Everyone remembers a good teacher


One of my model spaceships. A bit battered now.

When you’re 9 the summer holidays are about two years in length. They are so long that by the end you almost can’t remember the beginning. As it draws to a close there’s that feeling of rejuvenation and excitement as the weather changes from sunny and hot, to sunny and cold, to dark and cold in just a few days. But 1980 was different. I had an overwhelming feeling of dread that I couldn’t shake off.

They say everyone remembers a good teacher. Perhaps you remember the bad ones too.

We’d left behind the most magical year with Mrs Edwards, before the summer. It had been a great year that had started that previous 1st of September with the Daleks back on TV in Doctor Who. The last time that had happened was 1975, half my life ago. The excitement was unparalleled. From Doctor Who Weekly I’d become aware that the programme had started in 1963. I worked out in my head that that meant it was now 17 years old and in three years time it would be 20 years old. Something to look forward to.

Then we had the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, out in the summer. We’d waited three long years for that. Our heads were filled with the concepts of strange worlds, powerful starships, bounty hunters, the mysterious Force and good verses evil. Mrs Edwards said the entire class could build a space station. We all collected bottles and boxes from home and brought them in. We all worked together, boys and girls, gluing them together to fill the entire classroom floor with our space base.

But most of all, what caught my imagination that year was the concept of stories. Everything I was interested in was a story. Stories of adventure, of self-sacrifice, of traitors and heroes, of greed and of hope.

I thought we should re-enact The Empire Strikes Back in the bike shed. It was a large covered area that would serve perfectly as the cloud city of Bespin. I needed more players so recruited friends, then more joined. A group of younger children wanted to be stormtroopers (headed up by my brother). Another batch were bounty hunters, guards and Ugnaughts. We had the Princess and Han. Sean was Chewie. We had a Luke (I think that honour fell to Alex Chakrabarti) and I played Darth Vader and Boba Fett (which was tricky as they were required in the same scene). We did it and it worked, with twenty or so 8 and 9 years olds, during a damp breaktime, with no planning or explanation necessary. We just acted it out. Then the bell rang and we all went back to our separate classes.

When you have enough data, on any topic, your creativity starts to play with it. If you listen constructively to enough songs, you want to write your own and if you play out enough stories, you want to create you own. In 1979, that’s what Barry and I started to do.

We set it in the near future. Earth was at peace and was exploring the stars. It was about two brothers who had been assigned to an exploratory mission. They had fallen through a time vortex portal just outside our solar system and crashed their ship on a strange hostile world populated by robotic people who lived in a giant dome. They had been captured, but eventually escaped with the help of their clever but annoying small robot and managed to be rescued, but not before the leader of the robot people learned of Earth and planned an invasion to fly through the portal and attack all that we held dear. We acted the story out in the yard at playtime and developed the characters. But there was more to it than that. Everything in the story had original names and designs. We designed the uniforms and insignia. We designed and built spaceships and robots. Perhaps the actual story may not sound that original to you now, we’d thrown in elements from all that we’d known, but for two 8 year olds in 1979 I think it stills sounds pretty good. (This was 20 years before things like Deep Space Nine and the like that later made use of similar plot devices.)

Barry’s family were in the military so he added his knowledge of that into the detail. We’d seen the creepy Sapphire and Steel on television and added in psychological twists and depth that we picked up from that. We drew plans of the battle Armada, the bases on Mars and created the family trees of all the characters. We explored the political system of the robot creatures who lived like worker bees under their cyborg leader whose mind was now pure computer. We worked out how the impending invasion caused Earth governments to have to declare martial law and create a coalition, headed up by a right-wing leader from Britain called Eliot Joseph Livingston who had seized the opportunity. We were aware of the dangers of such emergency politics and built that into the story. There were threats from within as well as from outer space.

Mrs Edwards said we could stay in at lunchtime to work on the story more. She suggested we use larger bits of paper and stick them on the classroom wall to have more space to work out the detail.

But by September 1980 all that was a distant memory. The sun had gone out. Now we were lined up to have a new teacher, the dreaded Mr H. It was like heading for the gallows. Sean and I knew we didn’t like him and we knew he didn’t care for us. Sean said it would be alright though, things always turned out ok. But I couldn’t shake the foreboding. Doctor Who Weekly turned into Doctor Who Monthly so at least I had a good magazine to read and take my mind off it.

Mr H employed the ‘dark sarcasm in the classroom’ that had been highlighted by Pink Floyd’s number one single the previous year. He drove a bottle green Ford Cortina mark III. He didn’t let me and Sean sit together. He put Barry by the sink by the window so he could “dry his hands on his long hair”, or so he said.

We had to do a role play. We had to pretend to take a broken toy back to a shop. Darren was bringing it back and I was the shopkeeper. Darren explained that it had exploded and was a dangerous toy and demanded his money back.

“So what are you going to do?” asked Mr H.

“Give him his money back?” I said.

“No you idiot” said Mr H.

“He should have asked to see the receipt” said Darren.

“That’s right” said Mr H, “useless. Sit down”.

That’s how Mr H worked. He taught by humiliation. I didn’t think about asking for a receipt. Why would I? Darren’s family ran the VG shop. He’d worked there. Of course he’d know what to say. It all seemed terribly unfair.

I got depressed, although I didn’t have that word in my vocabulary then. I started thinking about death and felt as though I was going to die, that I didn’t have much time left. I dreamt that I’d asked my parents they could cancel Christmas, anything, to let me not go back to school. But in my waking life I said nothing.

Then it was Maths. Mr H explained about the budget and how prices go up. I wondered if the price of Star Wars figures would be going up. They did, from 99p to £1.49 putting them outside my purchasing power so I had to rely on the single beacon Christmas and my birthday (which are only 5 days apart) to get new toys.

Then Mr H had us all standing up. He asked us various quick-fire maths questions. If you got it right you sat down. Joanne Killian sat down straight away. I got it wrong and had to stay standing. Sean sats down. I got another one wrong again and had to stand on my chair. Kevin Tall sat down. Alison Ball sat down. I got it wrong and had to stand on my desk. Barry was standing on his chair but he too soon sat down. Then it was just me and John Moody left. Everyone else was sitting down.

“7 and 6” said Mr H.

“13” said John earning him his seat. Mr H starts having fun now. Multiplication, division, subtraction, the questions kept coming at me while the others laughed. I though I was going to die, or that I wanted to die, I didn’t know which. Mr Hall toyed with making me sit on the wardrobe but settled for having me sit at the front of the class, facing the blackboard for the rest of the session with a pointed card hat with a large ‘D’ on it.

My confidence had gone. There was a hole where it had been. From then on I struggled with maths. I had to stay behind at breaktime to watch David Shed do long division on the backboard just for fun, just to rub it in how useless I was at it.

Mr Jackson, the headmaster heard me talking to some kids one lunchtime about the Space Shuttle which was about to launch for the first time. He called me over and asked me to explain it to him. I told him all about it, how the boosters worked, how it would take off like a rocket, the duration of the mission, how it would land like an aeroplane, protected by the heat-resistance tiles and how it opened a new age in space exploration. He thanked me and went back to his office. I felt different, excited. There was no hole. When I got home I drew pictures of the Shuttle and compared the scale to the shuttles Barry and I had invented for our story. We were back on.

Barry and I continued our story for decades afterwards. They turned into comic strips and then into short stories and finally novels, adding more and more to the mythos we’d started back in Mrs Edwards’ class.

Mr H went on to be headmaster two years later after both Mr Jackson and I had moved on.  He would never know that I would go on to get a degree in Physics and to study maths to a far higher level than he ever did. But I don’t do mental arithmetic.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

The Thinking Cap Experiment(This is an adapted extract from my forthcoming book, ‘The Thinking Cap Experiment’)

Book Ayd to speak about Creativity and Innovation Mind-flow at your event.
For more interesting info see:

www.aydinstone.com

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10 comments on “Everyone remembers a good teacher

  1. Horrific example of how not to inspire kids – we played exactly the same ‘sit down when you get the answer right’ game with French and, you’ve guessed it I was the last man standing and was put off the French language for life while the teacher shouted the words ‘he is the weakest, he is the worst’ in my ear. Thought I was terrible at languages after that but mysteriously learnt pretty fluent Spanish while living in Spain through a mysterious process called ‘talking to people’; this was much more enjoyable than being humiliated, and also brought home to me the value of personal experimentation when learning something – doing it for your own reasons and not for some external reward or threat. This is the distinction between intrinsic motivation (for your own reasons) and extrinsic motivation (some external goal or reward or fear that someone else imposes on you). Too much education is in the second category.

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  2. Yes, the way a teacher teaches has a huge impact. We remember the good for inspiring us, the bad for humiliating us and go on to achieve, tread water or give up because of or in spite of this.

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  3. Mr Jones taught us O level chemistry. I was struggling, but plucked up the courage to share my concerns when he signed off one day with the words, “If you’re not sure, do ask me.” Tentatively I approached him after class and explained that I didn’t understand the assignment. “It’s all in the book,” was his crisp answer, before walking out. Needless to say I didn’t take chemistry O level, and 30 years on I still haven’t forgiven the bastard!

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  4. Here’s my ‘Memory Picture’ of Mr Wetherall:

    OCTOBER, 1959

    Mr. Wetherall liked Roman history. He could talk about it all day. Sometimes, he did. He would sit on his desk in front of the class, put his feet up on the table in front, place his left elbow on his left knee, and prop his head up with his hand. That left his right arm free to wave about. Then he would start a story about the Romans.

    At these times, the whole class would relax and sit quietly, engaged and entranced by the stories. There were hardly ever any interruptions. The class never asked any questions. Mr. Wetherall asked questions but he answered them straight away himself.

    Today, as Mr. Wetherall counted the dinner money, Robert wondered if he would start their day with multiplication or spellings or reading or drama or art or singing or nature study or . . . well, there was no way of telling, really. Mr. Wetherall hadn’t made up his mind yet himself maybe.

    “Right. The Romans,” announced Mr. Wetherall. He stood up and walked around to sit on the top of his desk. He put his feet up on the table in front, placed his left elbow on his left knee, and propped his head up with his hand.

    With everyone else, Robert relaxed and settled back in his seat.

    “Robert Bell, c’mon straight up here!” Mr. Wetherall beckoned to Robert with his right hand.

    Robert jumped. What? This wasn’t supposed to happen! What had he done? Mr. Wetherall repeated himself: “Robert Bell, c’mon straight up here!”

    Everyone turned and looked at him. Robert was sitting near the back of the classroom, on the wall side of a double desk, which he shared with Harry Gilmore.

    He stood up. Harry had to stand up, too, as it was one long seat which folded back. As Robert edged out in front of Harry, he whispered: “Is this about the football?” Harry shrugged.

    Robert had borrowed Harry’s football the day before because Harry had been kept in to finish some work. Harry said he was going to tell Mr. Wetherall that Robert had taken the ball without asking. Harry said Mr. Wetherall would take a ruler and crack Robert’s fingers with it.

    Robert had protested to Harry. “When I asked you, I heard you say ‘Oh, aye.’ You were copying from the blackboard and you said, ‘Oh, aye’ – that means ‘yes’, doesn’t it?”

    Harry had said, “Oh, aye, surely, but are you sure I said it?”

    “Yes! Oh, aye! I am, surely!” Robert had been flustered and confused. He had never had this sort of trouble with Gobstopper, in London.

    He squeezed forwards around the square table where four children had their seats. One of them was Malcolm Donovan. Robert had swapped his ‘sixer’ conker recently for Malcolm’s blue solid plastic spaceman. It was the only one he hadn’t collected yet from cornflakes packets. Now, his mind racing, Robert guessed that the conker had broken and Malcolm had told Mr. Wetherall about the swap, to get the spaceman back.

    As he negotiated his way around the table, Robert slid his hand from his pocket and placed the spaceman in front of Malcolm. “Here,” he breathed.

    He squeezed between a single desk and a hexagonal table, where three girls were sitting. He bent down to Lizzy Morland.

    “I’m sorry about your pencils,” he whispered.

    He had pushed her while running through the main doors that morning. She had dropped her pencil case. It had opened and the pencils had rolled everywhere. Some had been broken.

    Robert arrived at the table on which Mr. Wetherall had his feet. The whole class was so quiet he could hear a tap dripping into the corner sink, where they all washed their hands before lunch. He decided to come clean.

    “You see, sir, I was sure he said ‘aye’ and it was a champion conker and I helped her to pick them all up.”

    Mr. Wetherall stared down at him for a moment. “What? Oh, right. Good enough. Now, I asked you to c’mon straight up here. You didn’t.”

    “Well, um. . .”

    “You didn’t come straight here because there was no way you could come straight here. You would have had to do this to come straight here.”

    Mr. Wetherall stood up on his desk. They all gazed up at him. He was a tall, lean man and, in his grey suit, he looked like a giant statue.

    The giant statue stepped forward onto the table in front, then it stepped onto a single desk, then onto the hexagonal table, then onto the square table and then, with its longest stride, it stopped right on top of Robert’s desk.

    Robert composed a memory picture in portrait layout.

    “Now, that was ‘straight’,” proclaimed Mr. Wetherall. “In geography, of course, going in a straight line between two points is called going ‘as the crow flies’. Well, I’ve not flown and I’m not a crow, but you can get the idea. Good enough. No need to applaud.”

    They all applauded.

    Mr. Wetherall put one hand onto the top of Harry’s head and jumped down to the floor. He squeezed his way round the tables, back to Robert. As he walked, he grumbled out loud.

    “Aw, here we have a brand new school and what do they put in it? Old furniture. A grand new building and what are we doing? Sitting around like liquorice all-sorts.” He arrived back at Robert. “Good enough. Away ye go.” He waved Robert back to his seat, then took up the same position he had adopted just before he had called for him.

    “Right. The Romans,” announced Mr. Wetherall again. “Straight roads. Good, wide, straight roads. Wherever they went, that’s what they built. Why? Because they weren’t tourists. They wanted to stay and rule in the lands they conquered. To do this, they had to march their soldiers rapidly from place to place, wherever they were needed. Then, when they felt a bit hungry, or broke their spears, they could use their roads to deliver more supplies and equipment very quickly. When the Romans saw that other people had things they couldn’t find, make or grow, these roads even became main trade routes. How do we know where the Romans went? We look for their roads. Many of them are still there, and still in use.”

    Robert listened and learned. Mr. Wetherall’s knowledge and enthusiasm made the subject enthralling. He learned about how the roads, built by slaves, were designed with four separate layers. He learned how the land surveyors used a special instrument, called a groma, to keep the roads going straight. He learned how the total length of all the Roman roads built was longer than twice around the world.

    After the talk, they all looked at road maps and atlases. Robert decided that he liked geography as well as history.

    In the afternoon, their art exercise was to design and paint a landscape. Robert did a sketch and then copied it. He mostly used a tiny brush. It took him much of the afternoon to do. Harry, who had done a sunset in twenty minutes, followed his progress with admiration.

    In the right foreground of his painting, was a large tree. In the branches was a nest, with eggs. There was a male chaffinch perched near the nest. It had a blue-grey crown with a pink face and front. It had a white patch on its shoulder, a white wing-bar and white around the edges of its brown tail feathers. It was looking left, over the countryside into the middle distance. The countryside was low hills, different shades of green, with darker shades for hedges, shrubs and small trees. On the distant hills were little white blobs for sheep.

    In the centre of the picture, there was a road with a fence on both sides, winding through the hills, getting narrower as it went up and across the page, sometimes disappearing, then reappearing, thinner, from behind a sloping hill, until it stopped at the blue sky. At the top of the page, in the middle, there were tiny black bird shapes flying high in a flock.

    Robert had written a title on the back of the painting: ‘As the Chaffinch Flies’.

    Mr. Wetherall was full of praise. “This is a grand picture, Robert.”

    “Chaffinches are my best birds, sir. They don’t fly very straight. In winter, the males form flocks, sir. Um, It’s before the Romans, sir,” Robert explained, almost apologetically.

    “Oh, I know,” he replied. “The Romans would build a bridge here, and here. They might have an aqueduct here. Then, the whole road would run straight up the page. No matter. This is grand. Good enough.”

    At home time, Robert met Sandra at the school gates.

    They had quite a long walk home. They would take the road into Omagh town, go through the town and turn right to cross the bridge. The road from the bridge would lead them gradually to open countryside. It would pass Lisanelly Camp and wind its way to where they would turn left towards Alexander Road. The main road would then curve gently on without them, making its way to Gortin.

    “Do you want to look at the toys in Woolworth’s?” Robert asked Sandra.

    “We can’t,” she answered.

    “Why not? I’ve got sixpence.”

    “Mummy wants us to go straight home.”

    “That’s impossible,” he sighed. Completely impossible.”

    *** *** *** *** ***

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  5. Hi Ayd
    It’s joanne killian here- joanne west as now. Wow! Reading your blog brought back so many memories! MrHall in particular- I remember the dunces cap incident but I also wore it when I’d been holiday and he’d taught you all the trick for the 9 times table. I was put in the bin with the hat on my head and then I got swapped for an infant. Cried my eyes out. He’s the reason that I went on t become a teacher and then head teacher. no children in my care have been or will be treated like that. Also loved mrs hailes and mr Jackson. I think weall need a reunion! What is barry doing these days?

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    • Hi Joanne! So great to hear from you and that you’re doing well. It’s outrageous to think of you with a dunces hat; you were the cleverest person in the school. I lost track of Barry in 1995 and he was my only contact with the past. He was working on the island of Lindisfarne at a retreat. Did you have a chance to read any the other Sherburn related articles too? All the best.

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      • Yes I read all of them and they brought back so many memories.They painted such a clear picture of the past, I could see the wood corridors and smell the stale tobacco in the staff room but most of all the people and friends who played such an important role in our early lives. By the way I always thought that you and Barry were much cleverer than me! Keep writing and take care! Joanne

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