By Julia Pirie
I’m always amazed that, however good the summer holiday’s been, its benefits fade within days of being back at school. It’s as if the past six weeks were but a myth. You’re on your third cup of coffee, the DVD you were planning to use next lesson has vanished from your shelf, your inbox is bristling with mail, your timetable has been re-jigged – again – you’ve amassed a pile
of marking and the books you ordered for this afternoon haven’t come. Happy New Year!
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? There is evidence to suggest that within the profession, English teachers occupy a special place in the affections of their former students. Writers in particular often recall them and their work with gratitude, affection even. They are, it appears the Miss (and Mr) Honeys of the staffroom.
Next time you prepare to teach Of Mice and Men for the umpteenth time, remember this: John Steinbeck turned down an invitation to dine at The White House so he could attend a function planned for the same evening in honour of his high school English teacher. ‘In my life,’ he is said to have explained, ‘I’ve met five great presidents but only one great English teacher.’
Nearer home, Gervase Phinn is still talking about his English teacher. Fifty years ago, Rotherhide High School for Boys didn’t offer English Literature at A Level. Phinn and a couple of gangly chums were sent for lessons at the girls’ school. Here they met the diminutive, austerely dressed, brown-stockinged Miss Mary Wainwright. She made them form a line so she could look at them. ‘I’ve never taught boys,’ she said. Then, after a pause and with a smile, she added,’ But I have heard of them.’
Phinn doesn’t relate his peers’ reaction but he fell under her spell. A ‘woman of great learning and infinite patience’, she brought literature (especially Shakespeare and Hardy) alive and inspired in him the love of words which has lead to his becoming such a successful author. He’s not alone. Deborah Moggach has spoken warmly of Margot Heinemann, her English teacher, ‘a hugely intelligent woman with large dark eyes and a Past’. Kate Mosse recalls hers, the ‘exceptional’ Henry Thomas, tall and patrician-looking with a penchant for white suits and Panama hats. J.K. Rowling has particular praise for Lucy Shepherd who ‘was passionate about teaching us’. Andrew Motion has written with characteristic flourish of how his English teacher, Peter Way, seemed to walk into his head and ‘turn all the
So when you’re wondering where the summer holidays went or if you’ll make it to half-term consider this.
One day someone now lurking in the back of your current Year 10s may be noting your patience perhaps, or your passion, your past or even your hat. Maybe in years to come that same student will decline to dine with Wills and Kate at Buck House to attend your retirement bash. Doesn’t that thought make it all worthwhile?
Who was your English, Drama or Arts teacher? And did they change your life? Let me know at lesley.finlay:@inkwellpress.co.uk – but only if you find that DVD.