In 1994 I taught a bottom set in Year 11. There were, I recall, just eight boys in the class but one was always absent. They were all disengaged, not slightly interested in learning any Maths and all “loveable rogues” which is a euphemism for “impossible to teach”. I decided not to put them under any pressure, tried to have as many games as I could and not worry too much about getting them to pass exams. (They all got a GCSE pass but not a high one). The master stroke, however, was making them all a cup of tea or coffee half way through every lesson. This was a unique experience for them – to have a teacher ask them what they wanted and then to bring over a proper hot drink in a proper cup. Most of them had coffee but one had tea and he used to complain that I had used the same spoon to stir his tea as I had stirred the others’ coffees. I think of this boy every time I make Roo a cup of tea when I make myself a coffee.
One of the boys in the group was John. He was never difficult. That had nothing to do with my ability to motivate him to learn some Maths but everything to do with my cowardice at not confronting him. His brother had been known to walk into the school, two years after leaving, and start a fight with a student at the school. However, John and I got on well, even though one day Roo nearly killed him. I can’t remember how I had got to school in the morning but Roo and I had arranged for her to pick me up after school. The exit from the school wasn’t exactly designed with Health & Safety in mind: all the pupils left through the staff car park. As I was waiting in the car park for Roo to arrive, John was leaving. Roo turned into the car park just as John was walking out and he had to run to avoid a violent death. As I got into the car, he turned to me and shouted out “Oi! Sir! Is that your bit of fluff?”
Despite the assassination attempt, John remained friendly which came in handy later. I had a small office next to my classroom (it’s where I brewed up) and one day, a boy was sent to me from another class for misbehaviour. His name was Gavin. I sat him in my office and set him some work. He acquiesced but after the lesson ended and he had left to get to another lesson, I was horrified to find that I had left my jacket on the back of the chair that he had been sitting on. I had stupidly left my wallet in the inside pocket of my jacket and, sure enough, £50 was missing. Obviously I confronted Gavin with this later but he denied it. As he obviously would have done. I reported the theft, there was an investigation but as there was no proof, nothing could be done. A few days later, whilst sipping his coffee, John asked me if I had had some money stolen. Although this might point the finger at him, he was nowhere near my classroom on the day the money had disappeared. John told me that Gavin had gone around boasting that he had stolen my money. I’m not sure whether the conclusion of this story reflects well or badly on me but here goes. I talked to Gavin and asked him if he liked dogs. He said he did. I showed him a picture of Bede, the lovely Labrador that Roo and I owned. I asked Gavin did he like the picture. He said he did. I lied and pointed to a (non-existent) lump on Bede’s body saying how ill he was. I said that I had intended to take Bede to the vet but now that my money had gone I couldn’t afford it and now Bede was going to die because Gavin had stolen my money. At which point he burst into tears and confessed. He was made to pay back a small amount each week but he got permanently excluded for another transgression before any payments were made.
A few days ago, I wrote that the only time I had broken the law was when I had broken the speed limit but I could have turned into Gavin without my parents’ intervention. I reckon I was four years old when my parents took me to one of their friend’s house so that I could play with their son who was about the same age as me. Towards the end of our time playing together, I saw a couple of batteries and thought that I would take them. Just normal cylindrical batteries. I put them in my pocket and my parents told me it was time to go home. Just as the car was pulling up outside our home in Bush Hill Park, I proudly showed my new acquisitions to my parents. Anger, shouting, tears and a return car journey followed. I was made to hand over my prized possessions to their friends and I felt truly terrible. I vowed I would never do that again. Which I never did. Sort of….
When I first arrived at Netteswell School in 1976 I wore a tie with “Cricket’s a big hit” on it. Ron soon invited me to play at the weekend for Tye Green and twenty years of glory (?) followed. However, he wasn’t the first cricket loving Maths teacher that I met. My first encounter was with a teacher whose nickname was Spitfire for very obscure reasons. He was a much better batsman than Ron – he played his forward defensive without going down on two knees. He wasn’t to know that I wasn’t good enough to play for his team but he never tried to get me to play for his team. We did, however, have a lot in common. We were both Maths teachers. We both loved cricket. And we both loved folk music. One day, he told me that he had a rare record by someone called Jackson C. Frank. I hadn’t heard of him but was intrigued. We chatted and he asked me if I would like to borrow the record. I said I would like to, thank you. Forty years later I still have it. We lost touch years ago but if anyone is in touch with Spitfire (not his real name!), tell him I’m sorry. Vinyl copies of Jackson C. Frank’s only studio album are selling for about £30 on eBay. Not that rare then.
The album was produced by Paul Simon in London and features nine original songs featuring Jackson C. Frank singing and playing acoustic guitar with occasional additional guitar played by Paul Simon and AL Stewart. The whole album was recorded in six hours. He has a very relaxed singing style but, this being folk music, the lyrics to the songs are mainly sad. His guitar work is effortlessly complex.
The standout track on the album is “Blues Run the Game” which has also been recorded by Simon & Garfunkel, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Counting Crows and Laura Marling amongst others.
Another fantastic song on this album is “Milk And Honey”. Radie Peat (from Lankum) and Adrian Crowley sung an amazing version of the song in 2017.
When he was fifteen, a furnace exploded at his school in New York State, killing fifteen of his classmates. Although he survived, he suffered burns to fifty percent of his body which, in later life, led to both physical and mental problems. After recording the album, the psychological damage caused by the fire at his school took effect and his mental health deteriorated. He went to the USA in 1966 for two years before returning briefly to the UK in 1968 where his musician friends were dismayed to see him thrashing his guitar singing strange tuneless songs about depression. He returned to the USA, married and had a son who soon died of cystic fibrosis.. Darker depression followed. He retuned to live with his parents but in 1984 he went to New York City in a futile search for Paul Simon and ended up homeless and living on the streets. He was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A few years later he was blinded in one eye by a local child playing with a shotgun and he died of pneumonia in 1999, aged 56. A doomed life is well described in this mini documentary in which his fan Jim Abbott says he was “a talented and kind man who didn’t get a whole of breaks in life. He was damned good”.