My headmaster still owes me £50

(What inspires children may not be what we think…)

He was The Headmaster of the junior side of the school. The title alone held us in awe.

He had an office, way, way down the far end of the dark corridor. You didn’t even want to peek in, through the haze of stale tobacco smoke. That room held far too much power. It was also home to the cane. I saw it once, but thankfully never felt its sting.

Mr Jackson carried the potent aroma of his tobacco smoke around with him. At 63 he was probably the oldest man we knew and reminded me of the first Doctor Who, appearing sometimes friendly, sometimes crotchety, sometimes god-like and sometimes fun.

He lived in a terraced house at the entrance of our modern estate. His authority didn’t require wealth to back it up. He’d often entertain us with stories in assembly like the one of his birthday when his son had bought him a new Jaguar car. He’d been told it was parked outside and had ventured out to find a 1:36 scale Corgi toy car in the middle of the drive with a ribbon round it. We all enjoyed the joke, although I wondered why he hadn’t told us if it was an XJ6 or XJS.

When Mr Jackson did get a new car it was a brand new cream coloured Austin Mini Metro. We all crowded round, amazed at the W reg which he pointed out was the first to be delivered in the county. It was the first new model of car that I was aware of. We’d all seen the adverts on TV and in the papers. The Metro just looked so futuristic and how cool that our headmaster was the first person to get one.

Mr Jackson was also a councillor and there was an election around the same time as the general election. The North East of England was always going to be a left-wing Labour stronghold, even with the impending Conservative landslide victory of Mrs Thatcher that year. But Mr Jackson stood as an Independent Labour candidate. I never knew why. Perhaps he felt official Labour was out of step with what the country needed under Michael Foot, but still held onto his socialist ideals. But whatever it was, Sean and I thought he needed some support. After all, he was our headmaster. So we made banners and strode around the village proclaiming ‘Vote Jackson’. We didn’t tell him that’s what we were doing, we wouldn’t have dared. But he found out and thanked us in assembly. I don’t know if our canvasing had any effect, but he did win.

One day he heard me talking to some kids at lunchtime about the Space Shuttle Columbia 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 listened and then thanked me and went back to his office.

It was early summer, 1982 when we all went as a class for a nature walk up Sherburn Hill. Not the road lined with houses, but the wild, overgrown woodland and heath-like hill, that it was said, was partly an overgrown Victorian rubbish dump. It was certainly mysterious. Mr Jackson came with us and pointed out with a stick the trickle of water that carved its way down the hill, forging the dirt path that we were walking on.

“Look at that,” he said, “water always flows down, always makes its way downwards.”

I thought about this for a moment. He was right, it did. Then he turned to me.

“I’ll give £50 to anyone who shows me where water runs uphill!”

Then he turned and carried on the trek up the path.

I paused and thought. Water does flow downhill. Is there any an occasion that it goes the other way? £50? I had to find a way. Then it came to me. Of course! I’d seen water go uphill… when we put the car through the carwash, the blower blows the water droplets up the windscreen. I quickened my step to catch up with Mr Jackson. Hang on, I thought, what about, what-do-you-call-it, ‘capillary action’, if you put a tissue in a beaker of water and hang it over the edge, the water will rise up out of the beaker. Then I remembered making wine with my Dad too. We had the wine in large demijohns and when we wanted to get it out we’d put in a clear tube and my Dad sucked on it until the wine poured all the way through the tube and into the bottle: the wine had gone up hill. Then I thought about the Space Shuttle. I’d seen water, floating about in big blobs in the zero gravity of space. I’d thought of four ways that water flowed up hill! But I couldn’t catch up with Mr Jackson and most of the rest of the walk we were in single file.

Over the following week I looked for the opportunity to tell him what I knew and claim my £50 but the chance wasn’t forthcoming. Going up to his office wasn’t an option, I had to wait for a opportune meeting.

It was early summer and nearly the end of school. I would have to be quick. But for the last two weeks of term I was quite ill. I missed the celebrations of leaving junior school and, in the autumn we went to different secondary schools so I never saw my old chums again, except for Sean and Barry. I missed Mr Jackson’s retirement party too in that last week. Mr Hall presented him with a gift as he was due to take over, Barry said. The children had all been presented with a gift, an ‘Observers Book of…’ something. Weeks earlier we were asked what we all wanted. I’d chosen the Observer’s Book of Cars. Barry had picked up my book for me. They’d got me the Observer’s Book of Cats.

I never saw Mr Jackson again. Not long after his retirement I heard he had died, suddenly, from a heart attack. I never got that chance to thank him for the riddle, to give him my ideas and to claim the £50.

Perhaps to inspire children we don’t need to be magnificent. Perhaps we don’t need to be momentous. Perhaps all we need to be, is to engage with them and to be there with them, for them. Thank you Mr Jackson.

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

I own the only surviving copy of time

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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The Changing Business Landscape

Me at the BWC doing my "40 seconds". Thanks to

I took my Dad along to a recent Business Wealth Club networking meeting and it made me think how much the business environment has changed. When he was out on the road as a sales engineer from the 1960s to being a sales manager in the 70s and 80s and director in the 90s and 2000s he was employed by a company and travelled around his area visiting prospects and customers. He’d meet his colleagues at head office or regional offices and at the various exhibitions and dinners. There was no real line of communication with competitors, why should there have been? After all, his was the first generation to discover that a job is not for life, there wasn’t an environment of switching allegiances to rival companies.

Now it’s different. I know who my competition are and what they’re doing. I often team up with them to pitch for larger jobs o to work together on certain projects. We are in an age of joint ventures, of companies being smaller but teaming up to supply each other with extra knowledge or resources.

Looking around the room at the networking event I could see 150 people. I knew 75% of them personally. Even though many of their businesses are completely different to my own. I’d probably worked with about 15% of the room and had made profit making connections with 40%.

What’s changed since the late 20th century is the concept of silos, or companies as competing tribes. Most people wok for a small business with less than 100 employees. There’s much more interaction with people who don’t work for the same business and this has allowed, in the more entrepreneurial businesses to realise that cooperation and cross-company teamwork (often called Joint Ventures) is the new way to do business.

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A child’s view… of strangers

When we try to communicate a message to children, what they receive isn’t always what we might intend. I was reminded of this when I thought back to the ‘Stranger Danger’ message that haunted my youth in the late 70’s and early 80s.

There was a rumour that on Sherburn Hill there was a cave in which a tramp lived who had tortured and killed loads of children. You didn’t use the word paedo then. It was ‘strangers’ then and they were always tramps, or escaped mental patients, or both. Naturally everyone at school set off for Sherburn Hill to find him.

It was an interesting dichotomy. In assembly we were brainwashed with fear into the dreadful inevitability of being kidnapped by a stranger, most likely from outside the school gates that afternoon. The councillor’s daughter was exempt from assembly because she was Jewish so she wasn’t allowed to hear All Things Bright and Beautiful. But she had to come back in when it was time to show the Stranger Film.

The premise of the film was that everyone you knew was good and everyone you didn’t know probably wanted to torture and kill you.

But they were clever, these strangers, tempting kids into their Hillman Avengers with the offer of sweets or to come and look at some puppies or kittens (we all groaned, whoever fell for that lame trick deserved to be tortured and killed).

The latest tactic though was harder to spot. The stranger would approach you and pretended your mother was ill and that he was going to have to pick you up, posing as a neighbour or long lost uncle. To survive this threat we were told to have a password, known only to our mothers and ourselves.

The video said we should use the name of our teddy bears. Mine was called ‘Teddy’ so that wouldn’t be too useful.

I started thinking of some complex riddle that would catch out and reveal such a stranger and then longed for the opportunity to try my method out, but I could never find any suitable strangers.

The other place strangers would lurk was on the merry-go-round in play areas. The video warned that strangers actually looked quite normal, just like ordinary people and not at all like the monsters they really were. To demonstrate this they showed a stranger in a playground. His face morphed into a hideously deformed monstrous face, “if strangers looked like this,” said the video, “you’d know not to talk to them.” A few of the girls burst into tears of mortal fear and had to be led out of the hall for counselling. The rest of us were left scarred and haunted by that sudden reveal of the stranger monster in the playground, and for ever more expecting everyone we didn’t know to pull off their fake human visage to reveal a writhing maggot infested melted monster face like Doctor Who’s Magnus Greel or Scaroth of Jaggaroth (both who, incidentally, kidnapped and tortured people).

The stranger concept was burnt into our psyche. So much so that the most memorable television of the era was produced by children on this very topic. Michael Rodd hosted Screen Test where a bunch of kids were shown film clips and had to answer observation tests on them. The best bit of the show was the bit in the middle where they showed films that ordinary kids had made and sent in. These were the days long before video was a viable tool. All the children’s films were shot on cine film. To be able to do that you had to have money, obviously, but also a lot of dedication which translated into talent and skill. This meant that the films submitted were amazingly good. There were at least two that haunted a generation.

There was one called I Scream which was about a stranger who had disguised himself as an icecream man. When some boys came to buy an icecream they were bundled into the van and driven away to be tortured and killed. The closing eerie music to this two minute masterpiece of horror was the ice-cream van tune blending into a piercing scream.

Another was a black and white cartoon of a man dreaming of a hooded figure walking and walking. The figure was death. It walked and walked through a wilderness up to a house. It went inside. We then saw the man sleeping in a room. The door opened and there was the hooded figure. The man awoke in horror, saw the figure and died. The young audience of the country had nightmares for decades afterwards.

The films sent into Screen Test were of such a high quality that the producers went round to one boy’s house, expecting to find it had really been made by an award winning film-maker. Instead they found a 14 year old genius. Screen Test folded when cheap video cameras became affordable and any old idiot could make a film. The producers must have got bored with having to wade though tape after tape of filmed farting competitions.

So we were terrified of strangers, people about which we knew nothing, but fascinated by stories of weirdos and witches about whom rumours abounded as to where they might be found, ready to be sought out and if possible, knock on their doors and run away, laughing with the childish relish that we’d danced with death but were still alive.

Sean and I found the tramp’s cave on Sherburn Hill. Someone had definitely been there and had lit a fire. There were some dirty clothes and rags in the corner. There was no evidence of any child murders, no blood or bones, not even any evidence of shackles and forced slavery. There were bits of rusty metal scattered about. It looked like far more evidence of a Dalek Invasion of Earth so we went off and imagined that instead until teatime.

The message of ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is a crippling one if you don’t manage to shake it off by adulthood. Many people don’t and therefore aren’t very good at networking. Of course it’s easy to be flippant about this topic, especially when you’ve survived to adulthood when this particular threat is no longer relevant. Until you have children of your own that is.

The Stranger videos were shown less and less in the 1980s as it was realised that a much bigger threat to children came from people they actually did know. It appears successive governments couldn’t think of a public information film to tackle the danger from the school caretaker, care workers or even family members.

I’m surprised the scare tactics haven’t been re-visited to tackle child internet safety which appears to pose a much greater threat to our children than the rare cases of ‘stranger danger’ hysteria of previous decades.

By the way, don’t watch this clip, especially at the 3:06 point.

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?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

The Creative Troublemaker

The End of a Friendship

Book Ayd to speak at your event.
For more interesting info see: