The story so far – your humble blogger has been persuaded to make a speech at his grammar school Old Boys’ Dinner. He has had grave second thoughts about his choice of topic, which is an ‘amusing’ categorization of teachers into three types. After a reasonable start to his speech, he finds it necessary to quieten down a noisy member of the audience. As a result, the audience is now on his side.
“Where was I?” I asked aloud. “Oh yes, I wanted to talk about some of the teachers at Salford Grammar School that I remember for different reasons.”
I was suddenly aware of the magical effect that silencing ex-Manchester City reserve midfielder Paul Calder (not his real name) had had on the audience. They were now looking at me with a mixture of surprise and admiration on their faces.
The committee chairman’s introduction had clearly made them think I was a Southern Softy – I mean, who in their right mind would leave Salford/ Manchester to go and live in LONDON, for goodness sake??? And why on earth would a Manchester City fan like me choose to be a season ticket holder at FULHAM???
The fact that I also wrote books ‘for teachers and people in China’ seemed to have confirmed my soft status.
But this Southern Softy had made the most belligerent person in the room shut up. People were clearly thinking – maybe this Wilson lad is harder than he looks.
Editor’s note – no, he isn’t.
Shutting up a heckler only buys you a small amount of time, however. I carried on, aware that I somehow had to keep their attention during the remainder of the speech.
‘A bit like inmates of a prison,’ I said, ‘you can divide teachers into three categories.’
This got a bigger laugh than I had expected.
‘Category A teachers,’ I continued, ‘are ones that you like. You walk into the classroom and you think that things are going to be OK. They won’t ask you anything that’s too difficult, and the atmosphere will be all right.’
I went on the talk about a history teacher who fell into this category. His name was Bob Watt and he was a fervent Manchester United fan. It was always painfully easy to divert him from his lesson plan to talk about football, especially on a Monday morning.
Bob would walk in and say: ‘Right, settle down. Now … the Civil War….’
Someone, usually me, would reply: ‘Talking of the Civil War, sir, were you at the City-United game on Saturday?’
This would lead to a twenty-minute diversion into the state of the First Division and United’s chances of winning it, which were usually quite good. This was, after all, the era of Best, Law and Charlton.
Goodness knows what the boys in the class who didn’t like football made of those classes.
Fortunately, Bob Watt’s other skill was an ability to predict which questions would come up in the History exam. He was always right, O-level and A-level. Despite the amount of time we spent talking about football, everyone passed History.
‘The second Category of teacher, Category B, were the ones who, let’s not beat about the bush, scared you,’ I continued. ‘When you walked into the classroom, you were a bit frightened. Category B teachers poured sarcasm on you if you made a mistake – which frankly is a dreadful way to deal with teenagers – and there was always a risk of punishment. Now … I won’t mention his name, but there was a music teacher —‘
About three people in the audience shouted out a name. It was indeed the man I was thinking of. I suppose my attempt to talk about him anonymously had been doomed to failure.
‘As I said, I won’t name him,’ I continued, trying to suppress a smile.
More people shouted out his name.
A bit of background: at the time that I was at grammar school, teachers were still allowed to administer corporal punishment to pupils. Serious punishment meant the cane, and less serious meant the slipper – usually an old gym shoe.
Bend down and think of England, lads…
Music teacher Mr Sharples (not his real name) was an enthusiastic exponent of this method of creating harmony in the classroom.
I told the Old Boys the story of my second day in his class.
On the first day, Sharples had given us all a book and told us to go home and ‘back’ it. For anyone unfamiliar with this notion, the idea was to put some brown paper on the back of the book and sellotape it carefully, thereby protecting the cover and making the book useable by the next intake of pupils.
The problem was I hadn’t heard him tell us to back the book. I was probably day-dreaming. So when he asked us if we had all backed our books, I looked puzzled. However, a quick look round the room revealed that almost everyone in the class had done as they had been told.
‘Wilson, did you back your book?’
He didn’t really need to ask that. It was clear my book wasn’t backed.
I decided against using the day-dreaming excuse.
‘I forgot, sir.’
‘Go and stand in that corner.’
I went and stood in the corner.
Sharples’ beady eyes looked for another victim.
‘Flanagan, you don’t appear to have backed your book, either.’
Pete Flanagan (his real name) was a great guy to have in the class. He was an expert storyteller and, amongst other things, he seemed to know more about American cars than anyone apart from Henry Ford. Pete wasn’t the type to fall back on the lame ‘I forgot’ reason for having an unbacked book. He launched into a detailed explanation of the complex reasons why his book wasn’t backed.
‘Well, sir, it’s like this, sir,’ he began. “Me dad drove me home from school, and I put the book in the back of the car. The next morning, me dad off to Grimsby with me book in the back of the car, sir…..’
Pete went on at some length until Sharples eventually stopped him.
‘Go and stand in that corner.’ He indicated a different corner.
What a bloody nerve, I remember thinking. Pete Flanagan had made up a cock and bull story and he was going to get away with it.
By the time Sharples had rounded up all the guilty boys, there were five people in the ‘I forgot’ corner and two in the ‘other excuses’ corner. He went to his drawer and took out a mouldy gym shoe. He looked at the five of us with memory loss syndrome.
He didn’t indicate whether we should all bend down at the same time, or one at a time. No one was brave enough to ask what the system was. We all turned to the wall and bent down. It must have looked hilarious to the rest of the class, but no one was laughing.
Sharples walked down the line of offered posteriors and whacked each one once. We stood up and went back to our seats, where eventually the stinging sensation went away.
He then went to the other corner, where Pete Flanagan and the other story-teller were standing. They bent down, and both received two whacks for their troubles. So much for creativity.
As I reached the end of the story, there were a lot of nodding heads in the audience of old boys and I was struck as I had been many times before by the full implications of an education system which allows teachers to physically attack pupils in this way. It’s an absolute disgrace that it should have been allowed. And for not putting a piece of brown paper on a book!
Later, when all the speeches had been made, I mingled with the assembled old boys. Lively discussions were going on everywhere. They all had stories to tell of canings and slipperings for absurdly trivial, or even non-existent, misdemeanors. Clearly the experience of this bizarre punishment ritual remained firmly entrenched in their minds. Some of them wanted to complain about fifty-year-old injustices.
Two or three of them told even more dramatic stories about Sharples, describing him in ways that I don’t wish to repeat now, whether he’s dead or alive.
This is the hornets’ nest I stirred up with a mildy amusing story about being slippered.
Is this relevant to teachers and teaching today when corporal punishment isn’t permitted? I think maybe it is.
Even without the threat of corporal punishment, there are STILL many ways that teachers can have a negative effect on vulnerable teenagers. Teachers whose modus operandi centres around victimisation, belittling, sarcasm and exerting the power of their position.
Or am I wrong? Are all teachers in the twenty-first century above such damaging ways of teaching? I hope so.
Please leave a comment one way or the other.
PS1 The third category of teachers are the ones who had no positive or negative effect on you and who you have completely forgotten.
PS2 When I told my daughter Rowan that I had been ‘slippered for not backing a book’, she replied: ‘I don’t understand any part of that sentence.’ Her Irish husband asked: ‘Is it something to do with a betting syndicate on the horses?’