Nothing says 'Thanks, Sir' like a mix tape

17th February 2006 at 00:00
I was listening to the White Stripes the other day. This may not seem very dramatic news. Most of you will have heard of the aforementioned duo; quite a few of you will even possess copies of one or two of their albums. So what was the big deal?

Well, I was up a ladder at the time, dividing my concentration and efforts between not falling off and getting paint and wood preservative on to the right parts of the exterior of my house. But that's still not the important part. My hours teetering a little too far above the ground were accompanied by a succession of radio programmes. When the broadcasts failed to meet my exacting standards, I resorted to old cassette tapes. The one I chose from what I laughingly call my "archive" had half a dozen White Stripes tracks.

It bears the inscription: "Various White Stripes songs recorded by N.

Simpson - Spring 2001".

And that's why it was special. Nick Simpson was a boy I taught. He was able, but not academically inclined; a capable debater but prone to argument; more than capable of conducting a conversation with an adult but picky over which ones he would grant that favour to. Over a period of weeks he found out that I have catholic musical tastes and latched on to me with a daily rundown of who he had seen when he should have been at home studying. A tape came my way, discreetly, because it never has been good for a teenager's "cred" to form a personal link with a teacher, particularly if it involves letting them in on an aspect of teen culture.

I think I also made a tape for him, probably some Clash tracks, mixed with Sixties RB. He may have liked them, but his White Stripes selection made an impact on me. Nick left school with few qualifications and I have heard nothing of him since his brother left a year or so after, but the tape endures and epitomises how students and teachers can form meaningful connections through the most tenuous of material.

But the memories didn't end there. The discovery started me on a trail.

Having found the tape, I found myself trawling through the rest of my collection and remembering brief but significant links that make me feel like Mr Chips.

The biggest impact on my collection was made by Kevin Bampton. You knew he was trying to make an impression by his idiosyncratic clothing. While others were relishing the opportunity in the sixth form to get out of school uniform, he went further into it, sporting a blazer, trousers, white shirt and tie all year. And boy did he know some obscure music. I still listen to the Subhumans LP I bought on his recommendation, but the tape he made for me has had the greatest effect. One side features quasi-New Romantic noodlings, but the other contains a live recording of a band he met at university.

Thanks to Kevin's willingness to stay in touch, even after leaving school, I have a recording of an unidentified band which had the groove and the Jim Morrison-esque vocalist to have made them monsters if they had pursued a musical career. Maybe they did, but long after we finally lost touch, and he pursued a legal career, the musical pulses quickened and I dragged my own kids into the room to regale them with memories of those I taught and who, in turn, taught me.

Inevitably, there have also been failures. For example, there is no Level 42 track, let alone a whole album, anywhere. This in spite of the best efforts of Jon Buscall, who worshipped the ground Mark King walked on and played bass guitar virtually as well as his hero. But his musical enthusiasms have carved a niche in my memory, and as we approach the latter years of our careers, isn't that part of what helps keep our thoughts about this job warm? That, in turn, is what really counts, isn't it?

So to those pupils who have shared their tastes with me and other teachers, and even tolerated ours, thanks. When we retire, and leave all the initiatives behind, your contribution to our memories will count for such a lot. We owe you.

Colin Padgett is a head of department in an Essex comprehensive

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