by Tina Moskal
Drawings of her teachers by Tina Moskal (read below to see who is who)
A most joyous pastime at School in the 1960s was acting out the mannerisms of our extraordinarily quirky teachers for schoolmates to identify. Yet my daughter, despite being an otherwise feisty actor, at her local High school in the 2000s hardly ever did this. I thought it a neurological lack in her, until after a few Parents’ Nights of meeting those teachers, those pleasant, positive, careful souls. You cannot fault them; they embody the bland uniformity imposed by today’s box-ticking, risk-averse culture. Catch them off-duty at a dinner party and you may glimpse a frustrated potential. They too might have enjoyed being mad but memorable.
Twenty-first century risk-aversion is the obvious and huge culprit in the dimming down of teacher persona. Another factor could be the demise of the single-sex school. It used to be common to attend Boys’, Girls’ (or “Ladies’”) institutions. I did, and really appreciated it. There was little bullying from peers. Some say that, on the contrary, in a co-educational school a male presence makes ‘Mean Girls*’ wary of displaying the ugly side of their nature, but I am convinced co-education worsens the situation. Popular Mean Girls use their control over boys as a further weapon with which to wound their victims.
From a feminine perspective, the single-sex school setting also allows those excelling at maths and science to do so without apology. And instead of dutifully laughing at boys’ jokes, you can tell your own. You can be yourself, whole-person, behaviourally non-binary. Something similar may affect the teaching staff. These were either all, or very largely, the same sex as the pupils. It certainly seemed to produce for us a line-up of characters who, competent or not, were delightfully cartoonish.
We had one Mrs and maybe three dozen Misses. The Head was tall and gawky with broad upswept shoulders which she swathed in the traditional black academic gown. This, along with a scrawny neck, sizeable beak and Eton-cropped hair earned her the name of Vulture. When one was sent to her smoke-thick eyrie for a scolding, she put this to full theatrical advantage. The miscreant had to sit squinting towards the bright light of the window, Vulture in deepest shadow, her predator’s silhouette looming Dante-esque (as one sinner put it) across the desk. The sinner didn’t stand a chance. In all other interviews, however, the desk was turned ninety degrees letting both parties sit comfortably sideways-on to the daylight.
When she first took up her post, she turned out to be an anti-evangelising force, and started by outlawing such things as the Scripture Union. This duly made her a mortal enemy in the Scripture teacher, whom she presumably tried but failed to oust. This martyr manquée however, a Miss Littlewood, seemed actually to court martyrdom. Another gaunt creature, she swore to starve herself in front of pupils whenever, in the interest of our much less gaunt figures, we skipped school dinners. She stuck to this promise: like an all-seeing mantis she would stalk us, full in our faces, until we just had to give in; she was so perilously thin. She had been a missionary in China, liked to whisper in our ears and invite us home for counselling. Miss Littlewood regularly began her Scripture lessons from a little way along the corridor, declaiming as she entered, “The Voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make His paths straight.’” On another occasion she asked us all without preamble to “Pray to God” and after a minute “Now pray to the Headmistress,” finishing with “Now pray to Miss Littlewood.” Her subsequent bad mood I put down to not receiving enough prayerful messages from us, but perhaps she was making some religio-philosophical point or, more likely, just come from one of her fights with the said Headmistress.
When she filled in for English-teaching she became rather normal; more so than the occupant of the room opposite hers. Here lurked the Mother to Voldemort: Constance Fortescue, she of the basilisk gaze and flicking tongue, dragging behind her through cobwebs and splinters the lumpen, scaly tail which you couldn’t quite see but could almost hear. One of her amusements was to pick an embarrassing phrase from the literature under review and with it, taunt and torment our fourteen-year-old bashfulness. “What does Steele mean by ‘ruddy virgins’, girls? Come on. What’s a virgin? Who here’s a virgin? Nobody? Stand up Sandra. Sandra’s always got nice ruddy cheeks, hasn’t she? Are you a virgin Sandra? And look, now she’s even ruddier!” Such moments came with no hint of humour, drenched in pure spite.
Yes, a fair number of our cartoon characters owed much to Ronald Searle, all elbow spikes and angles, wrinkles and thin lips pursed into bitter naevi of disapproval.
But in stark contrast to the gargoyle contingent was our new French teacher: a very English lady trying very hard to be very French, and not at all gaunt. This sunny soul embodied a bouncing Michelin-Madam, and with every bounce she said “Ooh là là,” gave a tinkling giggle and clutched at her ample bosom, since its extreme amplitude threatened to throw her off-balance. At more studious moments its proud ledge-like jut allowed her to place her book on it and continue reading out the dictée while she fiddled and jangled her bangles. Since we were doing Gray’s Elegy** in English class, she acquired the soubriquet of “Animated Bust”. She brought with her a shiny new teaching method, conducting the whole lesson in French, minimal English used, and had us all adopt French names. I, fiercely loyal to her predecessor who was the epitome of dignified dourness and sourness, found the Bust/GorgeAnimée unbearably childish and was horrible to her. I regret this now, for she was not only harmless, but her new teaching method really worked. As School-French speakers go, we averaged out not bad at all.
Sticking out like a fistful of sore thumbs in this all-female environment were the Men. Yes, all of five males navigated this hormonal soup of menopausal and pubescent womanhood: Messrs. Langdon, Millar, Henderson, Bogey and Traill. Quite why these five were there amongst us I didn’t question. They did the job.
Dudley Langdon was Music. He consisted of VOICE, mega. His Voice was the Genie of the Lamp, housed in and emanating from a very small container. Appropriate as this Genius Voice would have been on top of a muezzin’s tower, wee Dudley would unleash it as a weapon of mass instruction when he disciplined, harangued and (successfully) coached us in our whole-school choral numbers for concerts. We sang multiple vocal lines and, despite humanity’s inevitable share of pitchy and tone-deaf singers, with marvellous precision and power. Even when all 1000 or so of us were singing lustily, and Mr Langdon was spinning his conducting arms every which way to guide us in front and the orchestra behind, his Voice could run its corrosive commentary alongside without strain. Instrumentation was not taught to whole classes, only singing, which was not considered worthy of an exam curriculum. Nonetheless the brilliant Langdon drummed it into us, how Song was core, was key to growing up complete.
Bobby Millar of English always resembled a question mark, as he affected his amiable scholar’s slouch, to go with his corduroy trousers and leather elbow patches. He was probably the youngest of the men, and the one most of us would have gone for if we had all been cast on a desert island with only those five to go round. Like so many English teachers, he fancied himself a rebel, and it was a joy to land in his class in sixth form and have him tell us that dogged diligence in one’s essay writing was for bores: A-levels and university were a toss between brilliance and blarney. This was music to our romantic, and lazy, lug-holes, and brought out lots of fun and original work from us. (Sadly, I later made the mistake of passing this esprit on to my own child, with the result that she never managed to embrace the academic formulae demanded in this aforesaid safety-first-twenty-first century viz: to state and restate, ad nauseam, the obvious.)
The Art master was something of a cross between Clark Gable and Inspector Clouseau, in an unmodish brown suit with chalk stripes. He had a head of enviably thick dark brown hair, tightly waved and neatly parted, offset by his matinée-idol moustache. This he was wont to stroke, along with, occasionally, other things. He loved to talk as we daubed away at our pictures, with a burning need to inform us of the dangers of predatory males.
Shy Mr Bogey was a will-o’-the-wisp, an x or a y, an unknown to me, coming as he did with classes in Higher Science, and with such a wondrous name. More Daddy-Long-Legs than Bogeyman, I see him always at a distance, an angular stalker at the periphery of one’s vision. When I later came upon the cult Gormenghast trilogy, there was Mr Bogey in the character of the ever-pacing Flay.***
There were others, and my husband has described to me a similar clutch of eccentrics populating his Boys’ Grammar School. I feel privileged to have been entertained in my impressionable years by this merry-go-round of colourful, sometimes bad but usually good, characters.
Nonetheless, the above were but background music to the man who flung wide the door to a sunlit other dimension: the Most Unforgettable, Ineffable, Inimitable Willie Traill of Classics.
[to read more about Wee Willie Trail you will need to click on issue 22 on January 12]
*The film Mean Girls (2004) focusses on High School bullying by a so-called “popular” group dubbed by others “the plastics” for their falseness. Both ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘plastics’ are now established in the English language.
**Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
“Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?”
***In Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Flay is a gently spooky soul, aide to the ruling Groan family. Flay, spiders abseiling from his nose, paced by night as well as day the labyrinthine corridors of the vast Castle Gormenghast. His knees were so skinny that when he walked, they clicked and woke the sleeping inhabitants. To stop annoying them at night, Flay had to muffle the offending joints in lengths of woollen cloth.