One of the reasons I started teaching was that I thought I could do better. Fool.
(The photograph is of Julius Axelrod. I know very little about him, but I recognise a benzene ring when I see one. Thanks, Dan)