Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?


Snow on Sherburn Hill

Sherburn Hill

I suppose she was the first authority figure we knew, outside our family. Mrs Hailes was headmistress of Sherburn Village Infants. A warm jovial older lady, and although she never took us in class, she taught me the difference between ‘a’ and ‘an’, just while we were waiting to do something else. I would now always know it was ‘an elephant’.

Perhaps ‘being good’ or ‘being naughty’ have little to do with right and wrong or good and evil. I was ‘good’ because I didn’t want to disappoint Mrs Hailes.

My friend Martin ‘lifted’ a Matchbox car from the hall where a jumble sale was being set up. He showed me it in the playground. It was a little second-hand, bashed, paint scratched combine harvester. He held it under the soapy foam that came out of a waste pipe from the sinks in the dinner hall, which was a separate building from the school. The flow of foam made the little combine spin round. It was brilliant, but wrong. I couldn’t believe he’d done it. I knew he shouldn’t have it. I knew we couldn’t put it back. I told him so. Then I dropped it into the drain. I don’t know how Mrs Hailes found out, but she did. We explained everything. She listened. We left. She knew that we knew and that was enough punishment: the shame of letting her down.

We only knew Mrs Hailes for those three first years of school. In 1978, we moved up to the junior side, and Mr Jackson was our headmaster. She retired and went to live on Sherburn Hill. We had a celebration in the hall and she got presents, given by Mrs Reed who would now take her place. She looked happy. But I felt it was sad. I often wanted to go up Sherburn Hill and thank her for the elephants.

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

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.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


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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.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Why do we remember what we remember?


Snow in SherburnSometimes I feel as if every point in my life is all happening right now, all at once and it’s just the bit I chose to focus on that defines the present.

Why do I remember such detail of one ordinary day 30 years ago but can’t recall cleaning my teeth last night? Why do the years pass by, blur and overlap? For some seemingly important events, we struggle to pin them down within a three year margin.

Yet other memories, when we step back into them, we find ourselves right back there, fitting snugly back into our younger skin, our smaller, more agile bones, with perhaps a more inquisitive or sharper mind, living that so-called past it as if it was the here and now, living a life with more time yet to come than time that has passed by.

As I write this it is not January 2012 but January 1982. I’ve woken up to the glaring bright light of the sunshine at the front of the house, through my window, where it is reflected off the blinding snow. There is darkness at the back of the house where the drifts have blown up to cover the downstairs widows. We can’t open the patio doors.

Round at Sean’s house, the drifts are so deep that he wants to jump out of his bedroom window into the snow, just a few feet below. His dad shouts for him not to, “the car’s under there!” he yells. It was true, although there was no sign of their burgundy Vauxhall Cavalier mk1 now. Just the white. For the rest of the day, and the next few weeks, Sean and I explore a new arctic wilderness. Everything has changed. There is no boundary between path and road, field and street. Just pure, untouched white. We build caves and igloos and navigate new uncharted territory until new snowfall and blizzards drive us back.

Sherburn Village, three miles out from Durham in the North East of England, resides on a hill, making it prone to being cut off in the winter by deep snow drifts that blow off the fields around, covering the sleepy village in a snug blanket of pure white. It is a great winter this year. One to remember.

The snow stays until March. Even now there are giant mounds or balls of dirty ice, taller than us, at the end of every road and in the playground for us to climb on.

Winter turns to spring and it’s not until after Easter before my class go on our long anticipated nature trip to look for tadpoles. Although I know it’s far to late to hope to find any. The walk has been delayed for various reasons, the latest being that have to see the school dentist. She’s given us small red sweets that when you chew them your mouth goes all red but it shows up the plaque on your teeth. I don’t see any plaque but we all look like vampires for the day. Then, after this annoying postponement the day has finally come when we can all march off down the country lane to look for our pond life.

The country lane is a black tarmaced road running through open fields and hills. The road is very long and strangely, you always feel warm riding or walking down it.

It starts at the top of our estate and runs a long way leaving our village behind and eventually leads onto the next. The road is lined with bushes. At certain periods there are gaps where you can get into the fields. About a third of the way down, a big steep hill drops down and after another hundred metres past that a smaller hill drops down. It had been impassible with the snow earlier in the year. Then, on a corner to the right is a grass verge, a metre wide by a fence. If you climb over this fence you can get down into a tunnel which goes under the road like a subway. Through the tunnel runs the red stream, the beck after which the village was named. Sherburn means ‘clear stream’. But the water is orange because of some kind of clay so not clear at all. The village should really be called Dirtybrownburn. On the left of the tunnel and steam and a little way above is a path leading to a farm. Another farm is on the right. Beyond is the enormous slag heap from the disused pits which looks like a terrifying mountain in the shape of a giant slug. It has many names like ‘Death Hill’ and ‘Danger Mount’. The hill has very steep sides and no grass grows on its grey shingly sides except at the very top. On the top it’s always very windy and thousands of grasshoppers live there, all different colours. You can try, but you can never catch them. Also on the top is an iron air-raid shelter from the Second World War, full of rubbish, rags and a broken vacuum cleaner. We had had a plan once, to clear it out and turn it into some sort of den, a secret base or an attraction like a cinema or ghost tour. We’re warned not to go there by my next door neighbour who tells us about a similar old air-raid shelter. It also had the same sort of roof made of corrugated iron which had collapsed, cutting in half the bodies of all the children playing in it. We don’t go there again after hearing that.

I love waking down the country lane and now we were off at last on what will be our last nature trip with the school. It isn’t long before we march single file off the road and over a field to where the beck splits and has created loads of tributaries and marsh areas. This is where we will find our exotic animals. We have little jars to catch stuff in. Our teacher, Mrs Begato, has larger containers to carry back the best of what we could find. As expected there are no tadpoles. They’d all have grown legs and leaped off to safety by now. Someone shouts and we rush over to look at the sodden marshy grass at our feet where there is a small but perfectly formed great crested newt. The first and last I’d ever see. I try to catch it but it knows this mud better than us and quickly disappears. We soon return back to school with our prized jars of dirty water, some with a few pondskaters, waterboatmen, mud and algae in them, and keep it all in an aquarium at the back of the classroom.

Then it’s the next day. We’re making plaster casts of Paddington Bear from rubber moulds. When the plaster is dry we pull the moulds off revealing our white bears. Mine looks pretty good, not too many bubbles. As soon as it’s dry I paint his coat blue and his hat black. The paint dries instantly so then I varnish it. Our bears are left to dry over dinner.

At dinner times people were not allowed in doors except to go to the toilet. I come out of the toilet. Sean’s here too. There’s no-one else about. Fueled by the energy of naughtiness, knowing we shouldn’t linger, we dare each other to see how far we can slink down the corridor, perhaps have a look at our Paddingtons. We head off down the narrow dark wooden corridor, towards our class. Then, a door opens and a teacher appears. We dive into our classroom, unseen. There’s our aquarium. The pond skaters happily skating and the water boatmen rowing around the algae. We hear footsteps in the corridor, the click-clack of teacher shoes. We crawl underneath the tables to hide. Under the table was a magazine. We have a flick through this, proud of our victory and then, when the coast is clear, we slink out again.

After dinner, Mrs Begato has some shocking news. During the dinner time somebody had come into the classroom and poured the oil used to lubricate the paster cast moulds into the aquarium and stirred it around. All our animals are dead. I can’t understand how it could have happened. Who would want to kill our pond life?

“I don’t understand how anyone got in, or even dared to” says Mrs Begato. I try not to look at Sean. I wanted to say that we knew the crime must have been committed just before the class had started as we had been here. But of course I couldn’t say that without becoming a prime suspect. It was an odd feeling, knowing that one of our compatriots had done it. One of us. And the perpetrator, the killer, is here, in this room. Mrs Begato knows that too. But since there is no evidence, no witnesses, and no confession, the crime remains unsolved.

MemoryI think about these things now, 30 years later. These events appear to have no consequence, no relevance or reference to today. Since it was the last term of junior school, we were all aged 11, I haven’t seen any of the players since back then. If I did track any of them down, few would remember such details of those particular days. Perhaps if we collected everyone together, they would remember the day before or the day after in incredible detail but they may have no memory of the country lane marsh trip or the Paddington plaster casts just as I have no memory of the following Friday or the proceeding Tuesday. I have, possibly like you, only scant scraps of other stories from 1982 as I have from 1992 and 2002 and all the other years in between and the ones before and since.

This story is important because we are the sum of our memories. We ARE the stories and the experiences. If we remember nothing, we are nothing.

I don’t know why I remember some things but not others. Perhaps I remember the snow because it was unusual and so exciting. We remember things that are outside the routine. Perhaps the puzzle of who killed the pond life is the key to why I remember those other events, the unresolved nature of it all. Does it matter who actually did it? Perhaps there was a conspiracy of silence and everyone but me knew who did the deed so for them the day falls into the deep well of forgetfulness.

Fo me I do keep on pondering. And I wonder: how accurate is my own memory of what really went on? Who WAS in the classroom that dinnertime other than Sean and me?

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

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.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

www.aydinstone.com