This morning I was talking with Alice about my experiences of school. We’d been swapping anecdotes about childhood as you do when you get older and try to discern some sort of pattern in those early years that led to where you end up as an adult. It’s all a bit Dockery and Son (and I continually worry how much influence Larkin had on me in my late teens).
Anyhow, it led me to think hard about my own experiences of English at secondary school. Most of it is forgotten, mostly vague memories and a few vivid recollections. I went to a secondary modern which was, before it was closed, described as the worst school in England. The buildings were early-1960s constructions of the innovative modernist design that are still in use (the main three-storey building, for instance was hexagon-shaped, with large areas in the centre of each floor and had interior walls which could be moved to make larger classrooms). It was quite traditional: very strict about uniform and we had to carry our small hymn books in our blazer pockets at all times. We had assemblies every day which started with a hymn; just like church, the number would be posted on a board and our singing would be accompanied by music played on a huge organ. Mr Heels, the Head of Music, would rock back and forth as he played.
My memories of English seem confined to the first few years. I’m not sure why I can’t really remember what we studied after the third year – but my attendance was erratic as I became involved in activities outside school, so it’s possible I wasn’t there.
Here are some of the things I remember.
My first English teacher was an old Yorkshireman called Mr Hargreaves. He was Head of English and talked incessantly about Preston North End Football Club. Once he hit me on the head with the Bible for doing part of a reading in school assembly in an American accent.
We had 30 minute lessons. Lots of lessons were “doubles” though. Some English lessons were simply reading lessons where we were allowed to read our own books. I can remember bringing Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was about 12 at the time. Hargreaves shook his head at me, disbelieving I was actually reading it. “Get yourself a book you can actually read,” he told me in his Yorkshire accent, emphasising the word read as if it was something causing him pain. Like a bad tooth. I remember recounting what I’d read so far about Paul Artriedes, the Bene Gesserit, Arrakis. Then telling him I’d read Tolkien, Fritz Lieber, Robert E. Howard and, in my first-year enthusiasm began to list the books I’d read in my last year of junior school. He seemed unimpressed.
Another time I was reading one of the Conan books – Conan of Aquilonia, I believe with a stunning Frank Frazetta painting of an older Conan with a beard on the cover – and Hargreaves told me to stop reading that “pie-in-the-sky-fantasy-nonsense”. I can remember him holding the book and examining it as if it was an unusual piece of shit that he’d been forced to pick up. “Get yourself a proper book. Something about real life. You can’t spend your time with your head in the clouds!”
Later that year I’d watch the movie adaptation of Ivanhoe on tv and borrowed a copy of the Walter Scott novel from the school library. It was an ancient volume. Red leather-bound with golden lettering on the spine. Its pages were like tissue paper and typeset with an unusual Germanic type. I was about half-way through (and, admittedly, not enjoying it as much as I did the film) when Hargreaves called me up to his desk and insisted that I wasn’t really reading Ivanhoe. He claimed I was pretending to read and gave me an after-school detention for time wasting. He then controlled what I read in class which was mostly very thin pamphlet books with lots of pictures and large lettering. The sort of books that most of the other boys in my class read.
What sort of class readers did we read in English? I can only recall a handful of books we read together. One was called The Ear by Anita Jackson, which was a silly horror story about a man haunted by the ear of his Van Gogh-obsessed friend. Yes, it was a thin, pamphlet-like publication with a photo of an ear on the front. Most of the class loved it as I remember. I’d read Lovecraft and Howard by this time so sneered at the idea that this was horror. The Ear was part of a series called Spirals and, being honest, I’d probably consider using with Year 7 students now. I’m not sure what that tells me about the type of teacher I’ve become.
The Goalkeeper’s Revenge and Other Stories by Bill Noughton was what Hargreaves considered a “proper book”. Sentimental stories about the lives of Northern working class children were what we mostly read. I hated them. I was a working class boy from a single-parent family who lived on a council estate. I didn’t need my life sentimentalised or even legitimised. I wanted ways out of the life I lived in. Now I understand how English teachers in the 1970s and 1980s tried to connect literature with the experiences of working class children. Back then, I just thought they were dull stories written in a patronising manner. I still think there’s an argument that a lot of children’s literature is taught in schools to teach acceptance and limit aspirations.
Other books I can remember reading were The Pearl by John Steinbeck (again an incredibly pessimistic novel about not getting your hopes up), The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway (what’s the point of putting all that effort, Santiago?), The Gun by C.S. Forester (glorification of war! I still remember that my English teacher made a great deal about the success of the gun being due to British gunpowder).
In terms of drama we studied Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse (a Northern version of Dynasty but duller) and Macbeth. I remember being captivated by Macbeth and memorising passages. It’s a shame that our English teacher gave up with it about Act Two because he thought the class were bored with it. They probably were.
I have no memories of ever reading poetry.
I’m sure there was a lot of writing. We did a great deal of punctuation practice. I can’t remember writing anything other than a piece in an end of year exam where I used the lyrics from Big Country’s Steeltown to describe visiting Corby. It got the top mark but really was nothing more than the lyrics to the song.
Social issues, which were a feature of English teaching at that time, seem to have been absent from our lessons. My school was in a right-wing area and, in my later years at secondary schools, some right-wing teachers went out of their way to punish me because I expressed dissenting political opinions (these were staff who didn’t teach me, heard that I advocated things like vegetarianism, actively challenged racists when they picked on the Sikh and Hindu kids and gave out CND leaflets). There was a young English teacher in the department who played The Jam on a record player to his classes and talked about issues but he never taught me.
I’m sure that my poor memory has distorted my recollections of English at school. It wasn’t until my late teens that I realised that literature was crucially important. My school experiences seem to have been (unconsciously) designed to put me off reading.
It would be incredibly interesting to get my English teachers’ perceptions about their models of English teaching.