I’m struck by the unique relationship we have with our teachers. In a professional environment, we form some of our most distinctive memories growing up and seeing these people at work. Sometimes, it’s deliberate on their part, and they exaggerate areas of their own personality to keep things entertaining. Sometimes it feels more like a glimpse behind the curtain, like we’ve seen a little tic not part of the performance, that we mightn’t always feel the significance of until later. Sometimes little of either. It all shapes us just the same.
I had a very funny Geography teacher for two years. At once deadpan and larger than life. To indicate bits of writing on the board, he used what he referred to as his child-beating stick. He maintained enough stern authority to keep the class working silently, but would normally break that silence himself. He’d punctuate the quiet with a brief, loud whistle, or an enormous sneeze that I increasingly suspected was deliberate. Funniest and most sinister in equal turns was his booming voice, calling out in an affected drawl of the American South, “You ain’t workin’, boy.” One boy once had a case of hiccups, which he successfully cured during a period of silent work by hurling a brick at him (revealed to be made of foam upon collision).
A year or two later, I had a History teacher who, though he had a sense of humour, largely kept it buried. Probably the most severe teacher I’ve had, he was largely unpopular with the class. Most striking was the point when another student had forgotten to bring in his homework; in response, he pointed to the back of the room and cried out, “Move over there, you disobedient child!” But he also used me to demonstrate what puddlers used to do on barges, asking me to lie on the table in front of the class, grabbing my ankles to move my legs in the way that a puddler would do as they pushed against the roof of a tunnel, lying on top of the boat. Research online has so far revealed to me no historical record of this job or action.
Another History teacher came into a lesson on the American West dressed as a cowboy, and walked on the desks as he educated us in character over a Morricone soundtrack. I also heard about, but always missed, his annual lesson on the Blitz, when he told everyone to get under their tables and proceeded to throw stationery and chairs around the room. The Nazis gave no thought for health and safety either. It felt like there was toughness beneath the humour. He gave two Remembrance Day assemblies when I was in sixth form. Remembering seeing his dad cry for the first time as he remembered the war, he cried too. He told a variation on the story with different emphasis the following year. To keep himself being swept up again, he slapped himself in the face. He had a temper sometimes, but just as often for himself as for the students.
One day in Year 6, my tutor (and shortly to become my least favourite English teacher) walked past me as we were all reading quietly. Noticing I was reading a Doctor Who book, she pointed and loudly scoffed, “Sad!” I give her the benefit of the doubt now, and consider that she was trying to engage in some light banter, probably on what she imagined was a more equal footing. When she asked me in past tense, “Didn’t you think it was always obvious it was someone in a suit?” it became clear she was speaking as if to an adult who used to watch, not a shy child who was still watching, engaging with the past as a comfort. A misjudgement from which, in my consideration, she never really recovered.
My teacher when I was 8 was more understanding, referring to me occasionally as “my little Dalek” after she found out I liked the show. She gave me a postcard she found in her home one day, commemorating 75 years of BBC Television with a photo taken from the filming of the first Dalek story in 1963-64 (as I could’ve told her). I was always very slow, perhaps too much of a perfectionist. During a lesson about Peru, long into the video we were supposed to watch after finishing our written work, she noticed I was still writing. Everyone looked around at me when she noticed and called me out on it and said to me, “You’re too slow.” The feeling of humiliation was a far more vivid and impactful memory, and lasted far longer and more stubbornly before I came to remember any of the affection that was there the rest of the year.
From the age of 13-18, I had the same English teacher for at least some portion of each year (depending on maternity leave). There were others who were responsible too, but it’s always her I think of first when I consider how lucky I was with the teachers I had. Much as I enjoyed and admired the ones who performed, what I liked best of all was that this one knew well enough that there was no need to. She, and us, and the work were enough. She still had a sense of humour, but she would never show off with it. She was gentle, always the voice of wisdom and reason, stepping in now and then if tensions had risen to high between students and other teachers, often fixing the problem in a couple of minutes. She didn’t talk down, didn’t spoon-feed, just gave you everything you needed to arrive at a conclusion yourself. You always felt respected and valued, and challenged in just the right ways. The only teacher I went out of my way, years later, to go back and visit one lunchtime, when I was visiting home.
I couldn’t fully articulate everything to her that afternoon, and haven’t done justice to my memories of her above either. Our teachers do so much to shape us – they can never fully realise the impact they have. But at their best, they know the responsibility that comes with the impact they can have. If not for my favourite teacher above, I might not have chosen to study English at university, or ended up going to the places I did, meeting the people I met. Life has ups and downs, and so do people, but with every part of myself that was influenced in some way by Ms Matthews, I feel happy.