Saturday, 5 January 2008

One of my teachers

Like many teachers of my generation I went to a grammar school but supported comprehensives as soon as I became aware of them. I still don’t support grammar schools but in recent years have become more and more fascinated by them, and particularly by the tension between the schools’ official, middle-class ethos and the attitudes of many of their (often working-class) pupils—either instrumental (seeking exam passes but not buying into the values) or heavily into youth culture (and not buying into the values).

I'm interested in what the grammar schools achieved and what they pathetically failed to given the intelligence of their students and could never have achieved with so much downright incompetent teaching. Among the teachers, there was an intriguing contrast between the large body of hopeless cases who stayed in the schools for forty years and the brilliant ones, who were of two sorts: one lot remote, unworldly and forceful, teaching their discipline with intensity, high seriousness and exacting standards, and the other, no less serious in their mission, and typically including English teachers (but never science teachers), who were somewhat subversive (obviously despising the stuffy ‘Victorian’ order of the school), whose lessons were full of laughs and who we learned from because they were men we could identify with and were some damned interesting (not that they didn’t work us hard too).

A couple of books boosted my interest, one re-read after many years (Brian Jackson & Dennis Marsden (1962), Education and the working class : some general themes raised by a study of 88 working class children in a northern industrial city) and one old one read for the first time (Frances Stevens (1960), The living tradition: the social and educational assumptions of the grammar school). Sometime I hope to write more about grammar schools and my own schooling.

My school was Bradford Grammar School, a boys’ Direct Grant School. This was a school that had originally (17th century) had endowments, had declined and rotted and then been revived in Victorian times. From 1944 it was ‘aided’ by a grant directly from the government in return for 25% of free places being awarded to scholarship boys. (75% still paid fees and the school was in effect independent, having nothing to do with the local LEA.)

One of my teachers died recently, a good teacher of the first, high seriousness type, and I was asked to write something for an obituary in the school magazine. Here’s what I wrote.

H.A. Twelves

In 1958-9 there was an enlightened scheme whereby Sixth Classical took three subjects which were not to be examined and for which little or no homework was required: English literature (Dr B. Oxley), the history of science (Mr W.E. Clarkson) and French (Mr H.A. Twelves). All three were fine courses.

Before that year I knew Mr Twelves by sight and reputation, and because he supervised dinners every other day, alternating with a crude and unpleasant geography man called Downend. Whereas Downend hit a small gong to get silence and invited us to ‘say your graces, please’, Twelves simply beamed authority from his suit and, when response was not instant, uttered a cuttingly enunciated ‘I'm waiting’ (an example in linguistics of what is grammatically a sentence but performs the speech act of commanding)--after which he would say grace himself . (Rowan Atkinson would have done a good Twelves.)

I think we were not pleased when we learned that we were to have a year being taught by Mr Twelves. He appeared to us the embodiment of respectable bourgeois authoritarianness. The Sixties were stirring in their womb and the young, influenced by Sartre, the Beats, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and the ‘real life’ of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, were becoming openly rebellious against old conformity. Twelves was known to lead a strange church (the Christadelphians) of which none of us had ever met any other member. He was sometimes seen at Saltaire leading a subdued-looking family on a stately Sunday walk along the towpath. On school corridors he would advance prelate-like in a procession of one. The man clearly had contempt for innocent teenage pursuits like going out of an evening, drinking pints and listening to pop music. Of his own youth all I remember him telling us was that while waiting for a train on Sheffield station he would pace the platform reciting French poetry to himself. His self-revelations included the occasional wicked admission of some childish misdemeanour, followed by the injunction, ‘Tell it not in Gath, chaps.’ He would sometimes refer to himself smilingly in the third person as ‘Douze’, his nickname in the school. Such gestures of maty collusion did not come off; he did not do ‘getting on with the boys’. Though he did once, having learned to drive late in life, offer my friend Jim Patchett a lift along Frizinghall Road; as Douze steered the car with erratic determination Jim solicitously asked, ‘Are you getting used to the traffic now , sir?', to which the reply was, 'I have no fear of or concern for the traffic, but I have difficulty controlling the vehicle.’

Of course, we knew nothing about his life. He was not a master one got to know. He was unashamedly a scholar dedicated to the pursuit of humanist learning. It was not an easy time to be living for such ideals (not that it got any easier) and for those pupils who favoured the immediate overthrow of bourgeois society Twelves doubtless remained the sanctimonious generational enemy bent on confining the green vigour of youth in life-denying study. But most of us, I think, while never finding him entirely human or wanting to know him better, came to respect his mind, his seriousness, his knowledge and his passion. It was true that his general manner was stuffy. One did not josh with Mr Twelves on the stairs. He ran a tight ship. To a sixth former who had missed the first week and was slouching in his desk Twelves barked, ‘Mitchell, sit up!’ adding, in that precise articulation and with the smile of a villainous James Bond mastermind, ‘I can see you don’t know our ways.’

He made it clear (though perhaps only afterwards) that it was a pleasure for him to teach classics students; he told me years later that he could tell by our eyes, when we entered the third form (i.e. first year), that we were the brightest and the best (surely a delusion). In the course he devised for us he let himself go and seemed to pile into it everything he loved in French poetry and drama, including texts that he never had the opportunity to tackle in his main O- and A-Level teaching. He taught them with gusto and, for those of us prepared to give literature beyond Hemingway a chance and refrain from leaning against radiators, the year was exhilarating. Our previous experience of French had not got far beyond M. and Mme Lepine going to la gare (and, to be fair, a bit of Maupassant) and here we were being swept along by Racine’s unShakespearian alexandrines, racing through Romantics and Symbolistes and finally reading plays as contemporary and racy as the Beckett and Osborne we were doing with Dr Oxley in English: Anouilh, Giroudoux, Sartre, Cocteau. This stuff was so fresh it was being put on at the Civic (in English) as the latest in French avant-gardism.

The mode of engagement within the lessons varied between arduous mental effort in the face of translation problems, laughter at Cocteau’s jokes, intellectual fascination at Douze’s explanations of Mallarmé’s poetic theory or Sartre’s philosophy and intense, even reverent, attention as when (having first addressed vocabulary and grammar issues) he read the messenger speech in a Corneille play. I recall his barely suppressed anger once when the spell was broken by an interruption from the unfortunate Charlie Sommers [spelling?], another French teacher, who came in with a notice about cross-country. Mr Twelves held an Arnoldian belief, such as we rarely experienced in classics or English, in the high seriousness of the calling of literary study. Seriousness, but not pomposity or hypocrisy; his lessons were lively, even fun. Whatever Mr Twelves’s public demeanour, there was nothing stuffy about his curriculum. He demonstrated and induced in us a vigorous engagement with the texts, into which his insights were sharp. It was he as much as anyone who taught me to read poetry and who turned some, perhaps many of us into people who could and would continue to read French for pleasure and appreciate French culture—a legacy of which I hope he was proud and for which I am grateful.


Tony Moore said...

Hello, Pete

I enjoyed your comment, both the bit about Grammar schools and the obituary of HA Twelves, since I knew HAT in two capacities (as a Christadelphian as well as a BGS pupil). So I knew him as Bert and as Douzie. Maybe clarify a couple of things.

First, he didn't *lead* the church in any sense -- Christadelphians are a lay community, with no clergy, officials or hierarchy. Bert was a very active lay preacher, and gifted at communicating to an audience of mixed ability: his grammar and syntax were elegant, but as comprehensible as a Daily Mail columnist.

Of course, as I think you will realise now, Douzie was very shy. Much of his crisp exterior hid a softness and affection for the young, and occasionally you'd see a twinkle. He'd have rather liked it if small boys could have had a bit more freedom, to fire peashooters in the playground or let off steam in Assembly -- although nothing more serious than that.

Sure, he was brilliantly clever and had nearly gone into a career as a researcher in mediaeval French, but he'd got washed up into teaching when his Prof died during the summer after his finals. Nonetheless he said he was extremely pleased he’d been spared the “arid” world of words in favour of the endless energy of the young.

(Tony Moore: tonymok[a.]

Pete Medway said...

Tony, thanks! I'm grateful for the information and correction. (Nice to know people somehow or other get to read bits of the blog, too.)

You're the first person who's been able to tell me anything about the Christadelphians from personal knowledge, let alone about this side of Mr Twelves. I can also well believe what you say about his shyness, and his liking for a bit of life in boys. The twinkle is quite right, and I remember him saying to me once when I was back in the school as an adult for some reason (my one visit until very recently) that he enjoyed teaching the classical forms (eg mine) because they had a twinkle in the eye -- denoting intelligence, I think.

I hadn't known, or had forgotten, about his academic background, which doesn't surprise me. Admirable man.