Courage of desperation;Talkback

20th August 1999 at 01:00
Rural Scotland, 1970s. My first secondary post. All boys. I was new to Scotland. I was lonely.

On the first day of term I was sent to the station to fetch a minibus full of pupils. On the way back, I was bullied unmercifully. I was smaller and punier than most of them and they relentlessly played on this as well as the first four letters of my surname.

By the time we were nearing the school, I wondered if I'd be able to drive through the gate. I did and they got out, banging on the windows. God knows what my new head made of this as he gazed out of his study at his new protege. I made for the loo, feeling sick.

The deputy head stood next to me at the urinal. "All right John?" he asked cheerfully? "Fine thank you," I lied. He left, smiling. I wanted to run away.

Then I remembered one of their griefs during the bus ride was that they'd failed all their O-grades. I'd been motoring with the re-sits. And then what I'd shouted to them as they got out the minibus came back to me: "I'll help you pass," adding, with the confidence of inexperience, "And I'll get you a Higher by the summer!" It was September. Nine months for an O and a Higher?

I shook all night. The fear of teaching that mob gnawed my stomach. Like Macbeth at Dunsinane, I felt my life signified nothing and that I should blow out my candle.

I was petrified next morning as I approached the classroom. "It's Mr Dick!" said the first. "Bigus Dickus!" yelled the next. I just stood there and sort of half laughed with them. In one way it was funny. Tiny Englishman faced by tartan army. Eventually they played it down. Perhaps "the sweetest honey really is loathsome in its own deliciousness", I thought, remembering the English part of my combined degree.

And I said to them as clearly and bravely as I could: "You've got no O-grades. We'll get history Os in this term's re-sits and Highers in the summer."

Hardly knowing what I'd said, I looked out on a silent class. One of my main tormentors asked, "You mean we could pass?" "Of course," I said. And then, making it up as I went along: "You'll have to work hard. I'll bring you in at six o'clock in the morning. I'll make the arrangements with your parents and we'll make it happen." And so we began.

"History teachers," I was told by a doubting colleague, "suffer from delusions of grandeur." There were no delusions. We were going to make it (I had checked their files; they weren't that dim, just rudderless, lazy). My nickname developed to Dynamic Dickus and further, less embarrassingly, to Dynam as I appeared early each morning expecting them to be there on time, and went through prescribed parts of Scottish history, English history, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars. We looked at the facts and the people and began to relate their lives to ours. I re-ignited my candle for we couldn't study all this without discussing its meaning, our meaning. And mine was becoming apparent through them.

Two failed the retake but passed the next time. We marched on to Highers and passed. We had long become more than teacher and pupils in the classroom; we were friends needing encouragement and purpose in our lives.

After the results they presented me with a book, hand-written by all of them, on the history of our time together. Inside the front cover they wrote: "To Magnus Dickinsonibus with affection and gratitude." Nice to know they developed their Latin too.

John Dickinson retired early from teaching and is now a freelance writer and teacher

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