I talk a lot on this blog about adults who let me down, during my childhood; people who should have, and in an ideal world would have, supported me and nurtured me and looked to my best interests when I couldn't myself. I talk of my parents; the alcoholic bully of a mother and the absentee father; or the Granddad who beat us, or the dickhead pseudo-stepdad who shot me in the head.
There were others though, short in supply though they may have been, who did attempt, in their own small way, to put me on the right track. One such person was my teacher, in my final year of Junior School; 4th year we called it, but I suppose now I must refer to it as Year 6. His name will go unrecorded here, although he has the honour of being one of the few teachers whose names I remember. We shall simply call him, Mr V.
The thing about Mr V. was that everyone joined his class with a certain trepidation in their hearts.
I remember saying to my mate Chris, on the first day of our year in his class, "I say old chap," I said, "I'm feeling a good bit of trepidation about this whole affair, and I don't mind saying so, what!"
"Bally good call, old man, I was saying much the same to Mother, just last evening" he replied.
As you do. Anyway, the reason for everyone's trepidation upon entering his class; aside from the inherent pressure you felt knowing that this was the last year of junior school before BIG SCHOOL came calling; was that the man had a rep. A rep for strictness, short temperedness, over familiarity, and alcoholism. A terrifying combination.
Now, lets be honest here. As adults, it's plain to see that while, yes, he may have been strict and quite possibly short tempered; these are not unfamiliar traits in teachers. However, if he was 'over familiar' (read: a homosexual predator), or indeed an alcoholic; and to such an extent that the children in his class were actively discussing it and warning younger kids about it; you'd think that word would probably have reached someone in a position of authority, wouldn't you? Of course it would; the stories were nonsense. Logic isn't really a factor though, when you're 10. At that age you believe what you're told, and the kids in his class; the top class, the big lads; well, their words were gospel! So in we toddled, found some seats, and settled in to meet the ogre.
At this point, I'd like to explain a little about the rumours. Namely, the homosexual predator one. Now, I like to think that I'm a fairly right-minded, liberal person; I don't have much in the way of prejudices (although I do come over 'very' right wing on one particular issue, which we shan't go into here) but I come from a long line of people who do. Be it race, disability, or sexual orientation, the people in my family, and indeed the people in my immediate social circle, were not exactly known for their inclusiveness. People like the Scottish/Pakistani family who lived near us where constantly referred to as 'dirty bastards' and I was expressly forbidden from having anything to do with one of the lads in my class because he was black, while 'bummer', 'faggot', 'retard' and 'spaz' were everyday words. Such was my upbringing; so the thought of being taught by a gay teacher did, at that time, fill me with a degree of dread. I'm not proud.
The seats that we found, my bezzie and me, were against a wall, and behind our seats, near the skirting board, there was a hole in the floorboard. We discussed it between ourselves, and we decided that this must be where Mr V. would hide the alcohol. We never did look down the hole, to see if we were correct; we said because we 'didn't dare', but I suspect it was more that we just didn't want to be found wrong. The chance to add our own little bit to the Mr V. legend was too strong. Sure enough, by the end of the 1st week it was accepted as fact amongst all the kids of the school, that Mr V. kept bottles of booze under the floor in his classroom. Again, I'm not proud.
He was a great guy though, was Mr V. He had this amazing ability to have one conversation with a kid, and make them feel like they'd known him all their life, and that he understood them. He also had enough sense to acknowledge when people would not benefit from the prescribed curriculum; I participated in one group reading session, before being banished to a corner with a novel, and he never asked to hear me read again. It was this last that made him such an important figure in my life.
You see, I'm a reader. I'd always been a reader. I started school at 4 already able to read, which saw my mother getting told off by the teachers, because I was throwing off the level of the class. From that point on, not one single teacher had the initiative to say, 'you know what, he's beyond this, let's give him something more challenging.' The curriculum said that someone of my age should read at a certain level, that's the level they made me read at. Made for some pretty depressing and demoralising lessons, I can tell you. With Mr V. though, things were different.
He would ask me, have you read this book, have you read that book, and I'd say no, because I'd spent the last few years reading about pixies and unicorns. He introduced me to Jack London and Charles Dickens and Tolkien. He taught me that it was OK to read for pleasure, rather than just for school; a lesson I'd once known, but which had been beaten out of me by his predecessors (not literally, you understand; even then, that kind of thing was frowned upon. They thought it far more sporting to let the parents do it), and he entered one of my short stories into a competition, marking the 1st time anyone had ever considered anything I'd written as being worthy of comment. I didn't win; didn't even place; but he'd entered it. That meant something.
So, after all of that, you'd think I'd have a bit of respect for the man, wouldn't you? That I'd defend him from the slurs and the rumours and the accusations. Yeah, no. I respected him inside of course; worshiped the man, if truth be known, but on the surface, well, what can I say? He was a teacher and I was a pupil; there was no way in Hell I could ever take his side. So I joined in the jokes and I told my stories of his secret Vodka stash and I made sure that all the kids in the 3rd year were suitably warned of the predatory beast they were soon to encounter. Say it with me; I'm not proud.
I'm sure Mr V. knew what we said about him. I'm sure it grieved him. I just hope that my own, personal, involvement, after all he'd done for me, didn't cut too deeply.