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My Most Unforgettable Teacher: Willie Traill and the Attic

by Tina Moskal

Drawing (from memory) by Tina Moskal

[Tina delighted us last time with her tales of the Over the Top Teachers of her schooldays. Now she focuses on just one…]

My all-girls’ Edinburgh school in the Sixties was strung skew-whiff across three once-grand terraced houses, with their assorted staircases, and hemmed in on all sides by the University, who happened to be our landlords. Perhaps it was the influence of all those academic neighbours, but at age twelve, a large number of us embarked upon O-Level Latin. This provided fodder for two classfuls, split between two very different teachers. I was among those assigned to Mrs Hutchison, a competent, fair-minded, indeed modern-style teacher innocent of histrionics. But the other class –– they trembled beneath the brimstone and fire of one Mr William Traill, Elder and pillar of the Wee Free Church of Scotland, and oh-so passionate proponent of the pagan Classics.

Various among our staff were assigned zoological personae: a Vulture, Lizard and Praying Mantis appeared in last month's issue. Viewed from a safe distance, William Traill indisputably embodied a Militaristic Penguin. Somewhat stiff in the spine, he seemed to glide jerkily along the dim-lit corridors as if holding an egg between his ankles. Crossing paths with some unfortunate soul, he would halt, lean slightly forward, raising his bent elbows behind his back and, taking aim with stern Romanesque beak, glare at them with one fierce and jaundiced eye. My bestie Alison, to whom he seemed to have a particular antipathy, wept many tears under the relentless wrath of his Latin classes. Me, I was safe with Mrs H…

..until the time came in third year to choose the curricula for our Higher exams. Another language seemed my only option, and between the two on offer it was clear: Classical Greek was purely decorative, study for study’s own sake and thus a lunatic-fringe activity. I would take up German, a useful and sensible life skill. Parents’ Evening came, to which my mother set off, unaccompanied by me. In the ‘60s pupils were denied access to those meetings, leaving parent and teacher free to malign us behind our backs.

Mum had never tried to sway me unduly, so I was flabbergasted when she bounced home and announced, “That’s it. It’s all settled. You’re doing Greek!”

Gulp. What? “Why?”

Your Latin teacher Mrs Hutchison says you are capable of it!!” This flagrant instance of departmental recruitment drive, Mother interpreted as a personal compliment. I could, therefore I should! I could certainly have talked her out of this new notion, but hey presto! the awesome possibility had been spoken out loud. Suddenly, beloved childhood books suffused my memory: Hawthorne’s ‘Tanglewood Tales’, graced with pictures of Greek Gods ravishing mortal maids, and Heroes and Nymphs supping lotuses on sun-drenched slopes…

And she says Greek grammar will train your mind for a job programming computers!” beamed my Mum.

I had at the time barely heard of those big grey things in basements, but that too sounded awesome. “OK then”, I said.

The change in tack meant that I would have to weather the intemperances of Willie Traill, who alone taught Greek. I hoped the sun-lit environment of Ancient Olympus might mellow him. Too late came the news that as his Greek scholar I must also transfer to his class for Latin. What had I let myself in for?

I needn’t have worried. We were a bumper Greek class that year, and Mr T was ecstatic and beaming all over his face.

Seven Greek babies!!” he exulted. Thenceforth we could do almost no wrong. And our immunity from prosecution even extended to us in the Latin class, where we Greek babes sat, smug behind our Attic shield, as Oor Wullie bombarded our Latin-only classmates with his routine ire and spleen.

As for the Greek class itself: the back row was the merriest. Joan and Eleanor sat happily together twiddling their hair and even chancing the occasional giggle! They embodied, I suppose, the closest any of us got to overtly naughty. The middle row was the brightest, and most colourful, hair-wise. Verity Constance Evelyn von Kuenssberg (aunt to the BBC’s Laura), a pale and silvery blonde, lolled under the dormer window, soaking it all in whilst successfully projecting a state of permanent exhaustion. Next to her crouched Maria, glinting dark and mysterious, shielding from sight her considerable light, and then Linda, purple specs and hair dyed a bourgeoisie-baiting orange most brilliant, with a brain to match. Returning to mouse, Alison and I huddled together at the front. Our row was the dampest. WT tended to shower one with a fine aerosol of saliva when he spoke, so we were fully in the line of (watery) fire, the more so as WT always pronounced my name, Christina, in an exaggeratedly Greek fashion, turning the initial “Ch” into the full-throated fricative “Khhhh” worthy of the best of braw bricht nichts.

Though his delivery was always forceful, Traill retained much of his Highland accent. Our very first lesson opened with a pep talk on antique tongues.

You say to me, gurls,” (we hadn’t) “that Latin and Greek are DEAD languages! They are NOT dead languages!! They are THRRROBBING with life and vitality! So they are, gurls… But if you force me to choose, to say which do I prefer, the Latin or the Greek? I have to say, it’s my beloved Greek.”

He went on to elaborate why. Within his modest attic eyrie he had a tall stand-to desk with a high stool, all set upon a low platform, to which he had now retreated, and appeared to be beginning to climb up the rungs of the stool.

IT IS BECAUSE THE GREEKS ACHIEVED A CIVILISATION WHICH HAD NEVER BEFORE BEEN, AND HAS NEVER SINCE BEEN, AND SHALL NEVER AGAIN BE. ACHIEVED. IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND! GURLS!! AND you ask me how, gurls. How did the Greeks achieve a civilisation-which-had-never-before-been-and-has-never-since-been-and-shall-never-again-be-achieved-in-the-history-of-mankind? Eh?? IT. IS. BECAUSE…” He seemed now to have scrambled up even higher; indeed my memory, though doubtless false, is of him right atop the high desk, towering transformed above us: an evangelising Fury in a pulpit. That metaphor mixes the Classical with the Christian advisedly, for he concluded:


He sighed, purged, then a quick glare to pre-empt any sniggers. I wiped the spume from my hair and was transfixed.

Our very first English-into-Greek exercise contained the sentence: “The young men are loosening the young girls’ belts”– a promising beginning, upheld by our first Greek tragedy, starring a newly-widowed king who commissioned a marble statue of the deceased wife for cuddling in bed and consummating his grief.* We did suffer occasional tours of duty into the dulls of military history, but overwhelmingly the following three years combined myth, monsters, passion and drama all suffused with Traill’s spirit of imminent Revelation. The fervour was irresistible. Whether or not the bug was also transmitted to me through the saliva aerosol, I remain smitten, continuing my love affair on to the modern Greece (and Greeks) for life.

WT on the other hand, had never been to Greece. Every summer he would take himself and Mrs Traill to the same spot in the German Wald. When we challenged him, he claimed Greece was too far, he could not afford the fare. We were all gung-ho to start a go-fund-me collection for him, but he of course stopped us. I don’t believe he ever got there. He must have been too afraid of his illusions being shattered. He had once chanced it to Rome though, where he claimed he had got on splendidly, speaking to the modern natives in Latin. “After the first moment of surprise, gurls, they understood me purrrfectly!”

Despite his frequent trips to Germany, Mr Traill really struggled when exchange pupils from abroad would land in his Latin classes. His attempts at merry banter in their native French or German were of the Embarrassing Dad variety. One day we asked him how it was he spoke such fluent Latin and Greek but no living language. “Oh, but I do, gurls,” said he smugly. “I do speak another modern language!”

What on earth was it? With every wrong guess his beam broadened. At length we gave in. What?

I have the Gaelic, gurls.”

Greek grammar weaves itself into a matrix of logic similar to Latin’s, just even more convoluted. Personally I enjoyed it, same as crosswords, killer Sudoku and climbing frames. Sometimes, in trying to plot where in the matrix a word should ultimately slot, you find yourself unpicking nuances of meaning only hinted at from your own native tongue. That also I loved.

Vocabulary was a different matter. Most nights, for homework, we had to prepare a few paragraphs of Greek text before standing up and translating it ‘live’ in class next day. I seldom bothered to prepare, for as soon as we started stumbling through the text Mr Traill, bursting with the beauty of the language, hopping up and down red-faced with impatience, would invariably blurt out the beginning of whichever word we were sticking at. Within the context, this was usually enough to allow a pretty good guess at what it was. Thus:

Pupil: The praetor arose, and with a look of much… um…

WT: meh…! meh...!

Pupil: …menace, he turned to face the… um…

WT: ass..! ass...!

Pupil: …assembly, and exclaimed in a voice of… um…

WT: doo…! doo…!

Pupil: …doom, “Who among us knew we were harbouring such… um…”

WT: treh…! treh…! TREH…TREH!! TREH…TREH!!

Pupil: … treasure

WT: NO! NO lassie! Treachery! Not treasure!! We might harbour such TREACHERY!!! Ach, lassie. Sit down.

It was as if in his sleep each night, all memory of our own treachery was wiped clean; each morning when it was revealed again his disillusion was palpable; each time, he was pierced to the heart that we had been chancing it all along.

This meant that I, not blessed with a good memory, learnt no vocabulary. When we eventually sat down to our Higher exam, deprived of a dictionary, words failed me. This mattered hugely in the English-into-Greek section. To show that I did at least know some grammar I put a dash, a blank, for the stem of every word I didn’t know, followed by a judicious selection of grammatical endings (in the appropriate person/number/case/tense/voice/mood!) to cover whichever of the multiple declensions/conjugations/genders and I don’t know what-else it might randomly have belonged to. Cramming in five or six times the required work, I even fantasised getting a special star for it. The examiner was not amused and failed me. (Mr T looked hurt but got me the pass on appeal.)

Only a decade later, teaching (English) grammar and vocabulary to Johnson’s Wax Italia in Milan, I opened a letter from home which, without comment and out of the blue, included a small, sad clipping from the Deaths column of the Scotsman newspaper. I was shaken by how intensely I felt the pain.

I didn’t pursue Classical Greek beyond school. For a job teaching kids that they might teach more kids? (It was only later I learnt the degree could also have secured me a job running the country.) But I’m sure it helps my Sudoku. And it made Modern Greek much easier, opening so many doors in the country where I grew to feel fulfilled. Against the gloomy backdrop of growing up in the grey North, those few years in Willie’s sky-lit attic beamed sunshine into a brain still young enough to make it its own.

I think it was the sultry Maria from the second row (who did take Greek on to university) whom Willie later told, showing a perspicacity I had never spotted in him,

I always knew Khhristina would not do Classics at University, but the love she learned for them, I knew she would carry with her for the rest of her life.”

*Euripedes’ ‘Alcestis’



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