Outside my comfort zone (1) – Making a speech at the Old Boys’ Dinner

Prize Day at Salford Grammar School: Dave Starr, Dave Rimmer, Pete Britton and me

About a month ago, I made a speech at the Salford Grammar School Old Boys’ Dinner.

My two older brothers are stalwarts of the Old Boys’ Committee and have been badgering me for years to get on my hind legs and say something at the annual event. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid attending it for most of the last forty years.

There were several reasons for this. The dinner is always on a Thursday evening, and when I was a full-time teacher in London, it was more or less impossible to get to Salford on a Thursday. More recently, the dinner has often coincided with one of my spring ELT conference visits.

This year, I had no such excuse…

For those of you not familiar with the geography of this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden – oh, sorry, got carried away with a speech from Richard II, there…. if you don’t know where the city of Salford is, it’s stuck like a limpet to the west side of Manchester. Salford used to be heavily industrial, now it isn’t. The BBC has recently re-located a sizeable part of its radio operation to a new site there. The long-running TV soap Coronation Street is set in Salford.

If you know the paintings of LS Lowry, then you may also know that Salford is the backdrop for most of his work. Below is a Lowry painting which is actually called Coronation Street.

Coronation Street, by LS Lowry

Old boys of Salford Grammar School include actor Albert Finney, film director Mike Leigh, singer Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills and Nash) and two members of Joy Division, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner. And if you know anything about gardening, you may be a fan of Dr D G Hessayon, author of the Expert gardening books, which have sold about fifty million copies. Up there with Headway, in fact. 🙂

If you haven’t heard of Dr Hessayon, you can read about him here – http://bit.ly/IERm1q

Salford Grammar School opened in Leaf Square in the centre of the city in 1932. Salford isn’t actually that leafy. Leaf Square is in fact named after Mr J G Leaf, who financed the construction of several public buildings in the area.

In 1956, the school moved to more spacious premises opposite Buile Hill Park, one of Salford’s nicest open spaces. It was in the dining room of the museum in Buile Hill Park that I made my speech at the Old Boys’ Dinner last month. Across the road from the park, where the school I attended used to be, there is now a building site.

On the day of the Old Boys’ Dinner, I drove from London to Yorkshire to pick up my brother Graham, then we drove across the Pennines to Manchester to pick up my other brother Geoff, then into Salford, past the building site that used to be my school and into Buile Hill Park.

We were amongst the first to arrive, and as the two hundred or so Old Boys drifted in, I noticed someone who was in the same year as me. A short man, he had been an aggressive boy at school, not very interested in studying, but a very good football player. He was very confrontational and was also good at looking after himself. I remember not liking him very much and that the feeling was mutual.

I approached him. “I’m really sorry, I’ve forgotten your name,” I said.

“Paul Calder,” he replied. (I’ve changed the name, so don’t google him!)

“I remember you were a very good soccer player,” I added, courting favour madly.

“Right,” he replied. “I just didn’t have a very good attitude.”

Well, at least he seemed to have developed some self-awareness.

I was interested and a bit surprised to hear that he had been good enough to sign for Manchester City. He played for two years in their reserve team and then moved into semi-professional football. I suppose I was surprised because he wasn’t very tall. I think smaller football players have to be very good to get to the top – think of the Barcelona trio of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.

The SGS Under 15s SGS rugby team sometime in the 60s. I think we broke all records – fewest wins, fewest points scored, most points scored against.

I digress.

We sat down and were served a very good meal by the well-trained waitstaff at the dining room. As the time approached for me to make a speech, I rather wanted to go away and find a quiet corner. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option.

The prospect of talking to a large group of men aged between 55 and 85, most of whom had consumed a fair amount of alcohol, was definitely outside my comfort zone. It didn’t help that various people had told me that both of my brothers had made brilliant speeches at the OB Dinner before. I was very aware of the fact that – for this kind of audience at least – I’m simply not in the same class as they are.

For a start, I don’t tell jokes, at least not ones that will amuse a large group of tanked-up Salfordian men. And I don’t live in the north, whereas the vast majority of the people there that evening still live within a few kilometres of where they grew up. And most of them seemed to have done pretty well for themselves.

But the thing that was worrying me most was that I had decided to talk about the only thing I really know about, which is teaching. I was having terrible second thoughts, but there wasn’t much I could do about it now…

I was the second person to make a speech. The first had been some important local cleric. I was surprised that his speech lacked a central theme, and consisted mainly of a series of rather lame jokes. There had been a certain amount of unrest in the room as he plodded on. Paul Calder was clearly bored and talked quite loudly to the people at his table, and even the ones at a neighbouring table, during the speech.

Now it was my turn. The chair of the association introduced me. “To propose the toast to the school, I’d like to welcome Ken Wilson,” he said. “Ken lives in Fulham and is a season ticket holder at Fulham Football Club, apparently.”

He paused. A mixture of boos and sympathetic laughter filled the room.

“And I’m told he’s written a lot of books. For teachers. And for people in China.”

This rather random description of my working life seemed to puzzle most of the assembled Old Boys into silence.

“Anyway, he’s the youngest of the three Wilson brothers, and he’s the last one of them to make a speech at The Dinner. And, let’s be honest, he’s going to have to be good to compare with Geoff and Graham. Gentlemen, I give you Mister Ken Wilson!”

“You can keep him!” yelled Paul Calder.

So now I was on my feet, and the microphone was in my hand.

I started with a story about taking my brother Graham to meet Albert Finney backstage at Wyndhams Theatre in London after a performance of Yasmina Reza’s play Art. Most people found it quite amusing, but Paul Calder started a noisy conversation with his neighbours.

I decided to intervene.

“Paul,” I said. “I know you were a much better football player than me, but this is my speech, so I’d be grateful if you’d just button it for a minute, OK? I’ll have a word with the committee and maybe you can make a speech next year, but this is my turn, so just pipe down.”

I had never delivered a put-down like that before. It isn’t usually required at ELT conferences, where I give most of my talks. There was a moment’s silence. And then a round of applause. The audience were on my side!

And I began to talk about teaching and different types of teacher. And what I said clearly stirred up a hornets’ nest for a lot of people there that evening…

I’ll tell you why next time….

I’ve been asked by one of my classmates at Salford Grammar School to correct the ‘rubbish’ (his word) history of the school that I wrote above – so here is his bullet-pointed correction:

  • Founded 1904 as Salford Secondary School for Boys, sharing the building of the Royal Technical Institute which had opened eight years earlier.
  • Moved to purpose-built premises of its own in Leaf Square in 1914.
  • Changed name to Salford Grammar School in 1932.  It was purely a name change for a 28-year-old school.
  • Moved to new premises at Claremont 1956.
  • Merged with Salford Technical High School in 1969 to form Salford Grammar/Technical School.
  • Abolished 1973.

    So now you know 😀


27 thoughts on “Outside my comfort zone (1) – Making a speech at the Old Boys’ Dinner

  1. Bravo, Ken! Thanks for sharing your apprehensions and fears prior to delivering your speech. One might think that for an experienced guy like you, this reluctant challenge wouldn’t have implied much worry and actually would simply have come as “a piece of cake” considering it was more a light-hearted talk for a “bunch” of guys from all walks of life – with all my respects to the crowd. I must say you’ve been quite generous when describing this Paul Calder’s attitude to listening, and l’m sure many of those attending appreciated your stand so as not to let this guy get away with it. Once again, what we teachers sometimes experience in the enclosed space of a classroom is a key example of the real life outside.


    1. Thanks for the supportive thoughts, Luz! Actually, I was a bit horrified at myself for delivering the put-down, despite the positive reaction from the audience. However, as we were driving away from the event, both my brothers congratulated me on the effectiveness of what I did – the proof of the pudding being that ‘Paul’ didn’t make a sound for the rest of the evening.

  2. Hi Ken,

    Just reading the lead up to the speech bit made me nervous! It’s funny how we get up and talk so much in lessons and at conferences/workshops but put us in a situation which is slightly unfamiliar and those good ole nerves kick in again. I was recently raising money for the London Marathon and I organised a fundraising gig, during which I had to get up and speak to a bar full of people, some I knew (friends and family) and some I didn’t. I was really nervous and I think it showed in the first go on the mike. So I sympathise.

    Also, I have felt that feeling of being horrified at yourself for the ‘put down’ or ‘telling off’. It feels out of place with who I want to be as a teacher and person but you know what…it does work sometimes so maybe we just need to suck it up and be brave sometimes! 🙂

    1. I don’t think I would be able to live with myself if I chose to put down a student in class, or a teacher on a training course in this way! 🙂

      However, I am still reminded by my co-performers of the most awful thing i ever said on stage during an English Teaching Theatre show in Germany in the 1980s. A very large boy in the audience had spent the first half of the show shouting loudly in German, not very funny stuff that clearly wasn’t amusing for anyone else.

      About an hour into the show, I was on stage alone asking the audience a question and he set off again. I’m afraid the red mist descended and i said something I really am not proud of. The problem was, the audience thought it was hilarious and the boy shut up. Ends justifying the means? Not sure.

      And the scathing witty put down?

      ‘Shut up fatty. I’m funnier than you are.’

      I’m feeling the old pangs of embarrassment thinking about it…

      1. I know what you mean…I couldn’t quite bring myself to voice my objections in front of a whole class as clearly it would affect the class and the student on many levels (and me).

        I have noticed though that if ‘disruptive’ or ‘offensive’ behaviour is not nipped in the bud, it has grown and even amplified. In one situation I remember when I’d only been teaching a couple of years, one student who was particularly challenging and dismissive of much of what I was trying to teach (IELTS class and I was an examiner at the time) the negativity started to leak out and it ended up with a situation of ‘a bad apple spoiling the bushel’. Before I knew it I had half the class challenging everything I said and losing faith and trust in me. As I said, maybe due to my relative inexperience I did not manage the emerging situation well and I am sure half of the situation was my fault as well as the student’s.

        In fact, I received a bunch of flowers from the difficult student at the end of the course and she apologised for having been a ‘pain in the throat’ [sic] and explained she had been going through a divorce and was having a very difficult time of things. This made me realise, which I have never forgotten, that we sometimes just don’t know what’s going on in our students’ lives outside the classroom and often perceived ‘disruptive/negative behaviour could actually been a manifestation of something that has nothing to do with what’s going on in the classroom or with me as a teacher.

        Thanks for posting, it really made me think. I would have loved to see ‘Paul Caulder’s face though! 🙂

  3. Well, this is taking the conversation in new and interesting directions. I think I’d better get the second part of this blog written, because it will (I hope) set off a discussion about the impact good and bad teaching can have on vulnerable teenagers. The adult situation you describe – divorce causes disruptive behaviour, which then spreads – is the stuff of a more complex discussion.

  4. Ah, great post Ken, I was cringing before you stood up to speak, and am very impressed that you managed to say just the right thing to shut up the Difficult Rude Person and get everyone on your side, that’s an American movie moment 🙂 Looking forward to what happened next!

    1. Thank you, Sophia. I just have to remember NOT to do this kind of thing in front of a class! 😛

  5. Well done, Ken. I suppose this “Paul” is head of the men’s auxiliary or something equally “powerful” at the school, which would incur this hive’s nest stirring. Whatever it is, the support from the audience, who obviously felt the same as you, must have been satisfying.

    1. Thanks Tyson – I really must get the second part written in case people’s conjectures turn out to be more interesting than what really happened! 😛

    1. Thanks, PJ. I think if you grow up in Salford, you’re practically required to turn your life into a plot-line from Corrie!

  6. I really enjoyed reading that, Ken!
    What an experience that must have been – speaking to a non-ELT that consists of old schoolmates to boot.
    Sounds like you really won all of them over!

    You are making me very curious about the speech you made now!
    Care to publish it?


    1. Hi Chia! and welcome to my blog 🙂

      I didn’t actually write anything down – at least not on the computer. I just made some notes. If you read part 2, you will see the content of about a quarter of it.

  7. Dearest Ken – simply loved the post! At first, I felt like being the fourth passenger from Fulham to Salford and who has never had a Calder type during school years? Yes, can’t wait for part two!

    1. Next time you’re in town, Evandro, we can drive up the M1 and have tea with brother Graham.

  8. This made me think about school pecking orders and how they somehow maintain themselves through to adulthood.

    Have been to some school reunions myself, where, fortunately, no one has ever been called upon to make a speech to anyone, and what a good thing that is!

    It’s odd how our highschool persona haunts us for life no matter what other things we have done and how successful or unsuccessful we have turned out to be!

    A good read, Ken, thanks for sharing this.


    1. Pecking orders, oh my goodness, yes! I didn’t mention it, but as soon as I saw ‘Paul’, I thought of the playground football games where he enjoyed humiliating those who weren’t as good as him (which was most of us, of course) with his skill – and then belittling us verbally as well.

  9. Yet another wonderful read, Ken. Personally, I enjoyed all the background stuff about Salford, and to think I watched Corrie for 20 years or so, never realising where it was set exactly! Or indeed that “that painting” is called ‘Coronation Street’.

    I also thought the introduction they gave you was incredibly rude and disrespectful – though I daresay you’ve spiced things up a bit for the reader! I’ll have to check out the video on YouTube. “I’m told…” .

    I’ve only been to one Old Boys’ Reunion, which was a very formal occasion (RGS, High Wycombe). We toasted the Queen at one point during the dinner. How about you? I felt so silly.

    Anyway, looking forward to the follow-up. Superb stuff, Ken.


    PS. I googled ‘Paul Caulder’ but I couldn’t possibly reproduce the results here.

    1. Mike, you have made me feel guilty about misrepresenting the chair, a lovely bloke who has been through some personal difficulties in the past few years, As I said in a FB message, he also said some other slightly skewy things which made me sound like the most famous person in the world of ELT, given to him by my adoring older brothers, The parts about Fulham FC, gentle booing and writing books ‘for teachers and people in China’ are true, though.

  10. What a lovely story – and what a wonderful put-down! I have just retired (I think) from teaching and I, too, have some great stories, this one from the classroom. No cell phones are allowed in my Communications classes, so we could actually work on communicating! One older (4os) student forgot to turn his phone off. It rang during my lecture and he answered it, clearly embarrassed. I stopped my lecture and everything fell completely silent, save for his mumbling into the phone: “I can’t talk! I’m in a class!” – he looked at me with frantic eyes, maybe hoping (fruitlessly) to hear that it would be okay to leave the class and take the call in the hallway. I smiled at him and said: “We’ll wait.” And we all waited. He briefly listened to who knows what on the other end, his face mostly hidden in his hands. Then he abruptly ended the call and slumped deeper in his seat. Every face in that classroom was smiling as I resumed my lecture.

    1. Hi Jane, and welcome to my blog. Interesting story. These days of course, there’s a movement amongst English teachers who advise us to let students leave their cell phones on and use them as part of the class. Why waste all that expensive technology? In fact, allowing students to use their own tech in class is one of my ten motivational strategies in my current conference talk.

      By the way, at the very same time you may have been writing this, Dede was taking a tumble off a horse on Wimbledon Common. She was stuck in hospital for most of yesterday while they checked here out. Lots of bruising, a gash on her shin, but otherwise just shaken up. Thank G for helmets!

  11. Brilliant. Takes some bullocks too… bet you had some adrenaline there, Ken!

    Rugby player, eh! Third player on left in back row? I’ll shoot you off my very similar pic with a very similar hall-of-fame squad that lost ’em all. 😉 -brad

    1. As you can see, I was the second tallest person in the team. I was dragged kicking and screaming away from the soccer pitch because they needed tall people in the team. Never enjoyed playing rugby at school and wasn’t very good at it.

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