The end of the Seventies was a difficult and confused period – not just for myself having moved from the north of England to the Midlands – but for the country. Ordinary people were both delighted and dismayed with Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power as the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain for all the right and wrong reasons. Those who were dismayed because she was a woman and those who were delighted because they believed her policies would make a better country were both, in my opinion such as it is, wrong. Voted repeatedly the most admired woman in the world and reviled for her ‘iron’ grip which would destroy the entire coal industry in years to come, it is no wonder people were bewildered.
The music industry was in no better shape. Recovering from the brief but destructive Punk era, British music was never so diverse and unfocused. Poised between the guitar-driven thrash of Seventies rock and the technology-driven synth era of the Eighties the last few years of the decade saw the Bee Gees dominate on the back of Grease and Saturday Night Fever while Rod Stewart pranced around in leopard-skin leotards screaming ‘do you think I’m sexy?’ (for which the only answer could be ‘no’) yet giving room for artistic oddities like Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and the odd couple – Brian and Michael – telling us of Lowry’s ‘Matchstick Men and Matchstick Cats and Dogs’.
This was all in one year too – 1978. The following couple of years saw the gradual shift into electropop. Few at the time would appreciate how prophetic Buggles ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ would be. This pseudo-psychedelic one-hit wonder foresaw how technology was changing everything. Just ten years later the vinyl record was dead, guitar-led rock music looked to be dying and mobile phones were on the point of becoming all the rage.
This was the era in which I began to grow. My years in the north I can only vaguely remember but Midlands life affected me deeply in ways only now I’m starting to appreciate. It was not a friendly world, on the whole, and young boys had to stand up for themselves or learn to run fast. I was not particularly good at either and so I frequently came upon bullies and led something of a wretched life. I remember watching Billy Elliot recently and knowing I could never watch it again – it was just too close to the knuckle and I remember those times all too vividly.
She was the one good thing in all of this, the guiding light of my life and the first woman outside of my family to be important to me.
School was another form of bullying, only from the teachers rather than the students. It was perfectly timed that at the end of the Seventies, Pink Floyd were demanding ‘we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom, teacher leave us kids alone’ for this was just what it felt like for us. The song struck a chord which resonated deeply in our souls. ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,’ so the saying goes which explain the ethos of modern teaching, ‘teach him how to fish and he feeds himself for a lifetime.’ We were fed fish daily: rammed into our mouths relentlessly; putrid, rotting, foul-smelling fish along with the good so that nothing tasted well.
Mrs Tayloridge was a battle-axe of the old-school who had the distinction, perhaps, of being the only teacher in the whole school was hated by every single child. She showed no redeeming features – that I could ever fathom, at any rate. ‘Tiresome Tayloridge’ would pick on a child in her class and ridicule him or her if they got a single answer wrong. She destroyed me in front of the class when I didn’t know my seven times table. She demeaned me so horribly that I promised myself, then and there, that I would never learn any times table again; and I didn’t. Despite passing all my later exams in maths and developing a lifelong love of the subject – which I was good at, I must say – to this day I don’t know my seven times table; there has never been a need.
Mr Kernal – ‘Kernal Mustard’ we called him, mimicking the board game Cluedo, because he was as mean as any military colonel – was, of course, the Physical Education teacher. He was a skinny, short, wiry man who had a sharp tongue which could betray any weakness in a child. Those who were good at sports loved him – he was a god to them – but the rest of us loathed him. When forced to cover our classroom lessons, because some teacher or other was ill, he would make us work in total silence and if we dared to look up from our books he would scream at us that we would sit detention at the end of the day.
If a child forgot their kit they were made to go out into the fields, where we played Rounders even in the chilly depths of Winter, in their vest and underwear. Even the girls were subjected to this. After a year of swimming lessons I was one of the few who still couldn’t swim a stroke and ‘Kernal Mustard’ decided the only way I’d learn was to be thrown in. He promptly threw me into the pool where I thrashed wildly in mad panic until, somehow, I clawed my way to the side, sobbing uncontrollably to the hilarious enjoyment of my peers. Thus began a fear of water which would last me until I was a parent of a child, scared of water herself, and who, in helping her overcome her nervousness in the pool, overcame my own and finally began my first tentative strokes in the water.
It was well known that Kernal and Judy Miley, the youngest teacher at that time, were ‘doing it’ though it was unclear to me back then exactly what ‘it’ was. Everyone knew it though. It was the way they always stood next to each other in assembly, at the back where they thought no one was looking, whispering and giggling like overgrown school kids themselves.
‘Smiley Miley’ was not, however, a well-liked teacher despite considered ‘hot’ by a lot of the older boys. The main reason for this was that her weapon of choice, to use as classroom control, was ‘the slipper’.
To continue reading this story please buy the book ‘The Old Man on the Beach and other stories’ available January 2015.
Copyright © 2014 D K Powell
This story is dedicated to all those Infant and Primary school teachers who don’t teach for a career but as a vocation – because you care. It is you who make differences in your students’ lives you can’t possibly see or imagine and which you might well never ever find out. But make a difference you do – not by being amazing, passing Government inspections, pushing your wards to academic prowess or writing excellent lesson plans; but by being the adult in their lives who cares and encourages, admonishes but allows mistakes to happen; and you do so no matter how bad your life might be outside of those four classroom walls. You shape the future for the better in a way no inspection team could ever hope to measure.