There can’t be many left. If at all. Of that cohort of teachers who taught me or otherwise in the 50s – 60s, the last one of any influence on me has passed away. Keith L. a dapper, fussy little man introduced me to the stage – in my UVI at grammar school I played the Spy in Ustinov’s “Romanoff and Juliet”.
I got a lot of laughs, I preened, and my amateur acting career took off. Mr L. and I knew each other for maybe just two months of rehearsal and performance, but those eight weeks gave me, at 17, a confidence to show off which has never left me. I have had small triumphs on-stage which will live, with me at least, forever. And those little self-satisfactions are down to one man.
Keith was one with whom you didn’t mess (or put prepositions at the end of sentences). There were some who were fair game, some whom (nb, Keith!) we tormented. Mostly we just sat in class and got on. We were unpleasant little bullies hiding individual animal savagery beneath the mob anonymity, but in all honesty there were few staff who would allow us to get away with anything much. Most of the masters knew that the best way to control a class was via the tongue, provided you didn’t have a funny voice or looks – could that have been the key? Did we go for some because they were in this way “different”? One odd-looking, odd-voiced master, apart from his various hapless forms of corporal punishment, handed out prefect and Saturday detentions like sweets to a toddler – it made not an atom of difference. And how on earth did he, knowing what awaited him that week from not just my set but from all his boys in all years, ever get out of bed on a Monday? Whatever, it determined me when I wandered vaguely into teaching, that discipline in class was my number one priority. And for this I had an excellent exemplar to look back on. (Sorry, Keith…)
“Charlie” H. taught French. He was a medium sized man with a craggy, hard face, silver hair tightly combed back over his head, a military mien (which he threw in the air and caught), and a man who suffered fools not at all. Nobody, but nobody breathed in his lessons. We sat and worked our buns off. I had him for three years, and he got me through my O and A levels. He knew his subject inside out, and if you worked hard he had much time for you as you struggled with dense translations from and into. If you didn’t work his tongue was a laser of sarcasm. You didn’t go back for seconds. He was absolutely straight in his dealings with you. You worked, he taught and helped. You didn’t work, you didn’t try, you regretted it. Outside class “Chas” was a keen model railway enthusiast and, which endeared him to me, a lover of the “Goon Show”. Do I recall him once imitating Bluebottle? I believe I do. I was discovering that I liked languages at the start of the FourthYear, and Charlie, just by being the tight disciplinarian and knowledgeable articulate teacher that he was, encouraged me to progress to A levels and beyond. I owe him all my knowledge of French and my love of France to this day.
His antithesis, in many ways, was the man who taught me ab initio Spanish for four years, leading me to study the language in university. George G. was a huge bulky man, with a big square red face and a voice that could break windows at 100 yards if he had a mind to. He was a Colonel in the CCF (Charlie, I remember, was a Captain or possibly a Major), and he ran the town’s Adult Evening Classes organisation as well as teaching in the school. He was a very very funny man. His sheer size stopped any misbehaviour in his classes. His lessons had lots of laughter, usually at his jokes and comic remarks, which he regurgitated every year as though they were new and which we greeted like old friends. He would call you a bustard, immediately explaining that he was referring to the Lesser Spotted Bustard, a bird to be found in the wilds of Norfolk. For our first two years of Spanish he promised to do his “famous Chimpanzee call”, (he put the stress on the “a”), and we finally prevailed on him to do this at the end of Year Five. The sight and sound of this enormous man, a teacher, for heaven’s sake, squatting down and hopping round the room uttering these lifelike and totally terrifying simian screams had us all in both horror and delight. In the Lower VI he quite rightly threw me out of the room for some gratuitous rudeness on my part with the words “I’ll kick your bloody arse for you”. Yet by the next lesson he was as affable as ever. One of our Spanish A level texts was a C17 century play which involved rape, and he told us, wryly, that setting young lads like us texts of this kind was ridiculous since we simply didn’t have enough experience of life to begin to understand them. He was right. He was a kind man and his humorous and quirky approach to teaching us influenced my own style in later years.
Discipline and humour were qualities not often found together in the majority of staff, who were for the most part generally unidentifiable at 50 paces. What distinguished Mr D. from them were his humanity, kindness, warmth and patience. Of all the staff, indeed of all the teachers I have known since, including my colleagues, none comes within a country mile of that man. I returned to start the Fifth Form belatedly, having had my tonsils out, and found this teacher in his 50s (I’m sure it was his first term) i/c my form, and also taking me for Maths (set 4 of 4) and Chemistry (set 2 of 2). Oh, and hockey too. In my first Maths lesson with him he asked two questions about factors which, by some astonishing chance, for I was crap at Maths, I was able to answer before anyone else. I’ll never forget the grin he gave me when I did so. He was always immaculately dressed in sports coat, grey flannels, sober tie – too tall, I think, to be “dapper” but you get the idea. He was beyond any shadow of a doubt the best and most inspirational teacher of my educational life. If you wanted to learn, his patience with you was endless. He encouraged you to become confident and believe in yourself. If I had problems with life, I could talk to him. He, alone of all the staff, called me not Friswell but “Fris” from week one. I remember taking my O Level Chemistry practical, getting a gas in a test tube and hesitating. He caught my eye and mimed striking a match. I did. It worked. He was also a man of rigorous standards and would rocket the whole form or indeed an individual if they failed to match his high requirements not so much of behaviour as of decency. But his dressings down were never personal or verbally abusive but cut to the chase and crisply made you feel ashamed of what you’d done. He never bore grudges, and even the rag-tag of set 4 Maths all tried their best to get on with learning. Mr D. alone in one year got me to understand the properties of Hydrogen, simultaneous equations and how to flick a hockey ball. I got two O Levels I was otherwise copper-bottomed destined to fail, and he showed me how to play a game that I enjoyed for thirty-five years more. He was the kindest of father-figures to me at the school, and I have never forgotten him.
“Chas” showed me the value of discipline, George the value of good humour, and Mr D. (I never knew his first name and we respected him too much for any nickname) the value of patience and encouragement. And all three were capable of much kindness, as was Keith. And I hope, I really hope that a good proportion of all that these outstanding teachers did for me, how they presented themselves to me, the values they taught me came across in my 30 years of teaching adolescents. I know how much I enjoyed my time in front of my classes as a result of these men.
As long as my kids did too.