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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I own the only surviving copy of time


Sherburn Village Infants and Juniors, Christopher Instone, Sean Murphy, Kevin Tall

School mates, 1980. That’s Sean bottom left, my brother 3rd from right at the back. I’m not there as I was rubbish at football.

No school reunion information ever came. No invite ever came. No word of any kind ever came from anyone. Not to me anyway. It was as if no-one from 1981 wanted to make contact with anyone from 2011. None of the names etched on my memory ever turned up on Facebook. Friends Reunited revealed no clues. Even a Google search produced no results. It was as if they didn’t exist, or rather they only ever existed in the past. And the past only exists in my mind.

Childhood and schooldays seem so very long when it’s all you have. Those formative years loom so large in making us who we are and yet it’s only 12 years. Most of us have a working memory of only around seven of those years, just seven magical Christmases (if we were lucky). Many of us spend the rest of out lives trying to re-enter the Eden of those seven years – or sometimes sadly to try to escape from or forget it.

At this point there’s something you must know. I own the past. I am a custodian of time. I keep it filed away neatly in the catacombs of my mind. Bigger on the inside, I can store whole volumes of reality, all tidily stacked and all in order on wooden bookshelves. The coloured spines haven’t faded in the sun. In that sense I’m a collector.

I didn’t set out with that in mind, rather I became a custodian by default. Each one of us was given a subscription to time. I kept the payments up and kept every single copy. All placed in binders and catalogued contextually. The others didn’t. They cancelled their subscription somewhere along the way. They failed to pick up their copies from the newsagent. The ones they did get were never read and thrown out with the Hubba Bubba wrappers and the Tip Top drinks cartons. Any that did remain that they must have kept by accident, behind the sofa, under the stairs, in the attic, have all yellowed in age and either rotted away into dank indescribable matter or crisped up like brittle dry leaves to crumble upon inspection.

I know that I have the only surviving copy of that time.

So I went back. To find the truth. To find out if the past was real and that it had actually existed. In the centre of Durham, apart from the art deco cinema where I saw all three Star Wars films being boarded up, along with Woolworths, little seemed to have changed since the 1970s. Little seemed to have changed since the 1870s. Sherburn Village lies three miles out of the city. Nothing had changed but everything was different.

Because I didn’t know anyone, there was no-one to call on to talk about old times. I couldn’t really knock on a door and say, “Hello, you may remember me. I used to come round and play with Sean when we were seven. Is he in?” Of course he’s not in. He’s not coming out to play. Not now. I realised that I’d never said goodbye to any of my old playmates. I’d never said goodbye to any of my teachers. Life had simply moved on to the next episode. It feels as though they are all still part of my life and that the past thirty years has just been an extended summer holiday. Any moment now a new term will begin and we’ll all be back again, lining up in the playground with excitement and anticipation about the new year and the fun we’ll have. And then Saturday will come around again and we’ll be free to play out for the whole day up on Sherburn Hill, until tea time and Doctor Who.

I drove past Sean’s house. Perhaps he was in? Perhaps he was waiting for me to call? I’d borrow his sister’s plastic skateboard and he’d have his wooden green one and we’d set off on an adventure to save the world. Perhaps we’d be able to pick up from before things went wrong and be best friends again?

It was hard to turn the car round in the estate as the pavements were straddled on both sides by cheap Japanese and French cars in a cluttered contrast to the wide open streets I owned in the pictures in my mind.

I drove up the main street, up to the school. Being the largest building in the village by far, dwarfing the rows of coal miners cottages that surrounded and paid homage to it, it became the centre of village life. It was one long single-storey building but due to it’s enormously high ceilings, it looked from the outside that it would have at least three floors. A highly polished wooden corridor ran down the centre of the building like a major artery with classrooms off to the right and the main hall down the left. The infants were at the near end with the juniors down the opposite end with the headmaster’s office located at the far end on the left.

Outside the headmasters office was ‘the copier’. It was a magical futuristic machine that copied things. I longed to be able to learn its secrets. Perhaps I could put my Palitoy Talking Dalek in there, press the button and it would copy it and I’d have two. My Talking Dalek was my most treasured possession. It was the silver one with blue spots. When you pressed the button on the top it said a variety of phrases that were etched on a tiny record inside. Simon McKitterick’s dad got him one from Doggarts’ sale and it didn’t have an eye, gun or sucker arm. I made him some from bits of plastic. His older brother swapped the record with that of some girl’s doll. So the Dalek said ‘Mama’ and someone’s pink dolly said ‘Exterminate’ and ‘You will obey’.

There was a playground to the front of the school for the juniors and to the rear for the infants. Behind the rear playground was the dining hall, a stand alone refectory where we all had our dinners in either a first or second sitting. Behind that were allotments. Sean and I crept round there and collected as many snails as we could find and lined them all up on the dining hall’s open windows. By lunchtime the parade of thirty plus snails had slithered into the building like a mysterious Biblical plague that flumuxed the catering staff.

I often thought of us all being there in the late 1970s having followed in the same footprints of children from six previous decades. Some of the children in my class were following in their parents and grandparents footsteps by attending the school in that very same building. I thought about 1913 when it had been built and how it must have been to live in a time when the coal mines gave a steady and honourable way of life that looked like it would last forever. Even here, in a small, irrelevant, working class north eastern village there would have been that feeling of Edwardian tranquility. I thought how that would have been shattered by just the following year. How many children would have lost fathers or brothers in the Great War? How many children who attended the school in its early years would have themselves had to leave village life to go off to the horror of the Second World War two decades later. It made the late 1970s seem like an even more peaceful and perfect golden age. I never thought of the World Wars as being distant events. They were always close. Grandad Pedley had been a mechanic in the Second World War, serving in Egypt. My other Grandad, my Dad’s dad, was in the Durham Light Infantry. He fought at the Somme in 1914 as a Lewis gunner. He had told my Dad a few stories and these were retold to me. One evening he had been given orders to take a message to another trench, a few miles away. He had to cross an area of no-mans-land to get there. He slowly crossed, slithering on his belly through the deep mire of mud in the dark. He returned the following day, in daylight. As he saw the fields he had crawled across the previous night he could now see that it hadn’t been mud at all but the bodies of hundreds and hundreds or horses and men. He was later injured, his helmet took a shot and jammed onto his head, knocking him unconscious. When he awoke he was hundreds of miles away. He survived and eventually came back, fortunately for me. Millions didn’t.

I drove up from the crossroads. It was one hundred metres from the VG grocery shop on the corner. I knew that because I’d measured it with a measuring wheel from school when we were learning about measurements, units and maths. Then I could see the school railings. They comprised of a wall bricked up to about a foot high upon which were yard high gloss black railings each ending in a point.

But beyond the railings there was no school.

I drove past, confused, not able to stop to look properly. I turned the car around and drove past again. No school. No building from 1913. No playgrounds. There was just a higgldy piggldy set of late 1980s flats, all squashed up within the familiar railings upon which my school adventures had begun. It was as if the school building had never been there. It was such an obvious cover-up job. The school had been erased from history, denied, hidden. Surely the foundations would still be there? Perhaps we’d see evidence from aerial photography? There must be records? Photographs? The ugly flats stood firm, blatantly lying that they’d always been there, challenging me to prove otherwise. A mist of amnesia had descended on the village. The people and the architecture had drunk a draft from the well of forgetfulness. New had denied the old.

But I can prove it wrong. I still have the original copy, my records, in my mind. I can think of them and can bring them to life once more and as children we’ll all live and laugh again.

I own the only surviving copy of that time.

When you’ve a moment, search your mind archives and see what unique time recordings you have stored away.

 

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

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

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

Book Ayd to speak about Creativity and Inspiration for Innovation at your event. A great way to open your conference!
For more interesting info see:

www.aydinstone.com