You don’t usually remember much about the kids in the year above you at school: any interaction tends to be fleeting, unless, for example, you’re good enough to play in the school football team a year early. But I remember Andrew Skinner, or should I say, Skinner! because that was how I usually heard his name, being shouted by an angry teacher. He was frequently in trouble, but to me he seemed wild rather than malicious. More than fifty years after we were schoolmates in primary school, I know much more about him.
I recently wrote a piece called Teacher’s Pet, gentle nostalgia about my time at Watford Field School, including recollections of my fourth year teacher Mr Savage, who taught me in 1966-67. Ten year olds have only the vaguest idea of the age of adults: he was clearly older than my Dad and younger than my grandfathers. In fact he was 56 years old when he taught me. He was heavily built, an imposing physical presence for ten year olds. He had been at the school forever – back in 1939 he was recorded as a schoolmaster, living in Queens Road, Watford.
I painted him as old fashioned, strict, inclined to corporal punishment, but quirky and in some ways likeable. Of course this view was coloured by my personal relationship with him: I was good at my lessons, hardworking and hated getting into trouble, and I generally liked him – enough even to come back with a friend to visit his class once or twice after starting at Watford Grammar School. But not everyone had my habit of obedience, or got the answers right.
After Teacher’s Pet appeared in the Watford Memories Facebook page, some former pupils offered a very different view of him.
“Being lifted off the bench by your ear, your hair forcibly rubbed the wrong way, a blackboard compasses needle being rapidly stabbed between your widespread fingers and the Chinese burn on your wrist weren’t something I can say I enjoyed. Not forgetting the table tennis bat. I was frequently clipped around the head or ear for really doing nothing other than glancing away when he was talking or patrolling. On the occasion he grabbed my wrist and struck me across my knuckles with the edge of a wooden ruler I vowed I wasn’t going back to school. I feigned illness for a few days but my father twigged and got the whole story out of me. Parents’ evening was coming up and on the night he put on his full RAF uniform and peaked cap and took me with him. He was 6 feet tall, athletic and a Warrant Officer. As a one time Flight Sergeant and drill instructor he knew how to stand tall and direct his voice. At the time of the appointment he asked the teacher certain questions – along the lines of 1. Does my son attend school regularly? 2. Is he on time? 3. Does he behave? 4. Does he try his best? And 5. Is he polite? Mr Savage replied (and I remember this very clearly) in soft appeasing tones a positive yes to each question. My dad stood up to his full height and said. “If my son misbehaves then by all means punish in a way that is appropriate but”- and he leant forward and put his forefinger on the nose of the teacher – ” should you again strike him for no reason there will be a hole in that wall behind you … formed by you passing through it”. And with that took my arm and led me away straight to Mr Colman in order to inform him of what he had just said to Mr Savage. At the age of eleven, my respect and sense of awe of my dad went sky high.”
Savage’s behaviour here fits the stereotype of a bully who is, at heart, a coward. Another story confirms his tendency to arbitrary acts of violence:
“Mr Savage could be very nice and smiley and almost purred when he was in a good mood such as on a school coach trip to Cheddar Gorge that I was on. He came up to me and started stroking my right ear whilst saying he remembered my older brother (who had been in his class 5 years before). I didn’t feel comfortable with him doing this but kept quiet. When I joined his class the next term I soon realised that he easily became flustered and irritated when there was any behaviour that he disliked, as there was with two or three of the boys. He went very red and called out to whichever miscreant to come up to the front of the class and would say “bend over boy” before hitting him on the backside with one of his several bats depending on the seriousness of the misdemeanour – a table tennis bat for the first offence and then larger instruments like a rounders bat up to a cricket bat for really serious transgressions.
I didn’t want any of the above to happen to me so I didn’t play up at all. However I suffered a very unpleasant episode when I arrived for school one morning. Mr Savage came up to me very obviously flustered and red in the face. He asked me “where is so and so?” I can’t remember who he was asking for. While I thought about it he started hitting me around the head with his hand which was very unpleasant. This only stopped when he realised I did not know about the person he was talking about. He hurried off to approach someone else. This incident really shook me and I told my mum about it when I got home. She was all for going to see the headmaster, Mr Colman, the next day but I asked her not to as I did not want Mr Savage to take it out on me for reporting him, so she reluctantly agreed not to go into school.”
From a female perspective:
“He was evil. The bat wasn’t only for the boys. He didn’t care what he used. The board rubber used to fly across the classroom.”
Savage’s conduct with the girls in his charge did not go unnoticed by school authorities at the time:
“After complaints about the way he treated girls he was given a boys only class for a few years until it was forgotten. It was like priests just being moved to another parish where they could start abusing again.”
Yet most agree that Savage was an effective teacher by some criteria. Success was measured by how many of his pupils went on to the local grammar schools: in earlier years through the eleven-plus exam, later through his continuous assessment reports. My parents certainly thought highly of him. He was thorough, hardworking and methodical, but fear was an important part of his armoury. Some former pupils have spoken in his support, albeit usually in qualified terms. One of the girls he taught commented:
“I remember Mr Savage well and didn’t particularly like it when he went for your ear lobe and gave it a rub but I seriously don’t think he meant it in an abusive way. It was a game of ‘quick get away, he’s got me’ and we all used to laugh. It was always in the open. I was at Watford Fields during the 60’s and have many happy memories. Sure, we tried to avoid Savage wherever possible but back then it was ‘normal’ to get punished for misbehaving, my brother was one of these but it hasn’t caused him any sort of anxiety, we just took it as normal. I was tapped on the bottom a couple of times by Savage in a ‘playful’ way, but I was only ten so had no knowledge of any sort of sexual misbehaviour. In hindsight I can see that it was highly inappropriate but I have laughed about this with several former pupils over the years.”
A boy he taught said this:
“I was in Mr Savage’s class 4B and never had a problem with him apart from getting the bat across the backside and having the chalk duster thrown at you if you were misbehaving. He went out of the class room one day so we took the opportunity to break his wooden bat in half, he was furious but never did find out who did it. I don’t recall anyone having an issue with him, he was strict but most teachers were back then.
The most glowing report of him comes from a boy who Savage taught while still in his thirties:
“Yes, I was a Savage victim. Savage by name and nature but by God he got results and I not only remember him, but his ruler and every detail of his button nose and glasses…and he had a class of fifty pupils. He taught me to observe and love live and to take an interest in whatever. I still remember most of the poems that we were obliged to learn by him and that was in 1949. I got a scholarship to Watford Boys Grammar and from there bigger and better things. I thank Savage for most of my education. I learnt more in that one year that has lasted me a lifetime, and I am now 82.”
Teacher’s Pet was intended as a light-hearted piece. It was the truth through my eyes, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I omitted the story of my worst experience of Savage, which still troubles me, and which I have previously shared with just one person. But if Andrew Skinner has the courage to tell his story, it shouldn’t be so difficult for me.
One afternoon Mr Savage was called out of class. He set the class some reading, and as I was one of his favourites, and regarded as reliable, he instructed me to write down the names of any children who spoke while he was gone. Of course, we were lively kids, and after a couple of minutes there was already quite a hubbub. I set about my task diligently, perhaps vengefully, recording friends and foes alike, annoyed that the “authority” I had been given was being ignored. There were nearly fifty in the class, and so many were now talking that I struggled to keep up and became flustered. Little Robespierre that I was, I took the instruction literally: one well behaved and good natured boy, whom I counted among my friends, politely asked whether he was on the list. Well he was now.
When the noise had built to a crescendo, the door suddenly opened and Savage strode back into the classroom. He took the list from me, and called the names from it one by one – I think this included the girls – and made each kid – bad and good – bend over, and hit them on the backside with what I recall as an outsize table tennis bat.
Soon after he had finished, the bell rang for afternoon break, and a sombre class filed out into the playground. I stood on my own in a corner, horrified at what I had wrought, unable to face my friends. One or two kids did approach me, though – the louder ones, hardened by habitual punishment, to ask why I’d failed to put them on the list.
If anyone held a grudge, it didn’t last for more than a day or so, but the memory stayed with me. So much that in the age of social media, I made contact with one of the victims – the one who had asked if he was on the list – and apologised. He had no recollection of the incident, but I have found it harder to forget.
The tone of gentle nostalgia in Teacher’s Pet struck an especially false note for Andrew Skinner. He commented:
“I am glad he didn’t harm you. Fifty four years later and I am still suffering from the damage that man did to me.”
Skinner is autistic but was diagnosed only recently. In the 1960s when he was at primary school, autistic behaviour was not widely understood, and was not distinguished from misconduct. Many teachers thought the remedy was a good beating. Skinner describes one experience in vivid terms:
“Mr Savage lost his temper with me and launched an assault. He slapped me around the head, body and backside until I blacked out and lost consciousness from the pain. I came round in a pool of my own urine and dragged myself to my desk as he continued to beat me. My life was effectively destroyed by that man. My life and self-respect died that day.”
The trigger for this assault was astonishingly trivial. Another boy had knocked the blackboard off its easel – clumsily rather than deliberately – as the class filed back in after lunch, and Savage blamed Skinner. The punishment was inappropriate for an accidental offence and it was given to the wrong person, but most damagingly it was hugely excessive. Only recently has Skinner found some closure for this trauma:
“I made a report to the police over fifty years after the horrendous abuse took place. I spoke to a specialist historic abuse team who were very sympathetic and they took a statement. They came back to me and told me that they could find no trace of him still being alive and at that time they had not received any other complaints. It was good to be listened to. This along with the comments made here (Facebook) by other victims helps with a sense of validation.”
I contacted Skinner to ask his permission to tell his story. He summarised his view of Savage:
“It is true that he could be charming, inspirational, funny and that he got results. He was also a petty tyrant who ruled by fear. He regularly casually struck students around the head, seemed to take pleasure in hitting both boys and girls with his bat and occasionally completely lost control and launched attacks like the one I suffered.”
As Skinner went on to Watford Grammar School, ironically Savage may have regarded him as one of his “successes”. At the age of 64, Skinner is now a 7th dan black belt kick-boxer teaching 15 classes a week, and his Facebook page shows a good life and a happy family. So I gently questioned his assertion that Savage had destroyed his life. This was his response:
“The experience had far reaching, some permanent impacts. My self-confidence and self-esteem were shattered and there was an impact on my sexuality and ability to make and maintain relationships. I still have nightmares and have had periods of clinical depression and anxiety. I really only started addressing it a couple of years ago when I had a very late diagnosis of ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) which made sense of a lot of other experiences. Yes I have had two successful careers and am very lucky in my second marriage. I have seen the world and enjoyed some great experiences. This has been despite the experience.”
Skinner seems to have received little parental support. In response to the story above which concerns the RAF father, he posted
“I wish I had a dad like yours. If I had complained to my father even after he beat me unconscious I would have been in more trouble for getting in trouble at school.”
His parents’ perspective may have been to welcome the school’s help in curbing what they saw as the bad behaviour of their son.
Former pupils’ recollections of Savage fall into three broad categories. There are those who did not (often) get on the wrong side of him, and perhaps look back on him tolerantly – although in my case, he still left his mark. There are those who frequently behaved badly, but recognise that their bad behaviour was a choice: they knew what the likely punishment was and accepted that they “had it coming”, and that it was “the way things were done in those days”.
But the third category is where the damage was done, in cases where children felt there was injustice, perhaps because Savage hit them when they had not misbehaved, or merely for getting an answer wrong, or where there was extreme violence. In Skinner’s case his autism meant he was not able to modify his behaviour – perhaps distraction, staring or an expression of confusion being mistaken for insolence – and he was severely punished for something outside his control.
Corporal punishment was widespread at the time, particularly at more traditional schools, and it may be that most children suffered no lasting damage from proportionate discipline – if seen as just, by contemporary standards. But where injustice is perceived, or the punishment is excessive, it creates a grievance which can cast a long and dark shadow.
Savage has been dead for twenty-six years, and has been put on trial on Facebook with no chance of reply. We should not judge him for his failure to recognise autism – very few did back then. His teaching methods – when kept within reasonable limits – were effective, and not unusual by the standards of the 1960s. And we don’t know whether he might himself have been the victim of violence in his childhood, or traumatic wartime experiences. But he has had his supporters in this debate, and none has denied that he regularly hit children or that they feared him: meanwhile others have confirmed the extreme severity of his punishments. His repeated bullying of children, and the awful violence of his attacks when he lost his temper – these are difficult to forgive, and for some, impossible.
Of course Andrew would always have had to try to manage his autism, but his traumatic and violent memories – caused by the absence of diagnosis and by Savage’s temper – mean that it has taken most of a lifetime to rebuild his self-esteem and his life from zero. With ongoing therapy, it is still a work in progress.
(Thanks to Andy Skinner for allowing me to tell his story, and to a former classmate for the photo of Savage.)