I was chatting with my two old friends in the coffee shop today, about what makes a good teacher, and what makes a bad one. I’ve never been able to express even the simplest of opinions without launching into a rambling reminiscence – often two in quick succession. People’s eyes glaze over. My friends have perfected the kindly art of not looking glazed.
I was telling them about Sybil, who taught me – or rather utterly failed to teach me – History ‘O’ level. And I actually liked history. I remember bounding up to her in the playground afterwards. “I got a grade 9 in History, Syb… Miss”. Grade 9 was the lowest possible fail.
“I know,” she said, gloomily. “Hardly your finest achievement.” It was the only ‘O’ level I had failed.
The trouble with Sybil was threefold: she was elderly, she was nice and she was easily distracted. And my class – my class was J. This sounds bad but we were streamed J, K, L and M. If you were an M you ended up doing various forms of PE all day and making collages. If you were a J you were bright, but troublesome. My class was full of girls who had been transferred from other schools for one reason or another. Girls with anorexia. Girls with a trail of expulsions behind them. Girls with mascara smudged around their eyes. Girls with fiercely backcombed hair screwed into high bunches. Loud girls. Insolent girls.
They quickly cottoned on to the fact that Sybil could be diverted from teaching history every single lesson. One had only to ask her about the time she swam the Suez Canal. With a faraway look in her eyes, she would tell and re-tell that Suez Canal-swimming yarn as paper aeroplanes and elastic bands whizzed over our heads. The panda-eyed brigade particularly liked to jam their wooden rulers upright into closed desks and ping them. As more and more souls joined in the ruler-pinging concert, the room began to thrum in an eerie, Aboriginal way. But in Sybil’s head it was 1929 – a hot Egyptian afternoon and the cicadas whispering in the bushes. She was diving, lightly-clad into the dark, lapping waters, perhaps the merest trill of insouciant laughter escaping her young lips…
Next year the school needed to make up for/disguise the fact that almost an entire class of its brightest pupils had failed its history ‘O’ level. Sybil disappeared and I was allocated to a fiery Welsh teacher for a replacement subject – not History again but something called British Constitution O*. The star meant you were a year older than the norm when taking it, so it was pitched slightly higher. I was taking my ‘A’ levels at the same time. British Constitution meant stuff about politics, the Houses of Parliament, democracy, how women fought to get the vote and the difference between a Bill and an Act… that sort of stuff. Dry as dust, but I loved it. At least, I loved being well-taught by a passionate enthusiast.
Mrs Beynon was short and stocky with chalk on her hands, chalk streaks on her forehead and ragged holes in the armpits of her woolly jumpers. She strode back and forth, thinking on the hoof, talking, explaining, firing questions at us. She made us think hard, very hard indeed; and if we didn’t come up with an answer she just waited – cat-like – until we did. The silence would grow more and more uncomfortable. Eventually even the shy and apathetic were forced to join in. She expected quick-fire adult thinking of us and – unexpectedly – she got it. At the end of one of her lessons – I can remember it now – we would emerge surprised into the daylight, trembling, blinking, strung out, as if we had been fighting for our lives.
I passed that O level, and her teaching was to have a lifelong influence on me. I vote every time even when my vote, statistically, can make no difference whatsoever. Even now I stay glued to the news and politics programmes, trying to fathom, not just what politicians are saying but what they are not saying. I’m fascinated by the intricacies and obfuscations of the law and the machinations of politics – the ulterior motives, the hidden dramas, the lies, the fudges, the diplomatic sidlings up to and creepings away from; the ‘real’ of politik. Most of all I’m grateful that I live in an old and relatively stable country with a tradition of democracy, and do at least have a vote. Up to a point, at least, I’m allowed to think and speak for myself. I have the tools to think and speak with.
She gave me those.