Wednesday, 20 June 2012


I recently got in touch with an old teacher, the one mentioned in the post Life Drawing. Having written the post, I realised I simply wanted to say "thanks" for that 40-year-old act of kindness. I knew he would not remember me, as our "contact hours" had been very few and a long time ago, but the debts we owe to our mentors and teachers so often go unacknowledged that it seemed worth the effort. I was pleased to discover he is well, and still actively producing artwork in the form of ceramics.  Pleased, and relieved.

Relieved, because the regrettable fact is that few of us think to round off such debts until it is too late.  People remain stalled, in our minds, at the age we last knew them, "forever young" in a state of suspended animation.  But let's say that you, like me, are now approaching 60. At the age of ten -- 50 years ago -- you had a wonderful teacher, whose creative attention transformed your life. She was then, say, about 30 years old. You remember her vividly, just as she was, young and enthusiastic, full of life, totally focussed on you and your fumbling efforts. But, do the arithmetic:  incontrovertably, she is now around 80 years old.  Eighty!

Miss Hendey, doing her thing in 1964

Now, old age is a lottery, and has no respect for lives lived usefully in the service of others. Ill-health and dementia are the spectres awaiting us on those final haunted corridors of life's journey (evolution clearly has no use for us once we're past the age of reproduction) and to intrude on an elderly and quite possibly infirm person because of some foolish personal redemptive mission should give anyone pause for thought.

Assuming, of course, that person is still with us.  I recall the shock and surprise of discovering that "my" significant teachers were all already dead. Shock and surprise and, I admit, a certain release.  All debts cancelled.

That clean sweep will also have saved me from the humiliation of not being remembered. Teachers must dread that encounter:  "Remember me, miss?"  "Ah, nope, sorry..."  There is a huge asymmetry in the relationship between students and teachers. The expression in loco parentis is used to describe the legal position of teachers, but it can be an emotional truth, too; at least, as experienced by the individual student.  By the individual teacher, not so much.  Who did you say you were, again, dear?

Some kids loathe school, can't wait to leave, and do their best to disrupt things while they're there.  Many more loathed at least some of their teachers.  But that hatred of individual teachers can be deep and true and, in a perverse way, character-forming.  Others, of course, enjoy school, and find they receive from these substitute parents a degree of nurturing, attention and ambition that home life may not provide.  Either way, schooling is an intense experience, and many people find themselves recalling certain key teachers and conducting an internal dialogue with them --- perhaps angry and recriminatory, perhaps not -- for decades afterwards.

But, inevitably, those teachers will have forgotten all about you.  Teachers are not parents, after all, and in the course of a career will have taught hundreds, possibly thousands, of students.  You might flatter yourself that a select few would stick in the memory, but the chances are that you will not be among them, and it is more likely those little bastards who tried to make her working life a misery who populate her fading recollections of 30, 40, 50 years ago.

Unless, of course, that was you. But, never mind, it's probably rather late to be saying "sorry", now, too.

Mr. Picasso: No, don't tell me, the face is familiar...
Ex-pupil:  We used to call you Nosey!  Remember
how we'd all duck, whenever you turned round
from the blackboard?   I HATED you!


Martin said...

I know what you're saying, Mike. I recently discovered the passing of Mr./Rev. Norman Bence, former P.E. and R.E. teacher at my old comprehensive. More poignant for me, as he conducted our marriage ceremony, at my request. He was one of maybe three teachers who won my respect and admiration. He was 78 years old, which just underlines the point you make.

Mike C. said...


Sorry to hear that -- at least you had some post-school contact of significance. Most of us left school and never looked back -- I have literally never spoken to a single teacher since leaving.

I remember a handful with gratitude, most with indifference, but reserve my steeliest hatred for the man who refused to mark my homework until I had altered my handwriting from the italic I had been taught at primary to the "looped" style he favoured. I would happily dance on his grave...


Mike C. said...

Correction: I have spoken to a single teacher! He came into the library in Bristol, early in my "career", one evening when I was serving behind the counter, so to speak. I think he was doing a course in the Education Department.

However, it was clear, to our mutual embarrassment, that he had only the vaguest recollection of who I was. And that was only a decade after school...


Dave Leeke said...

In defence of teachers . . . I must admit that the minute they leave school it's very difficult to remember their names (pupils, I mean). As a teacher of some twenty years now, I often bump into kids I taught at some stage. I can't in all honesty remember their names because, again to my disgrace, I can't remember the names of kids I taught last year half the time. I know there are those that can always use their names year in and year out - I'm in awe of them - but I tend to just try and remember the important things in life . . .

My wife HAS met a few of my old teachers as she taught at St Angela's and went on German Exchanges with Alleyne's so she knew Splett, Hogg and Chopper et al. There's quite an amusing tale there but I'll regale that another time. However, the upshot is that "school doesn't suit everyone".

I would dearly love to speak to one or two of my old teachers - Doug Ross and Alan Vincent, Fred Farrell (I'm aware of your policy on name and pack drill but these were the good guys)- but also the evil bastards (names withheld). However, as you eloquently point out, Mike, they may have long since shuffled off this mortal coil.

You're right, their influence lingers - both positively and negatively (you bastard, Boris).

Mike C. said...


Teachers need no defending on this blog, as a profession: we are teacher-friendly. We only make an exception for the individual evil bastards who poison young lives, with their loops an' ting.

Quite a few of those ex-grammar guys seem to have got out of teaching in the late 70s, as the rules of the game changed.


Martyn Cornell said...

One problem, I think, with the teacher/pupil interface is that there are some pupils some teachers don't "get" - I'm sure it happened with you guys, I know it happened with me (there was a bastard called Price to whom it clearly didn't occur that the fact that I had plunged from at or near the top in English under Splett to at or near the bottom under him might be his problem and not mine) and I've seen the same problem happen with my daughter: there's a "personality clash" the teacher is incapable of perceiving as being as much or more due to the teacher as the child.

Mike C. said...

Very true, Martyn. I similarly went from "top 5" to "bottom 5" in many subjects in the 3rd year of secondary. Though, to be fair, in the trade I believe it's called the "Year 9 Slump", and has multiple causes (not excluding shitty teachers who are neither sympathetic enough to be trusted with reception, nor academic enough to handle exams).

Mind you, I think our generation was something of an enigma to most of those teachers. Unusually for a kid with my track record and prospects, academically, I was never asked whether I wanted to be a prefect in the sixth (as if!). It was understood that neither they nor I wanted that outcome (sometime commenter Tony_C shares that distinction -- yourself, too, if I recall?). And yet we were perfectly nice young men, really!


Gavin McL said...

I have said thank you to the teacher that probably made the most difference in my life.
It wasn't at school but at university. He wasn't a great teacher in many ways. He didn't have much time for people who didn't put as much effort in as he did (which was considerable) he seemed to struggle to understand people who didn't understand what he taught and he lacked charisma.
In many ways it was a shame that he failed to connect with the students because he had a great enthusiasm for his subject.
Anyway it set something off in me and I determined not to be beaten. I did well in his subject through the second year, took his subject in the final year and it was the subject of my dissertation. We never "gelled" - he said my dissertation wasn't even worth an ordinary degree (I got a 2:1)
I got a job and settled down to earn a living. I started to notice that I knew more than was expected
I did well, promoted etc - a few ups and downs but more of the former. Anyway 20 years down the line I bump into my old nemesis at an industry do and I realised that a significant contribution to where I was was him and his teaching so I decided to thank him. He didn't really recognise me and my thanks and explanation rather shocked him - he seemed quite taken aback. He's a man in demand, there wasn't time to chat and so I said goodbye.
I got the impression most of his ex-students weren't always so complimentary.

Mike C. said...


Interesting story -- most people would have dumped your guy into the "evil bastards" category at the "my dissertation wasn't even worth an ordinary degree" stage...


Martyn Cornell said...

Mike - yes, the fact that I was chairman of the local Labour Party Young Socialists probably didn't help.

Mike C. said...


I sense a club forming here, but of course it would be one we'd never want to join...

I remember refusing to wear the "sixth form tie" was a minor bone of contention. Not to mention hair length and shaving...