I hated school. I was an A student all the way, at or near top of the class from my earliest years, but I despised the place. It bored me almost senseless. I read voraciously at home, especially science and most especially physics. I grew crystals, built my own electronic systems, collected and categorized rocks and fossils, tried to build my own Wilson Cloud Chamber (failing because I couldn't get any dry ice or radium), and ran many chemistry experiments, even unwittingly making chlorine gas at one point. I philosophized and pondered, schemed and plotted. But when I got to school, a switch was flicked, and the misery of boredom ensued from about 9:00am to 4:00pm every weekday. Gawd how I hated that brain-killing, interest-nullifying place.
Except ... except when I was in the care of a few teachers. Those few, those happy few, those band of poor sods who had to keep me entertained; they rescued school, for me, from being an utter waste of my time. I doubt the rest of my teachers were bad -- in the face of the modern state school system, even back then, it takes a veritable warrior of pedagogy to stay effective -- but these are the ones who stand out for me.
First was Mrs Ballantyne. In fact she wasn't actually a teacher at all. She was the librarian at the library in the Johnstone Castle community centre, and she was there when, at about 5 years old, or maybe younger, I borrowed my first book, "Tommy Gets A Medal", about Tommy The Tugboat. I read it in about an hour and tried to get my mum to take me back for more. Mrs Ballantyne smiled a lot, and lived in a world of books. Smiles, books: connect the two. Shrug. Maybe I'm imagining it, but young brains make important connections. Mrs B also did Story Time, when I and five or six other keen wee souls would sit around her in a circle -- we on our little chairs, her on what appeared to be her Book Queen's Throne -- and she'd read us stories. I loved Mrs B. I'd have married her if I was that way inclined at 5 years old (and if she hadn't herself been 125 years old, which is how it seemed to me at the time, although thinking back she was probably in her early twenties!) But it was enough back then to listen to her read Mrs Pepperpot and the like.
In primary 3 (roughly US 3rd Grade), Mrs McCreadie. She benignly withstood my never-ending onslaught of questions. I remember one particular day when during a "quiet" reading session, I came upon a book about insects. The resulting flurry of questions from me must have had the poor saint of woman having nightmares that night, about earwigs, craneflies, and, of course, 7-year-old me.
In primary 7, Mr Johnstone. He tolerated me regularly finishing science and maths work earlier than everyone else, and indulged me in my extra-curricular experiments to prove thermodynamics wrong and build a working perpetual motion machine. He also took us all to Holland. Holland! That was, like, a million miles away! I still remember the smell of the cheese factory, the canals, and Madurodam. The fact that he brought his very hot sister along as a nurse -- she actually was a nurse -- just added to his coolness in the eyes of me and my 12-year-old male classmates.
Moving into high school (in the UK, the 6 years of high school are roughly equivalent to US grades 7 through 12).
Mr Moynihan, in science. It would have been hard for me not to like any of the science teachers, but Finbarr Moynihan is among the ones I remember most fondly. He was the first I met in science, and so he taught us only "general" science. But he was a chemist at heart, so I was able to ask and he was willing to answer my questions that really were part of the syllabus a few years ahead of S1. Anyone who'll answer my questions is already halfway to greatness, and he answered a lot. In addition, he also had the coolest of Irish first names -- his friends called him "Fin" -- but he also coached us in some rugby, and gave me my one and only lesson in Hurling. Hurling is an Irish sport combining rugby, hockey, golf, and the kind of behaviours seen in 1916 on the Somme. Finbarr brought along his hurley (the sport's club/weapon) and taught us how to pick up the ball (sliotar) at speed and then wallop it up the field.
Mr. Devenney was an English teacher, on steroids. There was something about him that exuded a depth of love of language and literature (notice my alliteration on the letter "l") that I'd never seen in anyone else. Most language teaching seemed to me to be learning facts about the writing, but Mr D. seemed to take us into the writing. Rumour had it that he'd had a bit of a hard time, at some point, with some anxiety or depressive episodes. If so, I have two comments. First, well no bloody wonder given the kind of teaching/learning environment imposed by schools (not to mention the pain-in-the-arse kids, like me). Second, more important, Mr D. I'm pretty sure your pain enhanced your teaching. It's arguable that the best art often arises from melancholy, and in terms of linguistic art, you taught me better than the rest. And if the rumours were just that, and I'm completely off base, fine. You were still weird enough to be effective in teaching artistry -- you came to school on a scooter for goodness sake, and wearing bright yellow oilskins!
Mrs Maclachlin taught me music. She simultaneously scared me and inspired me. On the surface, she seemed like a nice older lady, quiet and book-ish. Like a librarian, only with lots of recorders instead of books. But beneath that genteel surface, lay, if needed, a Regimental Sergeant Major in terms of class discipline. I once saw her tober one of the class eejits for ... well, for being an eejit as usual. Suddenly Mary Poppins had become The Terminator, and she earned our immediate and enduring respect. But besides keeping baw-heids in line, she particularly helped me by giving me one-on-one tuitition towards my Music O-Grade. My science-heavy curriculum had no space for Music in the default 7-subject timetable. So Mrs M. gave up some of her time to allow me to pursue an eighth O-Grade. She also encouraged me towards orchestral playing and as a result I ended up playing Double bass for the Renfrewshire A, B and C orchestras (we Bass players are in big demand), and eventually for the Strathcyde Schools Orchestra. I was never diligent enough in practice to have been up for NYOS or NYOGB (although several of the SSO were), but had I been willing, I know she'd have helped me get there. Finally, and probably the most memorable aspect, was her arrangement of a particular piano song we all loved to sing with her at Christmas, her at the piano, the class all clustered around her. The other music teacher could play the song too, but not the way Mrs M. could. To this day I've still not been able to reproduce her bouncy, jolly, utterly-Christmassy rendition of "Old Toy Trains".
Mr Winton, Physical Education. Let's face it, I was a geek at school. A nerd. All brains and little brawn. Except, Tom Winton was having none of that. Until he arrived, probably into my second year at high school, I accepted the normal world view -- a view confirmed, I have to say, by the attitude of some other PE teachers I encountered -- that there were jocks and there were smart-but-pale kids, and that was just the way the world worked. Mr W broke that stupidity with a single suggestion. One day he noticed how much I seemed to be enjoying (he was right) some volleyball practice, despite me thinking (I was right) I wasn't very good at it, and he said, "Why don't you join the Kilbarchan Harriers [our local running club]; that'll help your volleyball." I was stunned. The Harriers were for sporty types, not swots like me, and this was in the mid 70's before "jogging" became acceptable behaviour for everyone with at least one leg. Mr W.'s suggestion to me felt like someone had proposed to a class eejit (like the one Mrs McL tobered) that he join the local Philosophy Discussion group. But, I repressed my amazement, and joined the Harriers and found, within some months, the astonishing result that I was beginning to finish our hated winter school cross country runs in the first five, instead of straggling in among the last five. Mr W's attitude -- based, I can only surmise, on a genuine and infectious love of sport and physical activity -- came through in all his lessons, and his general attitude to teaching. Sadly, he left our school to some other lucky bunch. But I was glad he passed us by on the way.
Finally, Mr Parker, my S4/5 (10th/11th grade) chemistry teacher. Again it was science, so his job was, in my case, much easier than in other subjects, but what he taught me was much more than just ionic and covalent bonds, or the structure of hydrocarbons, or the fact that if you argue with your lab-mate (Paul, you *totally* started it!) while heating sugar in a deflagrating spoon, then in the ensuing slapping and jostling the molten sugar may fall off onto your hand causing pain. Mr Parker was the only teacher I remember who taught me anything about how to learn. He taught us *to* take notes, and *how* to take them. He taught us about memory and recall, and how to study. His classes were more like university lectures (well, the way uiversity lectures were when I was at university, before universities became more like high schools) and he created an environment where we began to awaken to the fact that we were responsible for our own learning (a fact that I'd known instinctively since I was two years old, but had forgotten on exposure to schooling). Mr Parker was more than a teacher. He was a master to our apprentice, a coach, a paedagogus. The utter tragedy is that, if I recall right, he left teaching to sell insurance. Way to go state education; way to go.
To all of the above, alive and passed, and to the others who helped me but whose names I've forgotten, thank you. To debunk and replace George Bernard Shaw's aphorism:
"Those who can, do. Those who can really do, teach."