A different class of teacher

mortar board

ALAN FRAME muses on old school ties … and dressing gowns 

First it was the headmistress who told parents of the darling little things she teaches at a Darlington primary school that they should get dressed before dropping off their charges of a morning. No more nighties, dressing gowns, slippers and, for all I know, curlers. 

Now it’s the turn of the headmaster of St John's C of E primary in Radcliffe, Manchester, who has asked parents to go easy on the spliffs (aka joints, blunts, weed) they have been smoking while at the school gates. Apparently it’s setting a bad example. You don’t say!  Is it me or is the North another country these days? Whenever I met my two girls from school (big and small), and these days my grandchildren, I am struck by the sheer responsibility and respectability of parents collecting their kids. Dammit, I am probably the wildest person there.

But when I was at school in Belfast parents weren’t the problem, nor the pupils. It was the teachers I worried about. Now we are talking late ‘50s through to ‘64. So a great many of the schoolmasters who taught me had fought in WW2, in fact some were decorated (and not as these days with tattoos and piercings). Just as we had uniforms, so did they: Cords and tweed jacket or a grey suit worn under a black gown which would usually be covered in chalk dust (and God knows what else). And always a tie, usually university or regiment (for the more flamboyant, a bow tie). Never, ever open-necked.

There was the odd one who couldn’t control a class but that was rare. In the main these were not pussycats, however cerebral they might be, and if keeping order meant (legalised) violence then so be it. The cane was allowed in those days (and not just by teachers, prefects also were allowed to wield the stick) and it worked. But so too did the flying duster, as lethal a weapon as had been invented.

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To explain to anyone under the age of, say, 60: Oiks at the back of the room who thought they were safe from attack and so got on with a leisurely chat with their neighbour, would suddenly come under expert aerial bombardment from a wooden duster. Sometimes it was a piece of chalk but it always got its man. And it bloody well hurt. 

But what is remarkable it never struck anyone in the eyes or the more vulnerable bits of the head. The neck, certainly, and the shoulders were a particularly favourite, but never a spot which could lead to permanent damage. I have always wondered where  such accuracy came from? Did would-be schoolmasters in those days take a course, along with their MAs and PhDs, in duster hurling? From basic Duster Hurling for Beginners right through to Advanced Duster Hurling which culminated with the practical Safety First! Maim but Never Kill.

And did they spend time on the playing fields secretly practising? As it’s a long lost art, we will probably never know.

The other aspect of school life then was that the very same teachers would, almost to a man, smoke in class. Gaspers in the main but pipes were also popular. But not, as far as I know, a joint (though come to think of it how would the innocent prig I was then know of such louche pursuits?). 

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it was always interesting to see which of the masters not on the lunch duty rota had been across the road to the pub. You could always tell; afternoon lessons taken by them would invariably be more relaxed affairs, sometimes punctuated by a ‘comfort break’ (for him not us) and duster hurling was strictly off limits. 

Pupils were banned from that same pub but that didn’t stop us trying. One evening I joined a group of boarders, all about 17 and dressed in raincoats buttoned up to the neck to hide signs of the uniform, for a trip to the boozer. Five pints were ordered and delivered – and just as money was about to change hands the Head of English poked his ancient face from behind a pillar and said: ”Have these on me boys”. What a man!

Yes, they were a decent bunch our teachers and in the main we looked up to them. Some were even inspirational and I owe them a great deal. In particular the head, Dr A S Worrall CBE, on the surface as severe a dictator as you could imagine, all mortar board, cane and flowing gown. I think we all lived in fear of this Dickensian figure and a year or so after I left I was sent to interview him about something or other. As I sat outside his study and racked with nerves, I was a small boy again sent to see the head. 

The reality was the great man could not have been friendlier, more enquiring of my health and considerate. When he retired from the school he took on a major role working for reconciliation in Northern Ireland, secretly meeting the Provisionals on more than one occasion and doing the sort of work that finally resulted in a province unrecognisable from the one I grew up in.. Stanley Worrall was truly a hero and it is a disgrace he wasn’t elevated to the Lords, not for educating hopeless cases like me, but for his devotion to a lasting peace.



© 2005-2017 Alastair McIntyre