I have been taught by the timid, the tremendous, the tired and the terrible – quite a few of the latter in truth. The best weren’t necessarily either good teachers or knew their subject but they had character – some indefinable something that set them apart from the heaving mass of the barely competent didacts that peopled my formative years.
It is hardly surprising that even 50 plus years on I remember each and every primary school teacher, bar the very first – and while her name has slipped somewhere into the out tray marked ‘open when senile’, I can still see her now, all black frothy hair and pinched lips with the safety catch off.
Mostly I recall terror with the occasional rainbow.
The first four were women, a mix of the starched and the serene, the philosophical and the psychopathic. The last, at primary school, was a man, Mr Hole a scholastic mole of a man with large shoes, hairy knuckles and the kindest smile.
In part one, I’ll consider the first two.
The starched came first with Mrs Pritchard. She was deputy head, taught me in what is now year 2 and had a Mrs Doubtfire quality about her elbows. Her ubiquitous cardigan, worn whatever the weather, would be pulled close if she became annoyed. You could judge the imminence of some egregious punishment by the size of the overlap as she folded her arms and lifted her bosoms, as if preparing them to be a ritual sacrifice to the gods, or maybe release them into the wild to create havoc amongst we natives.
I do credit her with making me listen. At some point she singled me out, after we had listened to a story on the radio – a real treat circa 1963/4 – to explain the plot. I failed and was sanctioned – the stand-in-the-corner humiliation which was far worse, for me, than physical chastisement. After that I listened, so much so that my little hand went up after every story and she had to tell me not to bother – there were others to render into stone first. Maybe, indeed surely my love of stories stems from then.
Do I remember any of the stories? No, but I can describe precisely the corner I stood in, the flaking blue paint on the skirting board, the rhombodic black stain by my right sandal, the smell of dust and cleaning fluid and puppy’s ears. I’ve never liked corners.
It was during my tenancy with Mrs P that I was given ‘responsibility’ viz as ‘form’ monitor. This isn’t grand; it involved me and one other soul putting up and taking down the benches that were used at lunch time. And I was chosen because of my particular talent; I was big for my age so capable of the physical effort needed. I lived in terror of losing my new found status and was threatened with such humiliation when I refused to eat the proffered shepherd’s pie one lunchtime. We had shepherd’s pie every Wednesday so why I took against it so violently is anyone’s guess but I did. This scholastic Scylla and Charybdis moment had its nadir after that threat. To retain my post I had to eat the pie; to eat the pie I would inevitably die. My decent into madness began and I toyed with either accepting the revolver of refusal and blowing out my fragile ego rather than be striped of my responsibilities or I committed culinary suicide. My mother, an astute reader of my moods realised this was no silly fixation and did what she never did: she wrote a note. Parental note-writing was like being taken to court expecting to be incarcerated only to be offered a full pardon and compensation. Clutching my Get Out Of Jail free card, I headed for school with a spring in my scuffed sandals. I approached dinner time with an unusual degree of confidence. The dinner lady saw me staring at that day’s main course and mistook my surprise and consternation. “No pie today. They forgot the potatoes. Next week, eh?”
The Philosophical came next in the shape of Mrs Taylor, a woman for whom the redundant inkwells on our desks were a source of fascination. By 1964 we had fountain pens, rather than the quills that they were designed for but that didn’t stop her discussing them, referencing them and, indeed, one day using them as makeshift vases when we picked some daisies. She would stop and stare out of the windows – designed so we could only see the sky, I suppose, to stop us day dreaming about playtime and achieving precisely the opposite effect with Mrs Taylor. She was a compulsive smoother: her skirt, the surface of her desk, our exercise books when she opened to read our work and our hair if we did something that pleased her. I wanted to please Mrs Taylor; she could do disappointment like no other, not, that is, until I got a dog.
Mrs Taylor was the first person to award me a proper prize. In my primary school you could acquire a merit badge for a week, handed out at the final assembly on Friday afternoon if you achieved three merits in that week; by the same token, three demerits and you got to visit the heads office – Mr Akers, now that was a scary prospect. These badges were first awarded in Mrs Taylor’s year, the year three and were beyond precious, a combination of a Faberge egg, saffron strands and moon dust. When she announced, several weeks into term that someone had won the first merit badge, we all looked around, wondering who it was. Even then I think we all knew it had to be a girl. But then she came to my desk and smoothed my hair. Me? Me! Surely some mistake.
I don’t think I ever felt as good again. It’s not that other events (my wedding, my children’s births) weren’t stunning moments that are seared into my memory; it was the sheer unexpected surprise. The fact that I never got another and all the evidence is I peaked too soon is by the by. For that Friday afternoon I flew. Gravity was for mortals and I was a god.