Pupils I'll never forget

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Paul Strong remembers a teenage wit whose life ended in tragedy

My first teaching appointment was in 1968, to a boys' secondary modern with 300 pupils in an insalubrious part of west London. What little self-esteem these youngsters possessed had been taken away from them by the 11-plus.

We used to take them down to the local rec to play football, and, as there was only one goal post, we played between coats. I was fired up by wanting to do my best for these pupils, who had nothing. I taught them rugby and managed teams on a Wednesday and Saturday afternoon. There was one who had never touched a rugby ball until the age of 13, but given this opportunity went on to play at club level.

But the one I remember was Wilf. He was 14 and 5ft 2in, and he had a mate called Digby, who was 6ft 2in. Wilf was sharp as a razor with an incredible wit, a real king of the spoofs. Digby was dour and slow, his foil. Wilf could bring out the funny side in things. He had little scams going, touting tickets for pop concerts, that sort of thing. He was your archetypal west London car dealer type, and I used to joke that one day he'd be waving to me from his Jag. There wasn't an ounce of malice in him.

When I got married he wanted to see the photos. When he saw a picture of my wife he said: "Oh no Sir, there's no way that's your wife, she's far too attractive." He was familiar, but never went too far.

I felt he would make it in life, flying by the seat of his pants but doing well.

Wilf left school at 15, as did many others, and I left for a job in Bristol. Not long after, I contacted a former colleague to find out how my "rogues" were getting on. It was shocking news. Wilf had been down at the pub drinking with mates and his wit had obviously hit the wrong side of somebody because they had taken a shard of glass to him and he died in the fracas. Such a waste. He was one of those kids who would have taken a lot in life, but he was also generous. I expect I'll see him in his Jag in heaven.

Paul Strong, 58, is head at William Farr school, Welton, Lincolnshire, a specialist technology college and a beacon school. He was talking to Elaine Williams. Do you have special memories of unforgettable pupils? Write to Sarah Bayliss at the address on page 3 or email sarah.bayliss @tes.co.uk

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