“Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life…How is your life different today because of him..”
At a stretch, I think I could probably recall at least something about most of the teachers I’ve had, but there are only two who I could say had any discernible impact on the way my life has turned out.
Amongst the also-rans, I particularly remember this motley crew:
- Mr M–, who taught music at primary school. Ex-RAF. Firmly believed that the inability of an eight year old to sing a middle C on demand was prima facie evidence that the whole country was going to the dogs, and had been since VE Day.
- Mr A–, who taught ancient history in the first two years of secondary school. Ex-Army. Firmly believed that the only way for an eleven-year old boy to learn anything was to copy down, with unquestioning assiduousness, everything he wrote on the blackboard in his neat, tiny script.
- Mr W–, who taught French in third year. Could have been an ex-refugee. Memorable only for summing up my whole life in one withering, but fair, end-of-term report: ‘weak but tries‘. Thanks for that.
- Mr G–, the headmaster. Ex international rugby player. Possessed an utterly resolute Old Testament faith, given modern expression in his immovable belief that not only moral rectitude but also basic intelligence was in direct proportion of the shortness of ones hair and the shininess of ones shoes (black, definitely no slip-ons).
And then there was Ang (another Mr G–) and Twi (Mr S–). These were the big guns, who did not trouble themselves with anyone but A-level candidates. Twi taught English, while Ang was head of both History and Economics.
A-level courses lasted two years, and at my school you chose four subjects for your first – Lower Sixth – year, after which one of them had to be dropped to focus on the others in the Sixth.
My initial A-level choices pretty much made themselves. Science was never a viable option (just didn’t get it; still don’t) and the already stated views of Mr W– on my linguistic ability effectively ruled out Languages. By default, that left just four choices – or, in other words, no choice at all: English, Geography and History, in each of which I had demonstrated reasonable proficiency, and Economics, which was only taught at A-level.
Twi was undoubtedly the nicest teacher I ever had. He was relaxed and funny, but still highly effective. He was probably the only master in the whole school whose reaction to spotting one of his pupils asleep (admittedly during a particularly, albeit inescapably, dull exposition on the historical background of ‘Coriolanus’) was simply to lob a piece of chalk at him and say “for God’s sake, H–, I don’t mind you sleeping but please try not to snore”. Either of the Mr Gs would probably have had him strung up.
English had always been my best subject, ever since I started primary school, and I think I was quite good at it. Twi certainly thought so too and encouraged me to think seriously about taking A level and then staying on into the Upper Sixth, a heady zone reserved exclusively for those deemed fit to sit ‘Schols’: the Oxbridge entrance exams. It was a very tempting prospect.
But to do that I would have to drop one of my other subjects. In retrospect, if I had had an ounce of sense I would have given up Geography. However, the problem there was twofold: firstly, I actually enjoyed it in a funny kind of way and, secondly, my form master in Lower Sixth was also the head of the Geography department, an affable cove known as ‘Barrel’. He was keen that I carried on with Geography.
Ang too was ex-Army, and deployed his military background by also being the CO of the school cadet corps. How to describe his teaching style? Imagine Yosemite Sam on amphetamines, although fortunately armed with a blackboard duster rather than a pair of Colt 45s.
He was a whirlwind, forever shooting off rapid-fire questions and woe betide you if you couldn’t come straight back with the correct answer. ‘Well, you’re a right ball of fire, aren’t you?’ would be his withering response to any hesitation or other perceived shortcoming. He was terrifying, but he got the job done. You certainly wouldn’t want him mad at you.
The prospect of having to tell him that I was going to drop Economics or History, given that I would be at his mercy in my final year not only for the other subject, but also because he was going to be my form master, was not something I relished.
So, I didn’t.
I agonised about what to do, but finally – and to my lasting shame – I took the soft option and told Twi that I was going to drop English. He was kind enough to express his regret and even look a little disappointed.
There’s a part of me that will always wonder whether I could have made it to the dreaming spires and from there who knows? A nice professorship, college master, a few books under my belt. Maybe even a groundbreaking TV series on the modern relevance of Thomas Hardy. Probably not Celebrity Big Brother, though (too famous).
But it wasn’t to be.
I scraped a pass at Geography but got good enough grades in the Ang-taught subjects to get me into University. Most importantly, the fact that I had at least an A-level in Economics (which would certainly have been the one to be given up) proved sufficient to con future employers into believing that I might know something about markets and investment.
And without that, I might not be sat here now in Tranquility Base, able to have retired at a reasonable age and mulling about what might have been if I had had the balls to stand up to Ang.
And for that I will always be grateful to him.