In a class of my own

Half a century ago school life was so much simpler. Most pupils came to school for a 9’o’clock start, had an hour for lunch and went home between 3.30 and 4 pm. The only exceptions were those youngsters involved in the school sports teams.

At my interview for the post of assistant teacher at Rawmarsh or Bleakbog (as it came to be affectionately known in novice teacher circles), I had promised Mr Laing, its Scottish barn door of a headmaster that I would run an after school Drama Club.

Even though the West Riding authority under Sir Alec Clegg had a nationwide reputation for the creative arts, it had barely impacted on Rotherham. So when I announced an after school Drama Club in assembly I was besieged by pupils asking questions about what the club involved and how they would get home in the winter dark afterwards. But hey, the dramatic arts had come to Rawmarsh and Parkgate and the excitement was tangible.

Parkgate, near Rotherham. There’s a misnomer. Where was the park? Where was the gate? Any long gone garden and estate had been replaced by an impoverished township and a patina of industrial dust from the foundries that coated pavements, roofs and windows.

So each night, after the drama club, ‘sir’ would fill his Beetle to busting and make several runs to take budding thespians home. Teachers cannot do that kind of thing in this day and age because their unions have warned them of the inherent professional dangers.

Mostly the pupils attending were 11 and 12 year olds but there were a few older children who helped with organisation. Betty was built like a budding cage fighter and, at age 15, seemed mature enough to put me in my place, never mind my young charges. Betty’s presence at the Drama Club was gold dust. Her role was comparable with that of a prefect in Victorian times when a senior pupil helped the teacher with administrative tasks.

Sadly, no one names their daughters Betty these days, do they?

Sessions in the Drama Club were built around three areas of activity: movement, discussion and improvisation.

The great thing about improvisation is that it develops the ability to think on one’s feet. I would break the class into groups, suggest a situation and ask each group to develop it with their own ideas. Then I would circulate round the groups and help them develop plot and character.

A favourite plot involved a tramp gate-crashing a dinner party in a ‘posh’ restaurant. The first task was to develop an understanding of what constituted a posh restaurant. The kids had it all sussed.

“Sir, it’s one where you always have wine with the meal.”

“The waiters always call you ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ at posh restaurants”

“They have a smart-looking menu with lots of pages and it never has sandwiches on it”

“My dad says you always have to leave a tip”

From there the discussion considered how posh people talk. Paul Fitzpatrick, the cheekiest of the bunch, had all the answers.

“Sir, they never miss out ‘the’. Like ‘Waiter, may I have the menu, please?’ where we say ‘Eh up, waiter, can I ‘ave t’menu?”

The improvisations themselves were revelations: the tramp was an old posh friend who had fallen on hard times and spun his tale of woe to the diners; or a drunkard who thought the world unfair for his fall from grace; or he had been cheated out of a fortune by a trickster and now was revenge.

Young unattached teachers are ideally placed to offer the pupils out of school visits they might never otherwise experience. Rotherham is 20 miles from the Peak District but it seemed that hardly any of the Rawmarsh pupils had been there. I organised a Sunday trip out to Edale.

For many of those youngsters this was a whole new world. Watching the jaws drop was strangely gratifying for me as the teacher because I was clearly presenting the children with a whole new experience. It might have been a different country we were visiting.

“We’re going to walk five miles today” I told them once we arrived at Edale “with a stop at halfway for sandwiches so it’s important that we pace ourselves and don’t set off at a hundred miles an hour.”

“Sir, I haven’t got any sandwiches.” It was Paul Fitzpatrick who, despite his news, was grinning like a dope.

We all chipped in together and Fitz finished up with the finest picnic of anyone. I had already seen in his school life that this lad grinned his way through all hardship and came out still grinning at the other end.

He even grinned at my pathetic joke of his name – “What fits me fits Patrick”

We walked in a big circle, returning to the bus on a January afternoon at 3 pm, but when I did a head count we were one missing. Once we had established that the loss soul was Fitz I tried to establish where we might have lost him.

“I think he’s over there, sir” one of the older girls said. I followed her pointing finger and the only visible object was a herd of sheep.

“Sonia, I know he’s an ugly blighter, but I know the difference between Fitz and a sheep”

Everyone boarded the bus and I asked Beryl, the HE lady, to sit with them while I retraced our steps. I put a brave face on, but it was a worrying time. Night was closing fast and this boy short on experience and long on silliness. I stood on a stone wall and yelled ‘Paul’ at the top of my voice.

No response.

“Well, we’ll have to go without you” I said in a raised voice on the off-chance that he was in the vicinity.

From the centre of the sheep flock Fitz arose, quite at home in their midst. To be fair, the lad did come from a large family

“Hello, sir, I’m here” he said “just keeping warm with my new friends.”

The exchange from thereon is unrecorded. Teachers are not supposed to use language like that, but there is an argument that it adds to their humanity. Suffice it to say that he sat next to me on the front seat for the return journey and there wasn’t a squeak or a bah out of him.



© Alan Combes, 2019. All Rights Reserved

Alan Combes