Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Teacher Remembered

Yesterday I learned that an old friend - a very old friend, 98 years old in fact - had died. He taught me English - and much else along the way - at a suburban state grammar school in the 60s, and we had stayed friends ever since. Having gone suddenly blind in middle age, he continued - helped by a small army of readers - to be an extremely effective head of English and a brilliant, imaginative and inspirational classroom teacher. Happily, he took me - a stroppy bright spark at loggerheads with all other teachers - under his wing, presumably spotting potential. The result was that he changed my life, introducing me not only to English literature but to vast swathes of a wider culture of which, being from an unbookish and unintellectual background, I had been only dimly aware. He was fluent and well read in French and Italian, with a good knowledge of classical literature, not to mention music and art (he tried, and failed, to make a Wagnerian of me). He had taught in Switzerland before the Hitler War (as he always called it) and travelled widely in Europe until he was in his 80s. He introduced me to the glories of Venice, starting a lifelong love affair with that city. In later years, he would lull himself to sleep by taking virtual walks around La Serenissima - or by reciting Keats to himself. He had, of course, a vast amount of English poetry by heart, and reams of Shakespeare. In fact I never knew anyone with a deeper textual knowledge of Shakespeare - and his Shakespeare lessons had a lasting impact. To the end of his days, he would regularly be hailed by middle-aged men he didn't know from Adam, who, having got over the shock of finding the old boy still alive, would declare 'I'll never forget your King Lear lessons.' For myself, his greatest legacy was that he embodied the true meaning of education - not something you pick up at school and university and are done with, but a lifelong exploration, as natural as breathing, and ending only with the breath.
There is much more I could say about this remarkable man, but, this being the Thought Experiments blog, I would just pose this: Imagine if there were still state schools in this country that had such teachers in them. If any such still survive in the teaching profession, they will undoubtedly be in the public schools - but in the 50s and 60s teachers of similar range and gifts were, albeit not in great numbers, working in the state system. We grammar school oiks of that generation were indeed very lucky. Teachers of this quality touched many lives - far more than they knew - and the passing of any one of them hugely diminishes the world.


  1. Beautiful eulogy to a life well-lived.

    Truly exceptional teachers--the once that mark us forever--all seem to convey the message that the world is more beautiful, interesting or exciting than you and they.

    The game was up when the first educational bureaucrat urged that we "teach the child", not the subject, and we all cheered.

  2. Oh, sorry to hear the aged mentor has finally gone, Nige. Oddly enough my neighbour here in Norfolk was talking last night about how in the early fifties it was routine for children at school to discuss, say, different recordings of a Beethoven Symphony. It all stopped with rock 'n' roll - or rather with the ad-creeps and marketing slugs who turned it into yooof culture. I'll down a large glass of clarent to the AM's memory.

  3. Ah, Nige, what a touching eulogy. I'm sure the old boy would be delighted to hear himself spoken of in such terms. Oddly, my English beak was similarly charismatic and influential, and played an identical role in my life (apart from Venice, chiz), albeit in a grimmer than grim state comp in the early 80s. At the time I was going through the Rebel Years – he told me I was a 'hugely talented baggage' and that I should put my brain to good use rather than 'pretending to be a daft trollop'. He inspired in me, too, a love of reading and learning that continues to colour every day of my life and has, I think, contributed in large part to who I am. He's still pootling about in a market town in Sussex – still swearing with utter relish and finesse (as only the beautifully spoken can) and puffing on cheroots. At least, he was last time I heard anything. Gawd bless 'em, one an' all.
    Here's to the AM
    Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush

  4. Ah Hugo - you too - I thought as much, and thank G he worked his magic on you (strange terms to use though - baggage and trollop....)

  5. Everyone wants to be a writer or a performer or an "artist" of some sort and have - so they like to think - a lasting impact on people and society. But it's the great teachers who do the greatest good. And who wants to be one of those?

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  7. Remember how Kenneth Williams referred to men as 'her'? That's how the words 'trollop' and 'baggage' were used...


  8. Nige, a wonderful piece ...... thanks for sharing. I was connected to your post through Frank, at Books, Inq.

    It's funny that I find myself reading your tribute, the day after having watched "The Changing of the Guard" (1962), which is on my list of favorite episodes from the original "Twilight Zone" television series.

    Donald Pleasance - in his first appearance in America - played an aging (and suicidal) teacher at a boys' school, who is visited by the spirits of former students, and shown that he DID make a significant difference in their lives - and their deaths - through his lessons on literature, poetry, and so much more.

    In the real world, many of us have been touched in some way by someone such as Pleasance's old professor. We are beholding to good teachers for so much more than simply filling our heads with facts and figures ..... may we all be fortunate enough to realize that, someday.

  9. A lovely tribute, Nige, and a beautiful portrait in words. Thn you for sharing your thoughts.

  10. A sterling post, Nige. Anyone who encourages curiosity, passion, is a teacher of sorts. Sadly, officialdom tends to kill curiosity & passion graveyard dead.

    The finest teacher i've ever met was sacked from a university i shall not name on a transparent pretext.

    The second finest was earning £4000/year doing a half-post but was only paid for a quarter-post: they said she wasn't listed as 'research active', so would only be paid for a quarter-post. She in fact regularly published articles that went towards the Department's research score. She worked in a tiny office and was despised by the wealthy Professors. Way of the world.

    i try to encourage young people to be curious about death & Venice. Venice is the only city i've seen that easily surpasses the myth.

  11. Thank you, everybody, for your comments. There is, as I mentioned, a great deal more I could have said about this remarkable man, but I'm glad that what I wrote rang a bell with so many.

  12. Nige, that's a wonderful tribute. I think everyone who loves to read, who loves beauty, and drama, and culture, has a teacher to thank somewhere. I still remember my 3rd-grade teacher, Mrs. Picard. She used to let me read instead of do the lessons b/c I already knew the math or science she was teaching. She guided me to some good books, too. All auto-didacts begin with a good teacher or mentor.