The piece I wrote back in February about my Mr Chips seemed to resonate with you. Brief recap is that after a gap of fifty years, I’d made contact and emailed the wonderful man who taught me English. I’d long wanted to thank him for instilling in me a love of words.
Well, since then I’ve been able to thank Michael Scarborough in person. We met last month over lunch (ironically, no chips) and didn’t stop talking the entire time.
If I look happy here it’s because I was and still am. It meant more than I can say to see ‘Mr Scarborough’ again, hear his voice and learn about some of the amazing twists and turns his life has taken. We still have SO much to catch-up on and plan to meet again soon.
Anyway before we said goodbye, I sort of turned the tables and gave my teacher homework. I asked if he’d write a guest post giving his take on being an inspirational Mr Chips.
Here it is . . . I hope you enjoy.
MR CHIPS RESPONDS
A school student may remember an individual teacher but a teacher will have some difficulty remembering a lifetime of students. So to be contacted after fifty odd years by a student and to have some memory of them, and to identify them on an old school photograph, had something intriguing about it. So it was when Maureen got in touch.
Fifty years: my mind could scarcely grasp what life the young pupil I had known might have had, and she might wonder how much of that young English teacher would have survived the fifty years. A meeting would be very interesting.
For myself, Graham Balfour school was a formative experience. It was my first job and in a new school, in a new building, with only a headteacher, two members of staff, a secretary, a caretaker and some forty or so pupils. This encouraged an opportunity for innovation and curriculum adventure and, perhaps because I was educated in the immediate post war years, I wanted change and to put the regimented desks, ink and chalk monitors, the canings and tedious rote learning well behind. Certainly that was my determination. Earlier in life, for a year, I had been a pupil in a very poor secondary modern school and, even at the age of eleven, I had been shocked to see how so many young people were written off as failures, as ‘thickies’. In reality, the failure was not of the pupils but of the system.
If I trawl through my memory of the school there are too many hours of classroom teaching to identify one single lesson as special and there would be something grossly unfair about identifying this pupil as being inspiring, this one as thoroughly dull or one other as an incorrigible but lovable rogue. But there are two experiences to which my mind has returned many times over the last fifty years.
It was a day in mid October 1962, ultimatum deadline day of the Cuban Missile crisis, when we could not know whether by mid-afternoon the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union would be resolved by a soviet back-down or by nuclear war. I was teaching in an upper room in the school as the clock moved towards the deadline time and I remember so clearly looking across the young faces and wondering just what sort of world we had built for them, what sort of world they might make for their generation. We had to do better than this.
The potential of young people is too often underestimated and unrecognised and I recall vividly one experience where young pupils were to inspire me. A group of pupils and I were on a three day trek in the Peak District. On a high ridge above Castleton the weather suddenly changed and we were caught in freezing winds and a fierce blizzard of snow. Very quickly our spirits took a battering and I became deeply concerned that we were inadequately clothed and that for some it might be impossible to reach our destination safely. Two of the lads approached me, nudged me to one side and one whispered, ‘Come on, let’s get them moving’. With their help, I did.
Lessons were learnt at Graham Balfour not just by pupils but by me. There can be no multiple choice questioning or tick box assessment that can measure the learning there is in experiences like that for both teacher and young person alike.
I moved from the Stafford school to a College of Education which had radical new ideas about how the excitement of learning might best be nurtured in students. Can I imagine now, in our over-tested and over-structured education system, a college that would give its students a term’s freedom to plan and execute their own adventurous curriculum however creative, however outrageous. Drama, caving, canal ventures, fossil-hunting, art expeditions and even travels with a donkey; they all happened and they all encouraged the awareness that learning can be personally initiated and not merely received and regurgitated. It was an exciting time. It was the sixties.
But how was it that for my final years of employment I worked on educational television for schools?
I suppose I must go back to my own childhood and a father who made it clear that reading anything other than classic works of English literature was to show serious signs of academic weakness. I did, clandestinely of course, read Famous Five books and Biggles’ stories under the bedclothes and The Beano, The Wizard and The Eagle under the desk. There was a value in these publications as well as popularity. Later I could see that if young pupils watched and responded to such television programmes as Dad’s Army, Star Trek or Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, then we should not turn our back on those programmes in English teaching. After a period of research into this at a northern university I was offered the television job and as well as being involved in programme making and support resources. I spent many hours working with young people and their teachers to discover how out-of-school reading could be something more than the target of easy and prejudiced criticism.
In the mid nineteen-fifties the editor of a Derby newspaper had given me a full page spread under the headline: Why so angry young man? Yes, some of my opinions were angry and naive, some rather silly, some I might even regret today, but I applaud that editor for recognising that the views of young people should not be seen as just the ramblings of difficult adolescents. That opportunity and the angry criticism from some readers gave me the confidence and the challenge I needed to keep me writing.
Hearing from Maureen after all these years has triggered these meandering thoughts and, because of the media and writing parallels in our careers, I’m interested to learn much more about how she has tackled using words and shaping narratives. I have never written novels but for fourteen years I wrote and broadcast a fortnightly Letter from England to a chain of American radio stations so, for both of us, writing has been a satisfying and important part of our lives.
Crime writing is not a genre which I have ever explored, perhaps because my literary prejudices get in the way, but that is precisely why the contact with Maureen feels rewarding: she can take on the task of educating me.
Postscript from me . . .
I’m delighted to say I’ve already started the task. I gave Michael a copy of my second book Dead Old which he’s now read. Next time we meet, I’ll be asking questions on the text!