Give us a break, please

21st July 2006 at 01:00
The justification we teachers give for our summer holidays is the need for an extended escape from the pressures of our job - and, being honest, a long break away from our pupils.

But it doesn't always work out like that. A colleague was once hailed by a pupil from a passing dinghy as she lay in the bottom of a boat off the west coast of Scotland, and I was similarly guilty as a pupil myself.

Living in exile in the north of England, it's to my mother's credit that she brought me back to Edinburgh every Easter so I remained in contact with my roots. One year, who should we bump into on Liverpool's Lime Street Station but Ernie, my English teacher, a fellow Scot, also returning home for the holidays.

Now Ernie and I both knew how the game should be played:

"Hello, sir!"

"Hello, John!"

"Have a good holiday, sir!"

"You too, John."

This was to be followed by a rapid retreat to opposite ends of the train.

Unfortunately, mothers don't work like that, and we were soon all three ensconced in a tiny compartment, speeding northward, using up topics of conversation at a greater speed than the diddly dee diddly dum of the train's wheels. Ernie instilled in me a love for the poetry of Wilfred Owen and, truth be told, inspired me to teach English (ah, so he's responsible - Ed).

But Owen died young and his oeuvre was even smaller than my expertise, so he had left the carriage long before Lancaster. The journey seemed interminable to me and must have been worse for Ernie but, God love him, he never sought retribution, not even much later when he appeared as an HMI and I was teaching my third-year class.

I shouldn't have been surprised by my mother's approach though because, sadly, I had experienced her in similar mode on holiday the previous year.

I was taught at school by the Irish Christian Brothers. Their approach to teaching suggested that their founder, Edmund Rice, had a touch of the ironic about him, for they have a reputation for brutality and worse that has, if anything, grown with the years.

To be fair to those who taught me, I doubt their methods were more violent than any other group of teachers in the 1960s. That said, they certainly made our lives miserable and few of them, in their rule of fear, had the ability to establish any kind of relationship with their pupils.

So you will understand how two of this august body were the cause of my mother discovering that I occasionally swore. We were walking down a road in the seaside town of Salthill in Galway in the west of Ireland, one blissfully sunny August afternoon in 1966. It was the third week of a fabulous holiday and I was as far from concerned about school, detention, beltings and sarcasm as it was possible to be.

Without warning, two black figures cycled past. It was like a nightmare - they couldn't be here - not Batley and Kelly, my particular betes noires.

Batley was called the Brick because that was the colour of his face and the texture of his personality; his best term of endearment was to call you "a hairy crocodile".

Kelly looked like Ronnie Corbett, and was known as Hoss because his diminutive stature meant he had to perch on the tipped-up seat of his teacher's desk, like a jockey, if the class were to be able to see him. His major fault was that he was extraordinarily boring, didn't like me and taught me for three subjects. So it was small wonder, when reality dawned as they spun off down the hill, that I let fall from my lips that expletive.

My head was still ringing from the cuffing I received, but I was relieved to have escaped their notice when we entered the post office to send our cards. Horror of horrors, there they were, side by side, at the far end of the shop. If I spun on my heel I could be out and away before they ever . .


"It's Brother Batley and Brother Kelly, isn't it? Look who's here, John.

Come and say hello to your teachers."

There followed an awful afternoon where I sat on a bench by the sea, flanked by my two worst enemies who were forced to be pleasant to me for the first time in their lives, while my mother made endless small talk.

Now, of course, I recognise that the horror wasn't all mine. My mother's intervention must have done them out of several bets and even more pints that afternoon.

It's official, then, holidays, teachers and pupils don't mix. So, if you're reading this on the beach - keep your head down.

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