These are private words addressed to you in public
– T.S. Eliot
I do not expect many will read this. It does not matter. As I write, I imagine you are being carried by friends and family from the church to your final resting place. I doubt you will like that very much: you never were a restful kind of guy.
You were the best teacher I have ever had. We only worked together for two years but in that time I can honestly say that you forged me. You didn’t mould me, you didn’t shape me: you heated me, tempered me, prepared me to take an edge.
I met you when I was 16, just starting A-levels. I knew of you before then, of course; teachers are always talked about by school-kids, usually disrespectfully. You never were. I understand why not now but it fascinated me then: how could this teacher fly under the radar? Why didn’t he ever cop any flak?
You didn’t look like a teacher – at least, you didn’t look like a promising one. You were unkempt, with long hair combed back tight down to your shirt collar (always standing slightly askew over the jacket). Your mutton-chop sideburns connected to your mustache making you look like a cross between a WWI Field Marshal and an early member of the Wolfe Tones. Your jacket (never a suit) hung off you carelessly. You may have worn a tie, but that didn’t stop you from having an open collar.
I don’t recall you ever walking into class with photocopies or any other kind of material; I barely recall you ever working at the board or lecturing us. What I do remember are the conversations.
You sat at your desk (occasionally on it) and talked with us. This was the first time that I genuinely felt in a conversation with a teacher. As a group we chewed the fat about John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, John Milton and the rest – you wanted to know what we thought, and you wouldn’t allow us to hide ourselves behind adolescent silence.
When something we said interested or challenged you, your face lit up with mischievous delight, as if you were gleefully engineering a more sophisticated riposte to put us on our toes again.
When what we had to say seemed trite or ill thought-through, you never looked frustrated or disapproving; instead, a melancholy sadness passed over your face. In time I came to realise what that look meant: your awareness of how much we are all truly capable of, and your sadness that we in this moment either were not aware of it or did not trust ourselves to live up to it.
You lived for the cut-and-thrust, the conversation de fer, but not for the victory. I never saw you satisfied if you won a dispute with us.
I learnt passion from you. Not in the “I’m so in love with what I do, it makes me leap out of bed each morning with delight!” way that the word gets bandied about these days; no, from you I learnt that passion, at root, is suffering, effort; that being so, to live passionately, you had to be prepared for hard work, and occasionally failure. You never tried to teach me this; I doubt you ever tried to teach us anything. You weren’t interested in teaching; you were intent on us learning.
I learnt from you how to work on a problem, to put in effort, to roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty, go toe-to-toe with whatever it was I didn’t understand and beat it into submission. I learnt from you to expect a few punches on the way and to take them on the chin.
But you were no brutal ascetic – far from it. You loved life and its sensuality and we learnt from you how to revel in it through literature. A glorious antidote to the otherwise prim attitudes of a Catholic boy’s school, you would have us all cracking up with a combination of sharp literary critical skill and smutty, school-boy humour.
I recall you reading a passage from Marvell, To His Coy Mistress; you read as you walked between the rows of chairs, our eyes were fixed on our books, our ears fixed on you. Suddenly your voice tailed off into silence mid-line. We looked round to see you staring at the window, staring down to the street.
“F***ing beautiful”, you said.
We came to the window and looked out – you had been distracted by a woman walking past outside.
And you were right about the legs. You always were.
Years later, I returned to my old school, a qualified teacher myself, to work there. Sadly, you were probably already ill and I never got to work with you as a colleague – at least, not officially. In my heart, though, I think we were colleagues from the day I entered your classroom as a pupil all those years ago. That was your genius, Chris, and I admire you and thank you for it.
Rest In Peace.