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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