Becoming a Teacher -- Peter Leyland
My first teaching job was at a school in Guildford named Clark’s College. It had at one time been a Pitman’s shorthand and typing establishment which now charged fees to those who wanted their children to be educated privately. I don’t think it exists anymore. Mind you I’m not surprised considering that in the 70s they took on people like me – untrained, untried, untested.
I was fresh out of university with that great badge of my time: an Honours Degree in English. Wow! – 600 lines of Chaucer, most of Beowulf, something odd known as the Ancrene Wisse, and a smattering of truly modern work like Dickens and Keats. And yet I was appointed to teach children.
How? I asked myself at the beginning of the first week. I was ok on English, although believe it or not I spelled Grammar incorrectly on the front of my planning book, a fact that did not escape the eagle eye of Mrs Sherwood-King who pointed this out to me with delight. She was an old hand. As for History I had only an A’ level understanding.
I remember vividly my very first lesson. I had to stand on wooden floorboards at the front of an ancient classroom and teach the Magna Carta to a mixed class of what would now be known as Yr7, who sat at fixed desks with hinged seats. To prepare for this I had read exhaustively through G.M.Trevelyan’s, A Shortened History of England, thinking that I would be quizzed blind about the historic importance of the said document -- but no, they took it all from me – notes, words and more words, and then more notes.
And the next day, would you believe it? A boy known as Rintoul (all boys were addressed by their surnames) brought in to show me a facsimile copy of the entire Magna Carta given away by the Sunday Times. I was stunned and amazed and almost dropped my guard, but I just as soon realised that no criticism was intended by Rintoul. He was just doing as many pupils do, being helpful and showing me what he knew.
In order to help myself to cope with this new role as a teacher I had ordered a booklet, produced by the DES as it was then known, giving advice to those starting out in the classroom and saying in effect, Don’t try to make every lesson a brilliant one because you’ll wear yourself out. I received this information gratefully because I was trying to do just that. I had got the buzz, you see -- when it goes well it sings, but when it doesn’t…
When it didn’t go well, which was soon to happen, I was despondent. With one particular class of Lower Fourths (Yr9) to whom I was teaching R.E. it became a nightmare. I had to deliver a dry as dust text known as The Children’s Bible, which made even the Ancrene Wisse look interesting, and the class gave me hell. The girls made eyes at me and didn’t do any work and the boys, well they just didn’t do any work. Two in particular, Baird and McCrum, ran rings round me time after time, lesson after lesson. And I didn’t know what to do.
Thankfully, the torment came to an end when at the beginning of the summer term the Lower Fourths had to prepare for the ‘Interim Exams’, a hangover from Prep School days and parts of which were set on The Children’s Bible. It was then that I learned of the power of exams to focus children’s minds. The three weeks of preparation with this class were bliss as they actually got down to studying their texts. The exams were then taken and, much to my astonishment they all passed, even the rebellious Jeannie whose knowledge of The Children's Bible, I thought, might have just about fitted on a postage stamp.
The next problem of course was how I was going to get through to the end of the term without the aid of that fair-weather ally, and it was here as I am sure many teachers have found when suddenly thrust upon their own resources, that it was make-or-break time.
During the 70s there was much movement towards a fairer, less racist society, encouraged by newspapers like the Observer which had campaigned against the apartheid state in South Africa that had grown violently oppressive. Also, in 1965 UDI had been declared by Ian Smith in Rhodesia. People were looking to leave the country and at Clark’s College in the summer of 1972 an ex-policeman from Rhodesia was appointed to teach P.E., although the paucity of equipment made his lessons largely consist of exercises on a bare bank of earth above the school. At the time I was reading Doris Lessing’s novel, The Grass is Singing, and my then wife and I had some wonderful discussions with him and his wife about life in Rhodesia over shared suppers. I remember how they loved Caravanserai by Santana because the singing of the crickets reminded them of home.
In order to fill one of the spaces with the nightmare class before the end of term, I copied out the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and took them with my Dansette Record Player into the school. There I played the song to them: It is the tale of how a black servant is casually murdered by one of the guests at a ball at a Baltimore hotel because she is too slow to serve his drinks. The perpetrator, William Zantzinger, is tried and is given a six months sentence for his crime.
The lesson, during which I detailed the racism behind the crime, passed surprisingly well. After it had finished and when the others had left the room, a Persian boy, Hadi - his first name - waited behind and said to me, “That is one of the best lessons I’ve ever had Mr Leyland.” I didn’t think too much about this at the time. I was worried that I might be criticised by colleagues at the school. Mr Croft, who wore a black gown and who taught French, had already commented with raised eyebrows about my Observer poster on the classroom wall of ‘a policeman, judge and executioner’. It was, however, a time when teachers had virtual autonomy in the classroom, and I was able to continue my anti-racism lessons unhindered.
Much later I wrote a ghazal for Hadi, because the teaching buzz never left me. I went on to teach a variety of subjects to students of many age ranges and many different cultures, finishing with Literature courses for adults.
A Ghazal for Hadi
Hadi comes and talks to me across the desk at which I sit
His olive skin is smooth above the collar of his washed white shirt
He tells me of his dreams this boy who has great beauty in his voice
His dreams that all the world’s sad suffering will one day be not a choice
I listen to the words of this young lad who was born fourteen years ago
Who wishes that the song I played of ‘Hattie Carroll’ were not so
Who has absorbed my tale which told of cruelty in lands not far away
Of people who chained others up in hard, cruel bonds to sail on seas of grey
And whipped and sold those fastened men and women into thrall
Now Hadi weeps that such a thing should ever be at all
And I said, "Hadi go outside and contemplate the flowers
And then step back, look up and gaze upon the silent stars
And go play songs to people of the world that now are sad
And work with others well to make this world we know less bad."
Poem - 31/05/2017
*Names have been changed
Mimi Khalvati (2007), Ghazal After Hafe
Evelyn Waugh (1928), Decline and Fall
G.M.Trevelyan (1942), A Shortened History of England
Bob Dylan (2016), The Lyrics
Doris Lessing (1950), The Grass is Singing
Ancrene Wisse (C13), Guide for Anchoresses