For Mister, Read Teacher

In a way it is a kind of nosiness. It is nosiness that leads to information. In this way it puts to bed some grief. Also some love. Also some gratitude.

It has often been an unpleasure to write about school. Primary school was a different matter however. Much happiness and pleasure there was there. Secondary school was a wholly different matter.

There is no need to repeat much about it. There were many unfriendly moments. There were moments of misery. There were tentative friendly moments. There were some laughs. There was unfairness in plenty. There was bullying. There were people who should not have been teaching. In all it was harsh. Not a place for children. More a place for bare knuckle competition. Mathematics was a case in point.

There was never any trouble with mathematics. Arithmetic and all its branches was a pleasure at Primary School. We worked hard at all aspects of it. We even had a “Mathematics” book. In it we learned how to draw geometric and three dimensional shapes with some accuracy. We also learned about how to shift three dimensional figures on a plane surface. Measuring area was another joy. We learned every aspect of it. We multiplied. We divided. We added. We subtracted. We worked these principles in Vulgar Fractions. We worked these principles in decimals.

We had an enlightened Headteacher at Primary School. His Deputy was our class teacher. One day the Headteacher came in. He was smart. He always wore a good suit. His shoes tapped a good rhythm on the floor. He started to talk to Our Teacher. Suddenly our Headteacher started to write symbols on the blackboard. Only one of our number could understand what was happening. That was not I. It was a hot, uncomfortable and rude awakening. It was also worrying. However we trusted him and thought no more about it. We were going up to the Grammar school. We would learn all about it. In our innocence. And all would be revealed.

But it wasn’t.

In point of fact there was less reason to understand anything.

The new school and particularly the new school day disappointed. To say that is to understate the case. And more of that later.

Eventually it was Mathematics. As impressionable eleven year olds we were waiting to be wooed awed and wowed. Instead we were heavily shat upon. Our Mathematics teacher was in the guise of a Brother. A Religious Brother. He entered the room. He looked at us. Without smiling he invoked (God). He made us pray. Again. (There was a lot of praying). He then inveighed against us and our schools and our teachers.

We were not educated he told us. We were not taught properly he told us. We did not know anything he told us. That would all now change he told us. That was us told he told us.

Nobody spoke.

This ceaseless and shameful diatribe of disrespectful – but nicely delivered – insults continued for some time. He told us his name. A peculiar choice too. That of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Buried at Tynemouth. He gave us a book. Two books actually. One red and one blue. The blue one was to become a book of shame and hatred.

We were instantly placed on a Pure Mathematics course. It meant nothing. It still means nothing. It was a forced entry into an autistic and vomit-inducing world not of our making. It was unsympathetic. It was a calculated exercise. It was wrong.

After two years of this it was time for a change.

In all that time. In all that wasted time. There had been nothing taught and nothing had been learned. No help was ever offered. No credit for prior learning was ever forthcoming. Each child but the brightest imagined himself stupid. Worthless in this subject. Somebody was responsible for this. However when you are eleven going on twelve you do not complain. Not back then.

He belted hard too. The boy who sat next to me feigned a heart attack one day to get out of the lesson. The concorde-beaked brother-master had no sympathy. No sympathy for children and their difficulties. No sympathy for how children need to learn. It was pure imposition. Imposition of will. Nothing less.

Later in life I was to be horrified by this person again. I saw that he had attended a course in a town where I was at work. His online comments were so ignorance-based. It seemed to me that he had finally been sent to learn how children learn. I know that he did badly. I also realise that he was somebody who never ever ought to have stood in charge of a classroom full of children. Of any age.

After two years at the mill it was time to choose. Choice was king and lauded. Some subjects were compulsory. Some were optional. Everybody would take English, Mathematics, History, Geography, French, Religion, Physics. After that one chose. One chose from Spanish or Russian or German or Chemistry and Latin or Music or Art or Biology. These were big choices.

In fact our choices had been coming for a few weeks. We naively thought that we might be able to drop subjects that we did not like (Mathematics being an obvious favourite). However the explanations were not really forthcoming. What was presented as ‘choices’ was merely an exercise in timetabling. A possibility of employing people on a full-time rather than a part-time basis. The pupils were merely pawns to a brighter future for some masters.

We were warned not to pick what our friends were picking. This also nearly backfired. Never mind – or “never mind, eh?” as one of the more poncey Brethren entreated.

Strangely enough after all this faux choice and mock choosing it was the compulsory Mathematics that caused the surprise.

That September we met our new Mathematics teacher. We did not know that he taught Mathematics. We had already had him teach us Art. It would not be fair to name names.

In the Art room he had been friendly and helpful. He allowed us to draw. He encouraged us to work in oil pastels. He encouraged us in details. He encouraged us to see the background. But more than that he had himself done a drawing on the Artroom board in coloured chalks. It was a perfect representation of the downstairs of a corporation Leyland Atlantean bus. Looking outside through the windows of the bus was a street scene. It impressed us all. We had all sat there. It was a scene produced by real talent.

This was to be a member of a happy room. It was a happy class. Sir at the front was constantly around the class and helping everybody to achieve to the maximum. Nobody appeared to be disappointed this time.

But where had this Sir come from? We did not know. Plus this Sir just stayed in the Art Room. On the teacher’s chair was a flask. It was in a shopping bag. There would probably be sandwiches in there too. Home made sandwiches. This Sir was a Real Person.

Sir told us at the start of the lesson to get our work. We worked and the pace was relaxed. On one or two occasions there was some work not picked up. Sir called out his version of the name scrawled thereon. It caused an instant ripple of laughter. But why would he know how to say these names anyway? He did not know us. We him less still.

Some members of the class were cheeky. Cheeky in a financially confident way. The sort that only looks at what you have rather than what you are. The sort whose taste is all in the mouth. The conversation had turned to The War.

Looking back now I remember that some of the boys had been drawn to drawing military images. Sir did not really like this and tried to stir them to draw something else. “Were you in the War Sir?” asked somebody cockily. Having got no response, Cocky went in for a second front. Something changed in Sir. We went quiet. Sir hit. It was sad. But Cocky deserved his slaps.

It was not hard to sense that there was kindness there. It was equally not hard to sense that this was a sore topic. It did not come up again. Cocky passed a rude remark about it. Some who thought they were smart laughed. The less confident amongst us shuddered. The flesh crept on those of any sensitivity.

Our time in Art ended. We were allowed to take our work. I had learned from Sir how to make a background; how to make a reflection in pastels; how to make a vanishing point; how to shade; how to colour.

Mathematics started. Sir came in. He told us that he was slapping faces and hard. We were silent. He made us separate our desks. He took no register. He did not use our names. He just taught.

He told us that the Mathematics we had done in the first two years was not going to help us. There was a silent cheer. Tacet relief rang out. We worked our examples. We folded our pages in half. We saved paper. We worked in silence. We went a year. We did two examinations. We all learned something. We could use our prior knowledge after a fashion.

We played a tiny trick. It was affection. It was not out of malice. There was no malice. In either direction. Sometimes there was a bit of dissent. It did not get very far. Sometimes Sir gave us good copy. A pupil had an aluminium comb and pinged one of the teeth absent-mindedly. “Who’s godda dulicmer?” Sir asked. Another time someone purloined his chalk box and passed it round the class. He went through all the lesson and stopped a few minutes early. “Who’s got me chalk?” he asked. The dulcimer player offered it up. “You must have dropped it,” he said. “WhaddayameanAmustadroppedit?” Sir asked. But there was no malice. No slaps. Even a time of chronic and foul wind produced the immortal line “Who stenched?”. We did not dare laugh. Not until afterwards. Sir was easy to imitate. But the little sillinesses of children turned to affection. The hand over the door left ajar just enough to suggest naughtiness. But there was nothing to fall on his head. Having kicked open the door we hoped he realised that we meant no harm.

Also the writing was something to aim for. Flowing and copperplate it was worth copying. I did. I practised and practised to get it right. Here was something to aim at. He taught us to be reasonable. And there was no atmoshpere of fear in his lessons. He might say, threaten or cajole but he never caused an atmosphere. We achieved and got to expect achievement. He led us. He at the front. Us in our serried ranks. The lessons never dragged.

No matter. It was not going to last long. Although we did not know it. And the new school year saw Sir as our Form Tutor. He looked well. But two weeks in and my desk partner was unusually at school before me on the Monday. “Sir’s Dead” he said.

It was a real shock. We did the right thing. We sent a card. We had a mass said. We then went to the funeral. It was a big funeral. But fate has always a sting. Up came the replacement Mathematics teacher. The Brother from the first two years. We downed tools. It was awful. It stayed so.

But who was our Mathematics Teacher?

Shockingly we hardly know our teachers. Even those who work in education do not know their teachers. Their employees. They simply do not. Education experts constantly produce curricula that underestimate or deflate children. Children in turn perpetually underestimate teachers.

Thus it was that so many years later I looked for my teacher. Sir had a family. However he had died alone. Having taken his dog for a walk. The dog returned alone. His dead body was found the next day. But this had been a life of achievement. Football and hockey, of Ministry of Education Drawing Certificates, of employment, of handicrafts, of a nearly-completed B.Sc degree. But the achievement had had to stop. It had run slap-bang into World War Two. But it was an active War. R.E.M.E. Picking up the pieces. Not what Cocky suggested at all. But Cocky was just that. A no-man. All suggestion. (I had once been to one of Cocky’s birthday parties. They sang anti-English songs. The priest joining in). Cocky’s world of disloyalty assumed entitlement. He had none.

But more telling was the heart disease. The up and down syndrome that accompanies cardiac deterioration was evident. I am older now than he was when he died. His was a helping hand to those who might grasp it. From Elementary School to Grammar School. It was distinguished. A family man. We saw that. He didn’t need to tell us.

After the Art lessons finished back then I went to ask for my work. It was quite a few weeks later. He remembered me. Now he remembered what I had drawn. I kept my work for many years. In the end it was lost. I still remembered it though. Thinking about it I would remember how carefully it was stored by Sir. How he made time for all of us. How softly spoken he had been helping us. But the intrigue was there too. I also sensed on one of the pictures I had made that a hand other than mine had been at the work. It was a much appreciated gesture. An unforgettable gesture. It was the kind hand of real talent and ability.

It’s nearly fifty years ago now.

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