Those were the dames my friend

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Richard Hoyes bathes in reflected glory as he remembers some stars of school pantos past who went on to better things.

Long before love changed anything, actor and singer Michael Ball was any ugly sister. Few people know this, but I do because I once taught him, and filmed him, 17 years ago, in our end-of-term production, Cinderella '82. If Lloyd Webber and fame hadn't come along, he would have made a perfect drag queen.

I've taught many famous people. Apart from Michael Ball, there was Prince Charming himself, Jeremy Hardy (an alternative comedian who shocks Radio 4 listeners) and James Mates (straightman for ITN news). Then there was Rose Ferguson (who models for Vivienne Westwood) and, of course, Cinderella.

I like boasting about famous alumni and alumnae (and my Latin A-level). It's like you've become famous yourself - as if a bit has rubbed off.

"Are you still in teaching?" these former students ask when you meet them again, as if it's something you did in between something else more important - something highly-paid and exotic. Or: "Are you still teaching?" meaning: "Haven't you retired?" Cinderella comes back for a reunion. She looks puzzled. "You look - the same," she says. "I was 17. Now I'm twice that. So you must be . . ." She does a quick calculation. I explain it doesn't go like that, you don't just multiply both ages by two.

You get closer to the people you taught, in age-gap terms anyway. It gives you the illusion of growing younger. When I see James Mates on the telly, warning us about Saddam Hussein, he looks like my dad. It's hard to remember he once fixed a wastepaper basket over the door and had the giggles waiting for it to land on my head. He was a kid then and I was grown up. Now we're both grown up - him, I think, a bit more than me.

Recently, Jeremy Hardy came back to school and gave us a talk. He's made his living in smokey nightclubs, making people laugh at the poor souls who spent the best years of their lives trying to teach him. And it gave me an idea. Why do they - the alumni - get to tell all the jokes? What can us teachers say about them?

Perhaps I can sell the Michael Ball ugly sister story to a red-top tabloid. Perhaps I can undermine James Mates's credibility with the wastepaper basket story. Perhaps I can get back at Jeremy Hardy - the teacher's revenge. "I remember Jeremy Hardy. He . . ."

But he's much better at it than I am. His funny teacher stories are good. And there's something not quite decent about teachers telling funny pupil stories. It's like writing a bad report. Decent teachers don't. Ex-pupils can take the piss out of you, but not you out of them.

Which brings me to Scunthorpe. I'm a Scunthorpe lad so I found it interesting when I heard a story about a pupil 30 years ago at a grammar school in Surrey, not a million miles from where I teach. Nobody knew the lad's name - boys or masters. They all called him after his accent; Scunthorpe.

Where are you now Scunthorpe? Does your name ring out on the honours board, gilt on oak, on the stairwell in the old boys' grammar?

Do the corridors still echo with the stuck-up yelps of Surrey boys howling after your name, your nickname and your place of birth.

No. You've gone. You might even be famous. Like every bullied alumnus, like everyone who was never all that clever or famous at school, you have gone and made good. If you survived grammar school, I'm sure you made good.

Like the cast of Cinderella. They all made good, even the ones who never made stardom. Prince Charming teaches my daughter. Cinderella works in a hospital. The ugly sister who wasn't Michael Ball is into women's studies. And me - I'm the harassed producer who has stayed where I am, growing older, doing everything, slightly slower. I'm the fairy godmother. "Don't stay out after midnight kids," I warn. But they do - all in their different ways. They leave one shoe behind and come back famous.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham College, Surrey

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