Good teachers live on in their legacy

30th January 2004 at 00:00
These are cold days, good days for a heart-warming column, even one starting, as this does, with a funeral. The church was full, so full they had to bring in extra chairs, and even then many had to stand. There were hundreds there, from teenagers upwards.

Who had died? Well, no one you'll have heard of unless you happen to come from the Sussex village of Hassocks or perhaps its neighbouring town, Burgess Hill, where the funeral was held.

The thing about Ted Ricks was that he was a teacher. When he died, at the age of 55, they closed Downlands school for the day, the school where he'd taught for three decades. Ted was a family man, but he was also a bloke, head of PE most of his career. One evening a week he taught a men's keep-fit class at the school. It became a sort of club, adjourning after the showers to the local pub, The Thatched Inn.

The kids working behind the bar during the university breaks knew Ted because he'd taught them. He'd taught lots of the customers and their children too. It was complimentary chips and "Hi, Ted" every Wednesday night.

It helped, of course, that he liked kids. Well, he had four of his own. And in return they liked him and didn't mess around in his classes, whether PE, IT or the other parts of the curriculum he'd taught over the years. And they turned up in droves to join in the thanksgiving for his life.

It's a thought, isn't it, that a teacher gets such a good send-off? It says something about the job, that a bloke should make such an impression on so many lives that they all turn up for the 23rd psalm and "Make Me a Channel of Thy Peace".

I suppose in many ways it's what we know already: you never forget a good teacher. You never forget a bad one either, but it's the good ones you turn up to say thanks to.

Think of all the people in our world who occupy front stage. Politicians win wars and lose their hair. Such things - serious and trivial - fill our eyes and ears. It actually worried me for hours that I didn't know what bling-bling meant. When I found out, I didn't care. So much that claims our attention doesn't matter. So much else troubles us.

Teachers are backstage, giving us the scenery and lighting of our lives.

Most of the time, we don't think about them, because frontstage life is loud and brash. But every now and again you realise you're doing something or seeing something because a teacher years ago helped you do it or see it.

When I understand a poem or make a tricky sentence work; when I pick my way through a Latin inscription in a church; when I listen to something new with open ears, it's largely thanks to that ghostly backstage crew who put up with me from upper third to upper sixth.

It hits you most when your own children start school. I shall pass to my daughter the exam technique that got me a truly unlikely maths O-level grade, explained to me by a wonderful woman who arrived at our school in the nick of time and accepted that section B would forever be a closed book to me. And when it comes to French verbs, I have a fabulous acronym to solve all problems of the perfect tense.

I don't suppose I'll ever emulate the ancient headmistress who declaimed the whole of "Desiderata" from the stage during prayers, but I'll do my best - especially when my lot reach their teens - to pass on the bit about understanding "what peace there may be in silence".

So this is the heart-warming theme of my winter's tale. However those frontstage types tinker with schools and criticise, however awful some of your charges may be, if you are a good teacher you are making a difference to people's lives. It's a difference which will outlast all the stuff which claims their attention most of the time. You may affect the way they work and the careers they choose, but you also enrich the quiet times of their lives.

That's why they packed the church, sitting and standing, that day in Burgess Hill. That's why they came to say thanks. The thing about Ted Ricks was that he was a teacher.

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