I once had a flying friend who had been a secondary school English teacher for thirty years. He looked and was very disillusioned. He told me that when he had first become a teacher he had been full of enthusiasm and idealism. But years spent in an inner-city London comprehensive school trying to educate hordes of unruly and ungrateful adolescent gits, had, when coupled with having to deal with the ever-changing demands of Whitehall education bureaucrats, finally worn him down. It wasn’t a very uplifting tale.
It’s unfortunately true that the efforts and commitment of countless individual teachers do tend to go unacknowledged and are often under-appreciated.
In another short article I mentioned the fact that so many of us have a story to tell of a particular teacher we had – a story of care and inspiration, a story of a good teacher. This is mine. It is the story of how one of my English teachers, a Mr Rawlinson (for that was his name), inspired in me a love of English literature and language that abides with me to this day.
Before getting to Mr Rawlinson, I can’t resist mentioning one of my earlier English teachers in the Grammar school I attended. I don’t remember his real name because we called him ‘Drac’ – obviously short for Dracula. He must only have been in his fifties, though he looked much older. His stoop, his gangling gait, his wizened face and his ripped and paint spattered university gown spoke of a life of some hardship and experience. And experience he certainly had. Drac had been captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942. He had suffered three years of imprisonment, cruelty and torture in the hands of those gentle and enlightened Japanese. This had affected his mind; he’d gone slightly mad. He entered the class silently and rather spookily, like a sort of pale-faced but dark ghost.
I remember more than once moving my chair a little in class and accidently scraping it along the floor. Drac would instantly look up, spot who had made the sound, me, and launch into an exchange along the following lines:
‘Do you know where boys like you will end up Lewis?’
‘No Sir’ I would reply.
‘You’ll end up in Stafford prison Lewis, that’s where you’ll end up boy!’
It did no good at all to try to argue the toss, to argue that all you’d done was move your chair. No, Drac was off on his rant. I don’t know whether he really believed what he was saying or not; he was after all a bit unhinged.
Eventually Drac would decide that it was time to teach us a bit of English literature – usually Shakespeare. How to get out of that? The trick was for one of us to raise his hand (it was a boys’ grammar school).
‘Yes boy what is it?’ Drac would say.
‘Sir, did you see the cricket on Saturday?’
That was enough. Drac loved cricket and he was off. Stroke by stroke he’d give a detailed commentary on the latest test match. He loved it and so did we – because before he or we knew it the bell would go and the lesson was over. He was a sweet man. May God bless him wherever he is.
Our next English teacher was the Mr Rawlinson I want to talk about. He was a quite different character: rotund, dressed immaculately in a three-piece suit yet still with the compulsory MA Oxon academic gown – though this time not ripped. Mr Rawlinson at first scared the living daylights out of us. For a few weeks we thought he was a mean bastard. He was strict and a real disciplinarian. The cricket trick didn’t work anymore. Even in the middle of the jocularity and laughter of his class, he only had to say ‘Quiet’ and even the most stroppy boys (and that included me) would sit up straight and pay attention. Yet once he had established his authority he was lovely and he played the fool with gusto and abandon. He would prance and ponce around at the front of the class, playing a comic Falstaff. He would read Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon with such tenderness and bitterness it even moved we cynical and ignorant adolescents, for whom the middle-ages and the First World War were equally remote and foreign countries. And then he made us read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. We didn’t know then, but I know now, that this is one of the greatest evocations of the suffering and exploitation of the English working class that has ever been written. Mr Rawlinson surely knew this. Then there was To Kill a Mockingbird, Cider with Rosie, Nineteen Eighty- Four and On the Road. What was he thinking! More Shakespeare of course: the Scottish Play, both parts of Henry the fourth and even Hamlet. He strutted and fretted and we laughed. He was a clown but we loved him.
It’s not just that I can, if I try, still drag up long quotes from these books today; it’s more that he showed us that ‘literature’ wasn’t a dry thing, it was living, it had relevance, it had something of importance to teach us. And, in a few great hands, it could make the English language soar.
This is what a great English teacher taught and inspired in me.
There were and are many teachers like Mr Rawlinson. Let us be eternally grateful that despite their under-appreciation such talented and wonderful people still do become teachers.