“Gather round and see what Edwards has done.”
I saw as a boy – and sometimes participated in – the trouble which smart and lively adolescents can give their teachers, and probably my first career decision was to remove this profession from the reckoning. My unhappy tenure as a prefect confirmed this view.
The victim of our cruellest baiting was a student teacher of Physics to our fifth form (year 11). He had a tough job: our class 5𝛂 was an arts form made up of the higher Latin O-level set. Attitudes were tribal – many of the class were reluctant to learn the sciences – and we had already given this nervous trainee a tough time in his lessons.
So he was pleasantly surprised in double Physics one day to find himself in front of a model class. We listened attentively, we asked relevant questions, and we supplied intelligent answers. You could see his gratification: he started to relax, daring to believe he might after all have this teaching thing nailed.
Then the bell went, marking the halfway point of the double period. That was our signal. There was a sudden outbreak of coughing. Boys started loud conversations. Paper planes started flying round the room. Within a minute the hapless trainee had been forced to bring in our regular teacher, Mr Banbury, to restore order and sit in for the rest of the lesson to maintain discipline.
But there were many masters (as we called teachers in our very traditional school) who could inspire. I concluded that they had to earn respect, perhaps with a touch of fear, before they could move to a more relaxed, informal style allowing some banter. It was a big mistake to try to be too friendly too soon.
There was Mr Wolton, who took over the Maths lessons in our first year when our form teacher – whose main subject was Chemistry – found himself already out of his depth. Seeing me bored with the pace of the lessons, he brought in some extra books for me to work on. I was flattered and enthused, although that enthusiasm didn’t stretch all the way to calculus.
Mr Oldham was a plummy voiced French master – allegedly blessed with the middle name Godolphin – always entertaining and instructive. He told a useful story about how a pupil had corrected him during an oral examination: in response to Mr Oldham’s question “Ça dépend sur quoi?” the boy had pointedly replied “Ça dépend de…” So when my oral came, I answered one question beginning “Ça dépend de” and saw a smile of appreciation that his anecdote had landed. He introduced us to Molière and Racine, and inspired me with a love of Voltaire.
Mr Oldham loved to teach, and it showed. Not so with Beery, so called because of his permanently red face. This was likely caused by a skin condition rather than alcohol consumption but we didn’t know or care. He was taciturn, grumpy and unenthusiastic – Van Morrison without the music. In my second year (year 8) Beery set us a task in English of writing a story set on a North Sea oil rig. We were required to fill at least a page of our exercise books: as I recall, my story ran to two and a half pages, and I poured my creative little soul into it. It came back with two spelling corrections and a tiny red tick at the end. That was my feedback.
Nor was his sports teaching more energetic. On icy days during hockey practice, while we were standing around in our tiny shorts, our gloveless fingers frozen onto our sticks, he would demonstrate a technique one-handed, keeping his left hand cosy in his jogger pants. There was also the time that he returned to the school after supervising a cross country run with two boys unaccounted for, although the boys must share the blame for that.
Some thirty years ago my Mum showed me an obituary for this “much loved” teacher in the Watford Observer. My response was uncharitable. I said there had been many excellent teachers at the school, but he wasn’t one of them.
One of the best was our Divinity master Mr (later Dr) Raper, who had a professorial air but remained approachable. When the class had finished sniggering at his name, he taught us about each different religion in turn. Soon he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity. It struck me they couldn’t all be right. But they could all be wrong, and my childhood faith was shaken.
Dr Raper later raised his head above the parapet in the summer of 1971 during a pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr Turner – known to us as Trog. Dr Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot before leaving, or if this incident encouraged the headmaster to move him on.
The year after Mr Raper taught us, Mr Lister – known for some reason as “Fanny” – took over. Divinity was rebranded – for us at least – as Scripture. Fanny was terrifying. A thin, austere figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. He resembled an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.
His lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would give us a passage of the Authorised Version to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a test the following week.
It was usually from the Old Testament, full of difficult names and smiting. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it. The pass mark for the test was 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was completely forgotten by the weekend.
“Dusty” Miller was also a disciplinarian. A martinet of military aspect, he taught Maths, and under his iron glare the brightest pupil could fumble his answer and have his ear grabbed. For a while he was placed in charge of set two of five: when the test results of Set 3 nosedived – because nobody wanted to be “promoted” – equilibrium was restored only when Dusty was moved to take charge of the bottom set. He famously challenged someone in the quad, asking them why they weren’t wearing school uniform. The young man replied “Because I’m a teacher.” Dusty could be funny, but as his humour was used to intimidate and humiliate – and because we all knew we could be next – he didn’t get many laughs.
Probably the scariest teacher for me was Mr Vale, the woodwork teacher. In fairness to him, half of my fear came from the woodwork itself, my worst school subject by a mile. We decided he must have had a chip on his shoulder, being one of only two masters in the School Calendar not boasting letters after his name. It was double woodwork early on Wednesday morning during the first half of my first year, and I could never eat much breakfast. I’m still haunted by the sound or Mr Vale’s voice: “Gather round and see what Edwards has done.”
The Second Master (or deputy head) Mr Topsfield was another of the older masters. Bald, with a physically tough appearance, he was strict, regarded as enforcer for our younger, outwardly more progressive Head Master. But Topsfield was seen as straightforward and fair, and was respected. One torrential Friday afternoon I was standing dripping wet at the stop after missing my bus when Mr Topsfield pulled up, flung open the passenger door and said “You live in Chorleywood, don’t you Edwards? Do you want a lift?” I accepted, and we chatted as he drove me to my front door. I warmed to his relaxed good humour, and liked him better afterwards. Understandably no teacher would put themselves in that position now, and children must be protected, but still I feel we’ve lost something.
Most older teachers struggled to connect once they were closer in age to the boys’ grandfathers than their fathers. Some, like Dusty and Fanny exercised fierce discipline, and those who did not often became laughing stocks and could have a torrid time. Like the language master who had to endure boys yelling “Cyril!” behind his back. Or the Classics master – who could be an inspiring teacher, but while I was at the school he went from being seen as a likeable eccentric to being the object of ridicule. He liked to place his chair atop the table at the front of class. One day a helpful boy placed his chair there before he arrived, but with one of the back legs hanging half off the back. Thank god the master noticed and adjusted the chair before taking his position.
Harder to comprehend were the younger teachers who persisted although they clearly hated it. Typically they had tried too soon to be seen as friendly, had accrued no respect and could not keep discipline. In many jobs you can get through from nine to five without any enthusiasm and take home your pay, but teaching seems a dreadful career to be stuck in if you’re not suited – each day a parade of humiliations.
Some teachers seemed to be stuck in a rut, perhaps because they had stayed at the school too long. One French master seemed rather jaded. He could be very good with boys individually, but he seemed to hate kids en masse. Even we could tell that his French accent was weak – we had real French audio for comparison – and my French exchange partner from the suburbs of Paris didn’t hide his amusement when he heard it. But this teacher’s real passion was music, and despite plainly finding us all very irritating, he cajoled 120 first form boys into giving rousing performances of The Daniel Jazz and The Jonah Man Jazz. We had a glimpse of his real personality during a fairly downbeat music lesson when to illustrate a point he suddenly launched into a rollicking passage of boogie-woogie piano. He was clearly a man of energy, talent and passion, but most days we saw little of it.
When it was my turn to be a parent at parents’ evenings, I observed my daughters’ teachers with a critical eye – especially perhaps in the case of the older girl, who attended a fee paying school. There was the French teacher who had announced a test in class: when the girls protested that they didn’t want one (“Could we not?”) she had simply backed down. She expressed a wish that our daughter would continue to study French: she hadn’t noticed that our daughter hated foreign languages in general, and French in particular. One Economics teacher had temporarily confused her class by asserting that if you increase a number by 10%, then decrease the result by 10%, you end up back at the same number. We weren’t impressed either, and as we came away from our meeting I urged our daughter “Please tell me you have a good Economics textbook.”
Many of their teachers, like mine, were excellent, but the variation in ability and enthusiasm was as wide as ever. True of any profession, of course, but teachers are particularly exposed. If you’re not up to the job, the kids will find you out: but if you’re one of those with the gift to connect and to inspire, they will remember you with affection for the rest of their lives.
Post script. After writing the above, I managed to track down my second year English exercise book, which gives me the opportunity to test my memory of fifty-four years ago against the hard evidence. There, dated 28th February 1969, is Explosion on the Rig. In fact it is five pages long, not two and a half. There are three spelling corrections, not two. The red tick is not so tiny. And there was more feedback. In the same red ink, he had written “Well done!” with an exclamation mark. Beery, I owe you an apology. R.I.P. sir.