Pulling out all the stops

21st December 2007 at 00:00
It may be the end of term, but as Biddy Passmore reports, some teachers just keep on giving to the community.

The Christmas break is normally a time when teachers put their feet up. But Gary Hulme is more likely to be pressing them down on the pedals of a church organ. Next week, Gary will play the organ at a Christmas morning service for the 34th time. Still only 46, he stepped into the breach as organist at his local parish church when he was just 13 and has not missed a year since.

Christmas is the highlight of the year for this dedicated teacher and musician, who has taught at the independent Hulme Grammar School for boys since 1985 and been director of music at the school since 2003. It is also his busiest time of the year, as both organist and choirmaster.

He has already devoted the last two Saturdays to playing and directing at concerts of the Manchester Girls' Choir. Last Sunday, he led Hulme Grammar's annual service of nine carols and lessons at his former church, St Anne's in Royton. Two days later, he obliged at the Oldham Evening Chronicle's carol service in Oldham.

The day before Christmas Eve, he is covering for an organist with an ailing knee at a carol service in Saddleworth, before finally moving on to the carol concert at his own church, the 12th century Middleton Parish Church ("a good, three-manual instrument", he says approvingly - Rushworth and Draper, 1920). Then he just has to play at the midnight service before stealing a few hours' sleep and performing on Christmas Day.

He would not have it any other way. A child from a musical family - his father sang and his grandmother was a good pianist - he first became a chorister at his local parish church before starting to play the piano. But it was always the organ accompanying the choir that fascinated him.

"It's both the sound and the mechanics of the thing," he explains. "The stops appeared to whizz in and out on their own." He started to learn to play at the age of 12.

Bach and other baroque composers are his favourites; after the Christmas Eve carol service, he always plays Bach's "fantasia" on "In Dulci Jubilo". But he also likes Vaughan Williams' choral music. Gary does not have to go into a church to play the organ. There is "quite a good instrument" in the boys' hall at Hulme Grammar, which he plays at assembly every morning. As director of music, he teaches classes of all ages for 29 periods a week. He also has two organ pupils in school. And he often spends the lunch hour rehearsing the 65-member choir.

Do his wife and two sons complain at the amount of time he spends in the organ loft?

Not at all. They are musicians. His wife is a violin teacher with Oldham's education authority and his two sons are learning various instruments, with merits and distinctions all round. How will he celebrate the New Year? "I think I'll put my feet up," he says. "After I've played at the service on Sunday 30, of course."

Alison Love, a primary teacher, will also be in "her" church on Christmas morning, but as a member of the congregation, not in her official capacity as lay reader. She feels she should be sitting with her husband and children on Christmas Day.

She will, however, have taken two other Christmas services at her church, St Andrew's, in the Wiltshire town of Chippenham, which are especially well suited to her skills as a primary teacher: the Christingle service on Sunday afternoon and the crib service on Christmas Eve.

A lay reader is a sort of volunteer minister, not ordained as a priest but authorised by an Anglican bishop to lead worship, preach and teach. "I've been a Christian for many years," Alison says, "and I felt it was what God was calling me to do. I hoped to put my teaching skills to good use."

Now starting her fourth year as a lay reader, she says her family have been supportive. She met her husband through the church and their two daughters, aged 12 and 15, have always attended services, although sometimes, nowadays, they prefer a lie in.

Monkton Park Primary School, where she teaches, is not a church school, but the staff and quite a lot of the children know of her role at St Andrew's. One or two pupils attend the church regularly and the school always holds its Christmas service there.

An interactive, learning through doing approach is her preferred style: whether teaching in school or helping children at St Andrew's get to grips with the basics of the Christian faith. Andys@4, an informal service for families and young children on alternate Sundays, features puppets and action songs. During prayer time, the youngest might be doing handprints or planting seeds.

Is Chippenham a God-fearing place? "It's pretty typical of the rest of the country - so no, not very," she replies. "But there are a lot of people interested in finding out about God and they want their questions answered in an open way. People need to understand the Christian perspective and then decide for themselves."

The same applies in school, where she is careful not to preach to the children. "I just say: 'this is what Christians think.' At that age, children are vulnerable to people in positions of authority and you have to be sensitive to their needs. They don't tend to ask what I think; if they did, I'd tell them."

www.rco.org.uk, www.cofe.anglican.org

Gary Hulme is an Associate of the Royal College of Organists.

Another way to celebrate

Barrington Taylor (pictured above) was at his Welsh home opening Christmas presents when his pager bleeped.

The message was from the coast guards. A yacht had broken its moorings and was drifting in heavy surf. He was needed to help launch the lifeboat from the station nearby.

Barrington downed presents and ran. He and his crew members launched the lifeboat just after 11am. By the time he got home, with the yacht checked over and safely moored, it was 3.30pm. Never mind: his mother had held up Christmas lunch until he got back.

That was two years ago, when he was still a student of marine biology at Bangor University. But it could happen again this year, to the newly-qualified biology teacher.

"During the Christmas holidays we can get quite a few 'shouts'," he says. "People might be late back from a fishing trip or a pleasure boat's engine might have failed or run out of fuel." But he doesn't mind the interruptions. He says he wouldn't hesitate to ask for help himself - and stresses that it's better to call for help quickly.

"I've sailed since I was 10," he explains, "and I've always known the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) was there if I needed it. Once I was old enough, I had to go and pay back." The lifeboat service relies entirely on unpaid volunteers.

Does he ever get frightened in rough seas? "No, I've got a lot of faith in the boat and my fellow crew members," he says. "What causes my heart to stop is when we're going out to rescue a child."

Apart from the call-outs, being a member of a lifeboat crew is a serious time commitment. The Moelfre Crew in Anglesey has two hours a week of shore-based training and one session of boat exercises every eight days. Boat exercises can take a whole Saturday morning or weekday evening.

So tiredness can make teaching the next day a challenge, although he's had only one all-night call-out in the four years he's been a member of the crew. He was on teaching practice in Llandudno at the time. "Thankfully I didn't fall asleep during the day," he says. "I got home and crashed."

His pupils at Copley High School in Stalybridge love the fact that he is a member of a lifeboat crew and have been eager fundraisers for the RNLI. The lifeboat charity has provided useful teaching materials on hypothermia for his GCSE pupils.

Now he is moving in January to Ysgol Bryn Elian in Colwyn Bay, back within easy driving distance of his beloved Anglesey.

Being a lifeboat volunteer has taught him how to work in a team and how, as a humble NQT, both to exert authority and to take orders. And he can give a confident reply to that favourite interview question: "How do you react to stress?"

"You have to stay calm and control your adrenalin on a lifeboat," he says, adding: "We're the last lifeline. If we don't help, nobody else will."


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