Farewell, my friend

7th July 2000 at 01:00
Friday: the funeral of David Andrew Pickup

It was a difficult morning to get through, what with Pickup's funeral scheduled for 3pm, just after the last dismissal of the academic session. As an end-of-term activity, it bore poor comparison with the many celebratory sessions to mark the cessation of pedagogic endeavour that Pickup and I had enjoyed over the years.

Quite frankly, I don't know how I got through the day, because the funeral commenced with a sordid and unnecessary intervention from Richard Dick, our headteacher emeritus, attending for reasons best known to himself. He previously had little time for Pickup, while Pickup's views on Mr Dick as "an oily little shit with only his own self-interest at heart" were probably harsh, if accurate.

Indeed, his address to the coterie of Greenfield Academy staff gathered in the crematorium waiting room displayed all the insensitivity for which he is renowned.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," he announced. "I know we're gathered here today on a very sad occasion, and this is the last way in which I'd have wanted to make my first staff announcement. But I knew David Pickup well and I know that he always viewed the last day of term as the best day to embark upon some forward planning for the ensuing session."

Miss Tarbet gasped at his effrontery and my own mind wandered to a history of end-of-term evenings whose debauchery compared unfavourably with those organised by Caligula during the wilder days of the Roman Empire.

Meanwhile, Mr Dick continued: "So I'd be awfully grateful if those management members of the team who are present today - by which I mean principal teacher level or above - would let me know by the end of, er, the funeral whether they can make it to an end of July planning session. Not compulsory, of course," he urged, "because I know that some of you will be on holiday. But I'd be grateful to see as many of you as possible."

It was fortunate that the crematorium staff entered at this point to let us know that we could proceed to the chapel of last repose, otherwise Mr Dick might have been joining the funeral party in a more prominent role.

Pickup's family consisted of his sister, brother-in-law and an assortment of nieces and nephews. Then there was me, accompanied by Gail. And it was up to me to see off my oldest and dearest friend in a public tribute.

"David Pickup taught for 35 years," I began quietly. "He gave his life to teaching. And, like so many before him, his long-cherished years of retirement were cut brutally short. Who knows whether his heart attack was an eventual adjustment to the release of stress that had built up within him over those past 35 years? I certainly don't. But I know he had more stress than most, even if, at times, it manifested itself in unusual fashion.

"Some people called Pickup a staffroom cynic. And they'd have been right. I'll never forget his final farewell to Greenfield Academy - a solitary figure outside the school gates, raising two fingers in valedictory tribute. It was a microcosm of his teaching career, because his usually amiable scorn could turn to sudden and inconsolable fury as government after government told him that teachers were overpaid and underworked and that teachers weren't doing their job properly.

"For David Pickup, that became the greatest self-fulfilling prophecy of them all. For his first 15 years of teaching, he took football teams, chess teams, debating societies, and he took them all over Scotland.

"And then he stopped. As initiative after initiative poured down upon schools, and as governments started to demand their pound of flesh, never thinking to value what had been so freely and unstintingly given beforehand, David Pickup stopped giving. Or so it seemed. Because he gave in other ways.

"Most especially, he gave to me. He was a friend and a mentor to me. Long before that 'mentoring' word became an official training initiative and a source of endless funding, David Pickup did it for free. He once told me that this was how it used to be in Scottish education. Instead of commissioning multimillion-pound quangos and research bodies to advise on best practice, it used to get handed down from generation to generation, in best oral tradition. Like he handed it down to me.

"And who could forget his memorable pieces of advice? 'He who can, does. He who can not, teaches. And he who can not teach, lectures in a teacher training college.' "Or his searing criticism of an examination system once the envy of the world but which he claimed to be 'racked with the shameless scandal of easier standards and internal assessment procedures that border on the illegal'.

"Of course, it remains a source of supreme irony that on the day after his heart attack, a letter arrived through his door from the Scottish Qualifications Authority urging his services as a marker this year. I can almost hear him decrying the SQA's need to call up the halt, the sick and the lame.

"It was only a year ago that he was presenting me with his staffroom chair and his staffroom coffee mug and advising me that I should never - and I quote - 'let the bastards grind me down'. I hope I haven't and I hope I won't. Because David Pickup's legacy lives on in me. It tells me that education is about trying to get your kids to a better standard, even if the government and the exam system seems hell-bent on the exact opposite. It tells me that it's possible to stay reasonably sane in spite of it all. And it tells me that it's possible to have a laugh.

"The only thing that gives me cause for regret is that David didn't live to fulfil his last wish, expressed so eloquently to me just nine weeks ago: 'If I can get just 10 more years of retirement like this, Morris,' he informed me, 'then I'll die a happy man'. Alas, ladies and gentlemen, he didn't even get 10 more minutes as he clutched his chest, plunged face downwards into a black forest gateau of dubious quality and assured me that his condition was not a state of chronic indigestion.

"It was a sad end to a glorious career. Because David Pickup's contribution to Scottish education is unlikely to be recorded in the tomes of educational research that spew out from our professional lords and masters on a fortnightly basis. But it is recorded in me, ladies and gentleman. To misquote Oscar Wilde: 'In art (and education), as in life, the law of heredity holds good. On est toujours fils de quelqu'un.

"In the same way as I am proud to possess his coffee mug and chair, I am proud to acknowledge the debt I owe to David Pickup. Call him a cynic. Call him a sceptic. Or call him a realist. If it hadn't been for the support he gave me, the encouragement he gave me and the laughs he gave me I" My voice broke and a tear slid down my cheek as I recognised the fact that I would never see him again. Ever. "Well, I think I wouldn't be here now.

"To his memory, ladies and gentlemen. To his memory."

I returned to my seat, swallowed a large lump in my throat and trembled ever so slightly throughout the rest of the service.

Thirty minutes later, it was with a sense of trepidation that I saw Mr Dick approaching me outside the crematorium. "Wonderful tribute, Morris, wonderful tribute," he congratulated me, all the while his eyes looking around in the hope that someone more important might turn up. There was little chance of that, so he eventually returned his attentions towards me.

"And d'you think you'll be able to come in at the end of July, Morris? For our planning session?" I could hear Pickup in my ear: "Don't go, Morris! Don't go!" "Certainly, Mr Dick," I said. "I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to the new term."

Yet as we walked through the Garden of Remembrance, I was sure I could hear a still small voice in the rustling of the trees: "You bloody crawler, Simpson. You bloody little crawler."

Next episode, July 28: A new broom I Richard Dick's measures to reduce pupil indiscipline.

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