By good luck and a ton of imagination I have amassed fond memories teaching Speech and Drama in an east-end secondary school in Glasgow some years back. The school was newly built, the teachers not long enough in it to hate their job, hence the good luck to be among them, particularly pupils happy to be in a bright, contemporary building.
As I entered the gates for the first time, I had no idea what the place would have in store for me, or how it would alter my attitude to Scottish society or how it would politicise me. The experience was the impetus to found and run Scotland’s national theatre for talented youth. It exists to this day.
The making of me politically.
Filled with missionary zeal, I threw all my energies into showing teenagers from predominately poor and deprived homes (as my own was) that they had real potential, raw ability as yet untapped, something society could value when matured. Above all, they needed confidence, not to be a smarty pants, but not to fear words, to know how to use them to express oneself well.
It wasn’t about being an actor, for I taught the technical side of drama too, writing, set design, oratory work, presentation techniques, and musical performance. It was about imbuing them with self-confidence, and developing language ability.
An immediate rapport
The students responded enthusiastically. I would stand at my desk as the period bell rang listening to the clatter of shoe on tile as they rushed to my classroom pitched at the end of the building, burst through the door, yelling and shouting, collapsing in heaps into seats placed around the classroom edges, the centre a stage. Schoolbags got tossed into a corner. There were no desks just seats and a few tables.
The drama class became the two-hour event of the week. Classes generally consisted of book or poetry readings, lots of improvisations to acquire skills in handling tricky real-life situations, role playing, movement work, social games that boosted communication skills, short sketches to act out, film analysis, and lots of writing. They learned how to handle everyday situations, to speak for themselves.
I wrote full-length plays for the end of term designed to the fit the pupils’ ages, no adding beards or moustaches. One was set in a movie studio taken over by a gang of black suited Mafia-type hoodlums – a synonym for society taken over by fascists. (Parents spotted the inferences but not the slow-witted headmaster.) I think I must have been studying Bertolt Brecht at the time for it had resonances of ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’.
The characters sported real Tommy guns, firing pin removed, the boxes they were packed in delicately opened by Special Branch and badly repacked to send on to the school from Bapty the theatrical armour and weapons suppliers. Revolution Revolve was a black comedy written two years before Buggsy Malone hit the big screen.
The headmaster saw parents arriving in droves to witness the theatrical event, parents no other school event had ever enticed across the car park. Each night saw a full house.
The making of man
One incident stands out. A rather unprepossessing, squat student with warts where there ought to be none, and a head of thick hair cut by a blunt lawnmower, asked to see me. He was keen to join in the school production, but pathologically shy of being seen on a stage under spotlights. He was gauche and inarticulate. I saw the seed of ability in his pleas for participation. I was at a loss how to involve him.
I needed a gorilla for a comedy routine during the interval and hit on the idea his head behind a mask would free him of inhibition. I was right. It did the trick. He became completely animated, so good in fact, that his role was enlarged to include audience participation. He lost all physical awkwardness, became expansive in gesture, loud of voice and laughter. He was having the time of his young life.
On the way home from the production he was waiting for me in the half-light near the school gate. “Sir, have yi go’ a minute?” I stopped and waited to hear what he had to say.
“Ah wanted tae thank you for what yiv done fir me, sir. It’s been great, this actin’ stuff.”
I told him it was all his doing. He showed he had ability. For a few moments he stayed silent trying to summon the words he wanted to express.
“An’ … an’ there’s something else Ah need tae say. Ah’ve nivver been any good wi’ girls, but being in yer play has well … changed tha’, an’ … an Ah go’ a girlfriend.”
Standing a few yards behind him was a coy, dark haired girl from his year, poorly dressed in a thin coat for the cold night air, clutching her mother’s patent white handbag, and wearing her mother’s best shoes. She shifted uneasily at my gaze.
My heart leapt into my mouth and I stuffed a £10 note into his handshake, telling them to enjoy themselves at the pictures. As a dominie, those are moments to cherish.
Rascals not thieves
On another occasion, a production opening with the storming of Russia’s Winter Palace and ending in a movie studio, had its red silk revolutionary flags stolen. A few days later a group of boys sported neat red handkerchiefs in the breast pocket of their blue Crombie coats, exactly one inch of fold showing, a gang emblem.
“We’re the boys wi a’ the graces,
Yellow shirts an’ gallus braces.
We’re the boys that chib yer faces,
We’re the Brigton Derry!”
Years later I met one of the gang in Sauchiehall Street, or rather he met me, shouting from across the street dodging cars as he ran over to greet me in that instantly chummy way Glaswegians have of greeting old acquaintances.
‘Hibby’ was wearing an expensive camel hair coat, shirt and shoes. Sir, sir! It’s me – Hibby. You wur the only teacher who thought Ah wus worth somethin’.”
I grinned as I shook his hand telling him he was exactly that. How he was dressed now proved it. He laughed at the compliment. We chatted awhile, mentioned the school plays, and talked about his job as a second-hand car salesman, and with a huge smile, unsolicited; he made his confession there and then.
“Remember when yer flags went ‘missin’?” I nodded. How could I forget? I paid for them out of my own pocket. Twice. “That wus us, sir. They wus perfect hankies.”
With his expensive coat and fur collar, I had to ask him what he was doing for a living. “Dinnie worry about me, sir. Got a barra at Barrowland. Daein’ jist fine.” He changed tack. “Remember wee Eck? He’s been up fir thievin’ three times. Nae hope fir him. Naw, I’m daein’ good.”
And then he unburdened himself of another confession. “Ken Mister McTavish, yon music teacher?” I remembered him well, a pleasant old guy sent around schools to teach Glasgow’s children the joys of Chopin and a few traditional Scots songs playing the piano. He had an unfortunate facial tick when he spoke. As the words were about to come out he made a clicking sound and blinked hard. After a while you got into the habit of timing him to prepare for the next click, blink, and stumbled sentence. If he knew about his affliction he never let on. Had he ambitions ever to become a concert pianist, the tick ruined it.
“Aye, that’s him, sir” said Hibby. “We used tae get tae his class afore him and nick a tenner outa his wallet fae his jaiket hangin’ in the cupboard. Then we pushed wee Eck oot the windae tae run tae the sweet shop and bring back loads o’ goodies. When McTavish got tae the room we aw sat lookin’ innocent, like. He had nae idea whit we were uptae, jist told us no tae eat in the classroom.” He gave a huge grin, chuckled, and added the zinger. “We did that fir ower a year an’ he didnae ken a thing!” By tick and tenner, Mister McTavish was a two-time loser.
A harpy on horseback
The headmaster retired early, a kind, considerate man devoid of a sense of humour. His excuse was genuine, a bag of shattered nerves issuing from meeting too many aggressive, heavy-weight mothers in his study complaining that their rambunctious child was bright and should be given a second chance.
He had tried his best to civilise their in-built animosity to schooling but failed. It was not his fault. They were the dispossessed, people who knew they were the downgraded. Their life was one long struggle. They had to fight for everything. He tried to show kindness to their children, in one case, saying “hello, and who are you?” to a snotty nosed three year-old mite in a pushchair. The child looked up at him and uttered the immortal rebuke, “Up yer geggy!” He didn’t know what those words meant, but he knew it was an insult. His sigh was long and deep.
He was succeeded by the first female appointed to run a comprehensive secondary school in Scotland, a fine looking and formidable man-chewing harpy on horseback. Her raunchy aggression was sensuous as hell to some male staff. I found it imperious and intimidating.
To some of the older male staff who tried to take her on, but failed, it was wrestle Pussy Galore time in Auric Goldfinger’s stable. Black gown flying open behind her like a bat cape, blood red, tight, body hugging cocktail dress underneath (more honest to say ‘cock teasing’ dress), she strode down corridors as if in a Byronic storm, the clatter of her killer high heels on cold concrete warning of her approach.
One day I arrived for work my chin sporting designer stubble – and have never lost the look since, freed from the pain of shaving my face with a piece of razor sharp metal. She strode by without as much as a sidelong glance speaking loudly so all around could hear, “Perfecting the professorial look, are we, Mr Wardell?” and disappeared into her bell tower, or wherever it was she hung upside down in the dark hours.
I’ll give her one thing; she was ace at breaking up playground fights. Hardly would a punch be thrown, when out of nowhere she flew, pouncing down upon the throng, throwing herself into the middle of the scrummage of chanting children, she shouting “Stop! That! At! Once!!!” In one swift move she grabbed the perpetrators by the scruff of the neck, and hauled them limp and fearful off to her lair to be consumed at leisure.
In many respects Miss Mountebank, as I called her though never to her face, was ahead of her time, but severely imperious doesn’t win friends. I could see she was a lonely person. Years later I read that she had committed suicide. She lived alone.
Sex rears its ugly head
Pupils soon learned to trust me as someone on the side of fair play and no physical punishment. I could slice an ear with a cutting remark, but would never flay skin with a length of seasoned leather from the hide of a bull. I was a hero to those young people.
They saw me as a rebel and a confidante, someone like them, against the ‘establishment’, the harsh reality that they knew. In time they grew to trust me absolutely, and I no longer walked in fear of out-of-work adolescent groups hanging menacingly around the local streets. I was ‘the drama teacher’ – “Let him past, Jakey. He’s okay”.
One day, while filling in my report on my last class’ progress, in a period off, the deputy headmistress paid me a visit, closing the door behind her carefully, with a deft turn of the handle behind her back.
“Mr Wardell”, formality gets stronger the higher up the education tree you go. “Mr Wardell, do you mind if I have a chat with you about a tricky issue? I pulled a seat to my desk and offered it to her.
“You had one girl drom P3 coming to speak with you the other day … erm … for a private chat.”
This was true. The girl appeared at my door distressed and in a ten minute quiet conversation confessed things were not as they should be at home. As she talked uninhibited, she wrung her hands constantly. I was at a loss how to help her, knew she was attaching herself to me as a person she could trust.
“Well, it’s not the done thing”, warned the deputy headmistress. “Pupils with emotional problems should be referred to me, and I’ll take it from there.” The deputy head was not an intimidating woman unlike her superior. She was middle aged, hair not dyed to fool, never to be a headmistress, but she was not working class either, not the type of woman a Glasgow child would consider safe to unload private experiences.
“Couldn’t I just leave the door open if they want a chat?” I replied, slightly miffed my integrity was being challenged.
“That’s most certainly not the answer. Refer them to me because, erm … you never know what the pupil, a girl especially, might accuse you off.”
I realised she was warning me of unforseen repercussions, that private chats should have two teachers present. I nodded in reluctant agreement and she left, duty done, but I felt cheated of a line of commuication to young people looking for help. Only later did I recognise that the deputy head found what she had to say to me almost impossible to communicate in straight language. How’s that for irony?
This is the life
Life as a salaried teacher was attractive, freed from fear of an empty bank account. It seemed a good, productive life, a ‘keeper’, but all the while charlatan politicians concocted noises off about poor standards in education. Education is an easy target. Politicians know they can only fiddle with the edges, radical change is too costly. Scotland’s internationally admired education system was “in peril”. It was a gross exaggeration back then and is still so voiced today.
In a philosophical mood, wondering if I was doing any good at all, I questioned what it was students got from my drama classes. The education hierarchy saw drama as Liberal Studies, a pleasant pastime, but a diversion from ‘real academic work’.
It was a very Scottish attitude to the arts, and it took decades to throw over. Years later, applying for scientific research funds, I was told in a written refusal, art was art and science was science. I replied that that attitude rendered Leonardo Da Vinci just another loser.
What did the students think? Did they understand much of it is language and how we use it? I composed a questionnaire. Here, from the pragmatic and the confused, are a few First Year student answers, poor spelling and all.
Why do you get Speech and Drama?
- “To show us that school is not all a lot of rubbish.” John
- “So we can rest our bones.” Angus.
- “It helps you improve your character and imagination.” Mary.
- “If your school wants to raise funds you can have a drama to help.” Alison.
- “To improve your mind about things you thought were not possible”. Ann.
- “To make us think, to have our own opinion, not be ashamed of it.” Andrew.
- “To help us speak right without getting all embarrassed.” June.
- “I have no idea why we get Speech and Drama.” William.
- “We get drama because it’s on our timetable.” Betty.
- “Because we are one of the lucky classes.” Graeme.
- “To help us convist good when we convist with people and speaken right.” Ian.
- “To stop us worrying. Even I can do it because it’s not like work.” Dennis
- “To make you learn about other people whether you like them or not.” Brian.
- “It keeps me away from my younger brother.” Margaret.
- “To learn about yourself and to give you currage.” Mary.
- “It learns you about theatre, and plays, and costumes.” Jeanette.
- “Because I am going to be a film star.” Michael.
- “So when we explain things we can make them interesting.” Grant.
- “To make you feel happy.” Garry.
- “Because some of us need confidence. I am one of those who has not got much confidence. Please excuse the handwriting.” Alistair.
The sermon on the Mount
Giving seven sermons a day, handling classes of twenty or more, is exhausting, a young person’s task. How do elderly teachers manage? I guess that’s why so many look for promotion to administrative posts, or drift out of the profession.
One old codger, who looked as if he had known Dickens’ Mr Bumble in his early teaching days, had the habit of putting algebraic equations on the blackboard as the hour’s work and falling asleep at his high desk, chin resting on his fist. The surprising thing was, his classes tended to do the work on the blackboard and keep quiet so as not to waken him, or have him see Jim snogging Mary in the rear corner seat.
Teaching is an inspiring career and a killer. If a teacher today I’d probably be militant, out there on marches with the teacher’s union, decrying the cant and hypocrisy of two-bit, pig ignorant politicians forever berating the profession for this and that, and having holidays they think are too long.
“The belt didn’t do me any harm” says the authoritarian. Aye, is that so? It didn’t do you any good either. Have you had a look at yourself lately, you chancer?
I never used corporal punishment, the tawse or belt as it was called, although there were some hairy moments when I got close to bringing out the ultimate weapon. I think a lot of harassed teachers back then were driven insane to the point of slapping a pupil, though nowadays it means instant dismissal for not being a saint.
One disturbed pupil refused to join in my classes, day after day, just sat in a corner, knees pulled up under his chin, glaring. I shall call him Tam. I never won him over. Peer pressure, bags of sweets, soft spoken words, did no good. I could tell something rotten was happening at home, if Tam had one, and it wasn’t affection or caring parents. I asked but he refused to speak. The most I got out of Tam was ‘nut’, meaning no. He would do as I asked or participate. I remember him because I failed him.
Tam had his nemesis, a history teacher, a man determined to reach the teaching inspectorate one day, a burly guy with dank wet black hair, combed back like Hitler. He kept his tawse slipped over his shoulder under his sports jacket for ease of action like a gunslinger, ready to whip out in an instant and smack knuckles too slow to be retracted to jacket pockets. He belted every pupil that dared to move a muscle, even an eyelid. He was a strict disciplinarian of the old school. His classes were going to sit ramrod stiff, no pupil speak unless spoken to, so help him God. He was chronically belt happy. He liked being cruel.
One day he flung open my classroom door and threw the terrified Tam across the floor. “Hold him down, while I belt him!” he said, strident as a Gauleiter. This was a new situation to me, a test of my will power and integrity. The boy looked up at me expecting two large grown men to beat him to a pulp. My big test had arrived.
“You’ve got your teacher really mad”, I said, kneeling beside Tam, smiling as hard as I could to ease his fears. For a few moments I was in a panic. The geography teacher was flexing his belt, getting his stance ready, one leg back to steady himself to bring his belt down hard on Tam’s naked palm and wrist. And then I had a flash on inspiration; “Let’s go to the headmaster’s office”, I said. “Let’s see if he can sort out your differences”. The head of history glared at me, ready to give me six of the best.
We duly took the hapless Tam two corridors and an echoing staircase down to the Head’s office and I left them to his solution, which, it transpired, was not three of the best for silent insolence, but a call to a special care officer for troubled children. The history teacher was, naturally, furious with my limp response and made sure the next few days in the staff room were chilly. I had broken the honourable code of teacher supporting teacher against pupil.
I do not know if I passed my test by holding to my principles, but I have never forgotten the mixture of fear and rebellion in that boy’s eyes. Years later a thesis I had written at university, a research study, on the efficacy and practice of corporal punishment was cited as a guide in the banning of the barbarous practice in Scottish education. I am proud of that.
I loved those children, every one, their quirks and their quicks sense of humour. A geography teacher who had a bad stutter, and a long turkey neck, they daubed ‘super-chicken’.
My days as a drama teacher were memorable. They were the making of me.
I met and marvelled
Where are those children now? What did they do with their lives? I’m honoured to have known them. I hope they’re well. I trust none joined the army for loss of a better job, and became cannon fodder. I hope they’re teaching their children honesty and perseverance. I hope at least one reads this and recognises a time of fond remembrance. I hope.
(An abridged version of this essay appeared in iScot magazine)