Johnny Ball: 'Mr Benson encouraged me to love maths'

Johnny Ball and his peers loved being taught by Mr Benson so much that they begged for homework

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I went to school during and shortly after the war so I must admit my memories of Mr Benson at Kingswood Primary School in Bristol are vague. However, I do remember being seven-years-old and the whole class banging on their desks shouting: “We want homework. We want homework.” So he must have been doing something right. You didn’t get homework until you were nine, you see.

The paper-copying system then was awful– it produced pungent, oily sheets of paper – but he would go away and get pages copied of 100 simple sums. They smelt horrible but we took them eagerly. He said: “If you do 10, I’ll be happy.” I admired him because he approached everything with flexibility and freedom.

I’d go home and sit with my parents who would be listening to the radio and I’d do all 100 sums. They were only simple, as they should be at that age, and I loved it. Only four or five of us did all 100. How many did I get right? All of them, I think. I was always top of the class or next to the top.

My dad shared my love of maths and when I was small we used to play maths games, such as double nine dominoes. (Never buy children double six dominoes, always buy double nine because with the blank you’ve got all 10 digits and it’s really very advantageous). I enjoyed it because I found it easy.

By giving me homework and leaving me to my own devices as a small child, he helped me learn how to solve problems by myself.

I was a bright and happy kid and had such a promising primary education but secondary was a disaster. Aged 11, I moved from Bristol, which was idyllic, to Bolton, as my parents were from Lancashire and wanted to go home after the war. This was before television, so if you came from 200 miles away, you were literally speaking a foreign language. The kids would ask me to say certain words and then fall about laughing.

I started in Form 2B and I got a maths prize and a chess prize in the first year. Then I had an accident, missed a lot of school, was moved to languages and went to 3C, 4D, Lower 5E and then 5E as there was no F. I left school with two O levels in Maths and Geography. I got 100 per cent in Maths even though I hadn’t taken a note in two years. I taught myself trigonometry and I must thank Mr Benson for that. By giving me homework and leaving me to my own devices as a small child, he helped me learn how to solve problems by myself.

The senior Maths mistress, Miss Hoyle, only taught the upper sets so she’d never taught me. Even though I’d been there five years she still had to ask, “Which one is Ball?” and she started looking at my trigonometry in my Maths book. Then she said: “Ball you have a brilliant mathematical brain.”

And thank God she did, because while I sort of knew I had, as my dad and Mr Benson had told me I was good at it and encouraged my love of the subject, my time at secondary school had been a disaster. This was the last week or two of school before I was kicked out, as I wasn’t good enough to go into the sixth form. I tell everyone that all failure in education is reparable once you get your brain into gear and some confidence and motivation. I went into the RAF instead and things just rocketed there for me.

Johnny Ball was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. 

Johnny Ball is supporting Maths Week London an initiative from Sumdog, an online learning platform, and the Mayor’s Fund for London. More information, click here

This piece was originally published on 19 August 2016.

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