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.
It was the making of me politically.
Imbued with missionary zeal, I threw all my energies into showing teenagers from predominately poor and deprived homes that they had real potential, raw ability as yet untapped, something society would value when matured.
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.
The students responded with enthusiasm. The drama class became the two-hour event of the week. Classes generally consisted of book or poetry readings, improvisations, 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, and to speak for themselves.
In time I wrote full-length plays for the end of term. One was set in a movie studio taken over by a gang of black suited hoodlums – a synonym for society taken over by fascists. (The parents spotted the inferences but not the humourless headmaster.) 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 memories
One incident stands out. A rather unprepossessing, squat student with hair cut by a blunt lawnmower was keen to join in the school production, but shy of being seen on a stage under spotlights. He was gauche and inarticulate, but there was the seed of ability in his pleas for participation. But 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. 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, and 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 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. It’s been great, this actin’ lark. 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’ … Ah got a girlfriend.”
Standing a few yards behind him was a coy, dark haired girl from his year, poorly dressed 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 £10 note into his handshake, telling them to enjoy themselves at the pictures.
Rascals not thieves
On another occasion, a production had its flags stolen, red silk flags. 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 awe the graces,
- Yellow shirts an’ gallus braces.
- We’re the boys that chib yer faces,
- We’re the Brigton Derry!”
They owned up to the theft, and thanked me for the flags. “They wus perfect, sir.”
A harpy on horseback
The headmaster retired early succeeded by the first female appointed to run a secondary school in Scotland, a formidable man-chewing harpy on horseback. Her aggression was sexy as hell. And she knew it. Black cape flying open behind her, blood red tight body hugging cocktail dress underneath, (I nearly wrote ‘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 sporting designer stubble – and have never lost the look since, freed from the pain of shaving my face with sharp metal. She strode by without as much as a sidelong glance and spoke so all could hear, “Perfecting the professorial look, are we?” and disappeared into her bell tower, or wherever it was she hung upside down for the night.
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 zapped into and parted the middle of a scrimmage shouting “Stop that at once!!!” She would grab the perpetrators by the scruff of the neck, and haul them off to her lair to be eaten at leisure.
In many respects her attitude was ahead of her time, but consistently strident and imperious doesn’t win friends. I could see she was a lonely person.
Miss Mountebank as I christened her was all for corporal punishment. I refused to use it. 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 the hide of a bull. I was some sort of hero to those young people.
I was a rebel hard against the ‘establishment’ they knew.
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. Scotland’s 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 classes. The education hierarchy saw drama as Liberal Studies, a pleasant pastime, but a diversion from ‘academic work’. What did the students think? Did they understand much of it is language? I composed a questionnaire. Here 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 hasn’t 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 Mr Bumble in his early teaching days, had the habit of putting algebra 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, classes tended to do the work and keep quiet so as not to waken him, or have him see Jim snog Mary in the back corner seat.
If I were a teacher today I’d probably be militant, out there with the Union, decrying the cant and hypocrisy of two-bit, pig ignorant politicians forever berating the profession for this and that, and holidays 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?
My days as a drama teacher were memorable. 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 remembrance. I hope.
(An abridged version of this essay appeared in iScot – ordered your copy yet?)