Farewell to a teaching inspiration

18th August 1995 at 01:00
The announcement in the local paper was brief: "Atherton, Harry. Suddenly, aged 76, in Wilmslow." And although it was nearly 20 years since he'd taught me, the memories remained fresh, the affection deep and genuine.

"Don" Harry Atherton - the nickname combined gentle mockery with genuine respect - was my Spanish teacher, but he was much more than that. I won't say that he was a "great inspiration" because his influence was much more subtle. So no Dead Poets Society nonsense (although he knew more than a little about dead poets and other important things.)

I knew him long before he became my teacher - a son my age was a classmate, and I'd often call round to the house to play. It was gigantic, by far the biggest house any of my friends lived in. Part of it was a doctor's surgery, and some sort of deal was involved by which they had it on a low rent, while Don Harry's wife worked as the doctor's receptionist.

And he needed a big house, for Don Harry had a large family, at least eight or nine. Catholic from deepest recusant Wigan, it was solidly old Lancashire Catholic, nothing Irish or self-conscious about it at all. He wore it lightly, like everything else.

Like most teachers, he had his off days, but coped with forbearance and even some style.

Faced with a particularly irritating pupil messing around on the back row, he cleverly exacted some mild revenge by forcing him to translate "I hate the teacher" into Spanish. But of course I didn't hate him. Nobody did. Nobody could, really.

So he taught us Spanish, perhaps with not as much style and panache as the younger, junior member of the department, but well enough. Yet for some reason the digressions, the general observations, the wanderings from the point are what stick in my mind when I recall him.

He was probably the most relaxed teacher I've ever come across, with an attitude of wry bemused tolerance for the follies and pretensions of the world. Sometimes it would only be a brief aside, but occasionally there would be a long interlude in which Harry would take a break from the Spanish and pursue some other line of thought.

An anecdote about his mixture of shock and amusement at the sort of neighbours who nose out from behind net curtains when he first arrived in Crosby from Wigan, perhaps, or a reflection on the sadness of trees being felled as the buzz of chainsaws from a nearby garden interrupted a lesson.

He had an artistic streak which he indulged from time to time. My mother and I once bumped into him in the local sweetshop, many years before he became my teacher, to find him carrying a giant green crocodile, no doubt intended for some drama production.

Another time he got carried away illustrating a lesson on travel vocabulary with a picture of a Spanish railway station on the blackboard. The vocab was erased as the picture took over. Don Harry debated how to get the perspective right with a boy in the front row, while the mob at the back chatted away to each other. I sat and wondered at a man who had the temerity, or perhaps just the time, to draw pictures and then discuss his draughtsmanship as the O- levels drew near.

In that male, even macho bastion, with its rugby teams and cadet forces, Don Harry was also the only feminist. Giving us the vocabulary for clothing, he insisted on including the words for knickers and bra. "There are other people in the world," he reminded us. His family was full of beautiful daughters. In the least lurid manner imaginable, he told us why he was looking forward to his summer holidays. "All those girls in their bikinis." He made it sound like a prospect to relish, not drool over, as some of us that age were inclined to do. One of the few teachers who ever dared broach the subject of sex, Don Harry was the only one who managed to sound sane about it.

There's a kind of Lancashire man typified by George Formby, or more particularly perhaps, Robert Donat; mild, cheerful, unruffled, philosophical by turns, and Harry was from that mould.

Once I was going through a really miserable period at school. I just couldn't work, and almost gave up completely. In trouble with most of the teachers, except Harry. "You've had a bit of a rest. Now, how about getting back to it?" Then (in the middle of a lesson, this) he reminisced about my late father, and how his death had been such a shock to the neighbourhood. And he offered to take me to the match one Saturday. Kindness. Above and beyond.

No stick in the mud, he went from Wigan to Crosby to Formby, to Wiltshire for a while I think, and then, I hope, a happy and well deserved retirement in Wilmslow.

So Don Harry is dead. But I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.

Hugh Weldon teaches English at The School of St David and St Katherine in Hornsey, north London

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