I’m people watching again, and a guy at a table near me is telling his girlfriend (in a really loud voice) about how his teacher used to throw his keys at the kids in the class when they misbehaved. Oh the heady days when casual violence was an everyday part of the teaching curriculum; when it was the teachers, not the pupils, who were the tyrants of the classroom.
Teachers have such power to inspire and form young minds.
I went to a church school. My mum was a divorcee, fairly unusual in Britain in the late 1960s, and I suppose out of fear that I would become a prostitute or a druggie, she sent me to a school that she felt would keep me on the straight and narrow, even though she was not a religious woman herself.
I started at St Wotsit on the Sussex coast when I was about 8, and stayed there until we moved away when I was about 11. These are the years of the impressionable spirit and mind. And whilst I do have memories of earlier, and obviously of later schooling, those I have of St Wotsit are some of the most vivid, some of the most traumatic and horrid, and wonderful and freeing of my life. Happily St Wotsit closed down a few years after I left.
Every Friday the whole school went across the playground to the High Anglican church for a mid-morning service. We each had a big card with The Creed typed across the top, containing everything we needed to say and do and hear for the whole service. This was a really pretty long session. The cards had a distinctive, love-it-and-hate-it smell. I loved the church and the slightly tedious service – I loved singing and I believed God was listening to me. I was fascinated by the statues and the pictures and the high, high ceiling. Of course that didn’t stop me and about half of the rest of the school spending most of our lunch-time play scraping away at the crumbly mortar between the bricks of the church in the hopes that the edifice would fall down before the next Friday.
Every week we had RI – religious instruction – and we were taught by Anglican priests. They wore the long black coats with buttons all down the front. And they had the knotted rope around the waist. They took it in turns to teach each class. One of the priests was a baby-faced chap of about 40. We knew him as Father Herbert. The boys in particular liked him, he talked with enthusiasm about football, was loud and temperamental and sued to throw chalk or the board-rubber, or threaten to throw us out the window if we misbehaved. He was generally liked, and kept the class in order for the most part.
Then there was another young priest whose name I have to admit I have forgotten. This man was the single most beautiful male I have ever seen – a young Gregory Peck but even gorgeouser. When he walked along the road the women used to actually turn and stare after him. Mainly sighing and shaking their heads and saying it was a waste. Which I didn’t understand until mum explained that the knotted rope meant that he couldn’t get married. I always thought the rope just meant he was ready for any rope-related emergency. After all priests were there to help people. At that time I was an avid reader of Enid Blyton books, and I had come to believe that one should never leave home without a rope, a pair of binoculars, a box of matches and a torch and spare batteries.
Thing is, all I can remember about him is his ravishing good looks. I can’t remember his name, his teaching style, one single thing he ever said that made a difference to my life in those three years. I don’t know if he was kind or funny or intelligent.
And then there was Old Father Wotsisname, the grizzled old bad-tempered one with one foot in the grave, who hated children, and who wittered on and on inaudibly and bored us all silly. He also presented me with my one prize from Prize Giving one year. It was the ladybird book of The Holy Land. I remember being excited about winning a book (I
LOVED books even then) and slightly disappointed by the dull contents. Oh well.
I remember the headmaster. I won’t say his name. I hated him with a passion, and he certainly didn’t like me. To be fair, if there was trouble, I was always there in the thick of it; if anything happened somehow I turned up like the proverbial bad penny. But he lost my respect by proving himself stupid and unwise in the ways of kids. He had three of us lined up once in his office. He asked the first two in turn if they had been the ones to instigate the latest brainchild of disaster. When they said no, he turned to me and said, ‘then it was you.’ When I said no, his sole argument was, ‘well it wasn’t them because they told me so, so it had to be you.’ You just can’t argue with logic like that. I detested him from that day.
The lights of my life were two of the teachers. Mrs Osborne, my class teacher for the first two years (due to a quirk of staff reshuffling) I was at the school. She was kind, she believed in me ad tried to encourage me. And when I got into some rather more serious trouble, she visited me at home to try and talk to me and my mum. She was the first one who encouraged my love of books and story-telling. She used to read some intoxicating stuff to us at the end of every day: Stig Of The Dump, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Witch’s Daughter, Oliver Twist, The Wind In The Willows, The Silver Sword, Emil And The Detectives, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Paddington – wonderful, wonderful stories.
And then, when I was 10 I went up into the top class, and we had a new teacher, Mr Rafferty. He had travelled the world and Seen Things. Like Mrs Osborne, he actually seemed to love kids and love teaching. He kept order, inspired us, encouraged us, pushed us and gave us Ideas. He read and critiqued, in a very serious way, my first two ‘proper’ stories. He told us tales about his friend who was killed by barracudas, described the blood in the water, made us feel the glorious terror of it from the safety of our classroom. He made everything about life seem like a huge adventure. He was such a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of the teaching staff.
Sadly the events I’m remembering were so long ago now – over forty years – so I feel that probably many of these characters are no longer with us, but in a kind of Mr Holland’s Opus way, hopefully the impact they had is still out there in this world, living on in the children whose lives they touched.