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  • Keith Johnstone

GETTING EDUCATED

Updated: Mar 20

I REALISE THAT SOME OF THESE STORIES MAY SEEM UNBELIEVABLE, AND YET THEY HAPPENED AND HAPPENED IN THE WAY I HAVE DESCIBED..


DISAPPEARING CHILD

I had been made to stand in the corner. This was unpleasant. A grandfather clock was beside me so I climbed into it. (The 'works' must have been removed or the metal would have clanged.) I could see everything through the glass door and everyone could have seen me if they'd had the concept of ‘a child in a clock’.

It was soothing to be in that vertical coffin so I stood there for a long time. It became quite noisy outside of the clock (it's not good to lose a four year old) but I didn’t connect the rising panic with my disappearance. People had run to my father's shop and were searching the streets.

Eventually I climbed out and faced the corner again. Miss Veysey noticed me and clutched me as if I might slip back into a different universe. The hunt was called off.

I thought that I might be punished for climbing into the clock so I insisted stubbornly that I’d been facing the corner the whole time.

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NONSENSE

1940. At age seven I was evacuated to my mother’s parents who lived in Glastonbury. I spent a wonderful three months running around on the famous Tor and spending day after day in the ruins of the Abbey (I would have been a perfect target for pederasts but I suppose they were all in the army).

September came and I was enrolled in St John’s school (immediately behind St John’s church) where even little children were caned.

Our books were open at The Cat Sat On The Mat and we took turns reading a sentence aloud. This must have been at the very beginning of the school year because as soon as the teacher realised that I could read at the level of a twelve year old (my lips were a blurr!) she let me sit beside the book cupboard and read its tedious books (simplified versions of Martin Rattler etc.)

Ahead of me, and across the gangway, a boy was secretly reading The Dandy, a comic that had far more interesting words than ‘cat’ and ‘mat'. It was under the top of his desk so he had to lean back to read it. This made him conspicuous and the teacher soon dragged him out and made him hold out his hand to receive the cane. Even to my seven year old self this seemed ridiculous.

That boy was so passionate about reading that he’d smuggled a comic into school, but now it had been confiscated and he was back in his place, sobbing. Do we want him to associate reading with pain? Is he supposed to hate reading? Would we rather that he didn't read if he reads comics? (All boys read comics!) This was the first time that I thought seriously about education: why not teach us read traffic signs? Or to spell our friend's names? Or to read mare difficult comics! Why not keep changing things until you learn how to make reading fun?

Let me digress a little. I was sent to Miss Veysey's ‘Dame School’ in Brixham when I was three-and-a-half (only in the mornings but three hours lasts for eight hours when you are a tiny child). I can still remember that my desk - a plain wooden table - smelt of tomato, but wasn’t edible.

On Saturday there was no school, but Miss Veysey appeared in my father’s shop. I remembered this vividly because I was frightened.

“How did you teach him to read?”

My parents said that I memorised pages in books and only pretended to read them.

“Is there a newspaper?”

They handed me the Daily Mail (huge to me at the size it was before it became a tabloid) and I read a column on the right hand side.

General amazement. They thought that I had learned to read by magic!

I have no memory of being asked to explain, but the answer was simple. I had deciphered very easy comics called Chick’s Own. They showed characters who were doing interesting things and who were talking to each other, so I wanted to know what they were saying. Often I could guess, and if I asked someone to ‘translate’, the knowledge went into my brain instantly and forever.

The boy who had been caned had been learning to read from comics just as I had done, but the teacher disliked comics (comics are ‘stupid’ and they make fun of teachers!) She was insisting that he should read ‘the cat sat on the mat’ which couldn't possibly have interested him, nor the rest of the class. ‘The cat shat on Pat,’ might have been more fun, and more memorable, but this was education and education was meant to be serious. (It occurs to me now that these seven year olds had begun school at age five. Why weren't they well past the 'cat sat on the mat' stage? Was it because the school had transformed reading into a drudgery?

Teaching bored children equals teacher burn-out. Children love words that can be made exciting. A doctor was ‘talking down’ as he prepared to listen to our two-year-old’s heart and was astonished to be told firmly that the word for ‘listening thing’ was ‘stethoscope’.

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MYSTERY

When I was aged nine my teacher at St John's school had at last dragged me out in front of the class to be caned. There were two of us - perhaps we had been whispering together. She caned the other boy's hand and he howled and waved it about and blew on it, and ran back weeping to his place. I held out mine, expecting the same, but felt almost nothing.

This puzzled me for years until I was caned by Mr Claud Digby Thorton Owen. Then I realised that in Glastonbury, where I was the best student, my teacher hadn’t wanted to hurt me, so she had just given me a light tap with the cane, whereas in Totnes Grammar School, the fearsome swipes I received from white-faced, grinning, bulging eyed Mr Owen were an attempt to hurt me as much as possible.

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TOTNES

Miss Veysey took me to Totnes. We travelled by ‘bus, but my memories begin as we were descending the long hill to the river where house after house had the same front gate that looked like a sunset (or sunrise) with the spokes radiating out as the sun’s rays. ‘They must be friendly neighbours to have agreed on such a thing,’ I thought.

Memory kicks in again when we were walking past a cinema (since burnt down). We stopped to look at a large house that was set back a little. The façade - except for the dark windows - was entirely covered in ivy. I’d never seen such a thing, and as the dark leaves were being kept in motion by the wind it seemed rather sinister, An archway at the side gave a view through brick pillars to a school playground where boys were in rapid motion. Stilt-walkers were using the pillars to help themselves balance as they learned their skill.

“We’re a little early,” said Miss Veysey, “so we’ll walk up the hill a little.”

We walked to an archway that had a room with a window above it, and above that a large clock. It had been one of the town gates, but the massive doors were long gone. Our pavement became very narrow as it passed under this arch, and yet an eighteen-inch high river-smoothed boulder was set into the ground against a house wall. A sign told us that this obstacle was the actual stone that Brutus of Troy had stepped on when he landed from the River Dart and declaimed:

Here I stand and here I rest,

I think I’ll call this town Totnes!

Or similar words.

If he had set foot on that stone when landing from the River Dart then the river must have been a mile wide! And what language was he speaking? (On Google 'street-view', the ‘Brutus stone’ seems to have disappeared, except for a piece that is flush with the pavement where it's no longer an obstruction.)

My next memory is of being inside that ivy-covered house where a big man - Mr Owen, Headmaster of Totnes Grammar School - was evaluating me. He did not exude warmth, and seemed ‘insecure’ – eager to impress Miss Veysey. He gave me a letter from the Board of Education to read. I stumbled over the words ‘maximum’ and ‘minimum’, and he explained that many boys would not even have attempted such words, but that by managing to read them I had shown my intelligence. Even though he was praising me, I noticed that he was trying to show Miss Veysey that he knew more than she did.

As we left, the playground seemed empty.

For two years in the Preparatory School – that was what the interview had been about - I looked forwards to being at the Grammar School and learning to walk on stilts, but even though I was there for seven long years I never saw any stilts, let alone boys walking on them.

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CATASTROPHE

1944-45. When I entered the Grammar School I changed instantaneously from the bright child to the useless child. The school made me repeat a year, and transferred me from the ‘A’ stream to the ‘B stream, where we had classes in 'nature-study', religion, carpentry and gardening, but I was hopeless at anything that the school valued.

I was the best at art, and the best pianist, and I'd won a short story competition in which boys five years older had competed – but the Headmaster, Mr C. D. T. Owen, attached little importance to such things. He had embarrassed me on the first day by shaking my hand and introducing me to the school as 'one of our future scholars', but now he behaved as if I was failing as a way of mocking him. He tried to get me transferred to a school for 'simpler' boys, but I was determined to survive. I became the 'donkey that whipped itself' and managed to scrape into the sixth form.

I'd been a couple of years at Totnes Grammar when, after the daily religious service (during which boys of other beliefs had to wait outside) he announced that ‘Johnstone has come top in a math exam but has stolen the position from the boy who deserves it’. Was he hoping that I'd be pelted with hymn books, or be beaten-up in the playground? Nothing came of it, but it was dishonourable of him to ease his frustration by making the entire school believe that I had cheated.

A young teacher had wanted to see if we were understanding mathematics, rather than just learning to apply 'tricks', so he had given us an exam in which every question was a problem in logic. This wasn't very intelligent of him since no knowledge of maths was required at all. The other boys looked confused but I enjoyed solving these problems. The Headmaster must have fumed as he went through my exam paper with the teacher in the hope that I really had cheated – but who would I have cheated from? He knew my IQ (I only knew that it must have been high), so why shouldn’t I have got a hundred per cent in an exam based on logic?

There was one other time when Mr Owen maligned me in Morning Assembly, ‘Johnstone should be up in London organising the dock strike,’ he said. Perhaps it was because I had become secretary of the Communist Party in a mock election. He had banned it, only to see it bob-up again as the United People's Party.

Totnes Grammar School taught me that I was lazy, and I believed this until I was a professor and 'audited' a course in German. I worked hard, and did all the exercises. I was a model pupil, except that I learned nothing!

So something was wrong, but I wasn't lazy.

(All my life I've concealed my inability to learn by heart, hiding it even from myself - but it's revealed to me now. I learn instantaneously, or not at all. For example, I'm on the International Theatresports mailing list, but I only remember one line from the thousands that they've sent me, and it's from at least a year ago. It was said to be a quote from Einstein: "If you teach a fish to climb a tree you'll think it's stupid."

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UNKNOWN WOMAN

I was called to the Headmaster’s office where a woman who was not introduced to me, and who showed no sign of liking me, asked me personal questions. We sat by the window while Mr Owen and the school secretary skulked against the far wall.

She must have been an educational psychologist, tasked with finding out why this intelligent boy was bottom of the class – but if so, why allow spectators? And why was she only interested in my family? Why not test my memory? Why not investigate my intelligence to see if I still retained any?

I had no idea why I had suddenly become useless, but I tried to help. I said that everything was horrible at school and at home, that the only time I could feel any peace was when I was alone, and that the best place to be alone was out on the cliffs, by myself, in a storm! Then I wept, and was furious to be weeping in front of my enemy, the totally alien, Mr Owen. That was the end of anything lucid being extracted from me.

I wonder what her report was like? Mine would have said: ‘be alone with me. Don’t trap me between you and the window. Walk down to the river with me. Discuss the problem with me. Joke with me. Be my friend. Share a milk-shake with me!’

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AFTER THE CALAMITY

I was the best student, and then, at age ten-and-a-half, I was the worst student. I struggled to succeed, and failed utterly. It was as if an evil shimmering mist surrounded me when I attempted any academic work, In my long life I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone else. (I've heard about the shimmering mist, but not dropping from a hundred to zero). Had I damaged my brain during the summer holidays? I don’t remember having an illness, or a head injury, or my situation changing at home (and puberty happened several years later).

My plummet from the cliff of academic attainment showed itself on my first and second day at Totnes Grammar school. Miss Byfield, a teacher so repugnant that I could hardy bear to look at her, had an explanation. She said:

“You must have cheated your way through the two years at the 'prep' school'.”

I could have said: “So why am I honest now?” But I was more concerned for the reputation of Mrs Williams who had taught me for those two years.

(Miss Byfield must have been attractive to more adult tastes because she married the young teacher who used to stride about rattling the coins in his trouser pockets - an activity we called 'pocket billiards').

The only homework that Mrs Williams had given us was to write a short story each week, which I did with pleasure. I wrote twenty or thirty pages as if from dictation, trying to keep up with the characters. It was thrilling, and Mrs Williams gave me twenty out of twenty every time, but she never read them – which makes sense when the other boys would only write a reluctant paragraph or so. All I remember of those stories is that an important character was often a tall thin clown, I kept them but when I left home my mother threw them out ‘with my other rubbish’.

I entered the Grammar School and was never asked to write a short story again - writing was for business letters! I still wrote the occasional story but writing had become very difficult. Each word had to be perfect, not to please a teacher but to please myself. I rewrote each story many times but was seldom satisfied. I produced about one story a year, and it would be just a couple of pages, or less. And these stories were strange – in my opinion not like stories written by a normal boy. Having revised each of them a hundred times I can still remember them.

One was about a boy causing a confusion in Heaven because he should have achieved amazing things, but hadn’t. It was caused by a bureaucratic error: an aged alcoholic with the same name was living in the next street, so they sent the boy back and took the alcoholic. .

Another was about a hospital ward that was smashed to pieces when an earthquake destroyed the hospital. Old Mrs Harding clambered over the rubble and saw fields and woods and skies and the Northern Lights, and stars that seemed to be whizzing past – but suddenly the hospital was intact. The routine in the ward was continuing just as before. The only change was that old Mrs Harding in the third bed along to the right had died, unnoticed.

There was one about a man with two heads, one good and one evil. As the evil head was crossing a railway line, the good head froze the body until a train destroyed them.

The Hero of one story burned most beautiful temple in the world precisely because it was so beautiful, and was destroyed himself in some version of the Osiris myth – I’m a bit vague about the last part. (Mishima wrote a novel on the same theme a decade later.)

Some appeared in the School Magazine but one was censored by Mr Howerd. It was about a series of terrible disasters, each of which the Priests explained in a way that increased their power.

So when I became a useless student, the writing of stories – and I had this image at the time – became like the slow pulling off of scabs. And how was it possible that, even when I was bottom of the class, my passion for learning was intact?

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THE LEG OF A FLY

A glass-fronted cupboard was full of microscopes. I wanted to use one of these machines that make the invisible visible, but I was told, ‘quite impossible.’

I looked at them wistfully each time that we had a class in that room, until one day, after the lunch break, a microscope was set out for each of us, and beside each was a ‘slide’ that contained the leg of a housefly. I joked that the teacher had spent the lunchtime chasing flies and pulling their legs off, but as sets of 'prepared' slides seem to be of more interesting things, perhaps he really had.

I was telling this story recently among friends in Canada when my ex-wife exclaimed: “But we had to draw the leg of a fly!” She is British and younger than me, so perhaps for generations, each child of a certain age has had to draw the leg of a fly as seen through a microscope - about the most boring object that could have been chosen. Look at such a slide and you can see a fly’s leg: look at it through the microscope and you see the leg many times larger, but without more detail. Even worse, the exoskeleton prevents any view of the interior.

We had fifty minutes to draw this leg as seen through our microscopes, something that took about thirty seconds. My guess is that some higher authority chose the leg of a fly because it was a fairly standardised object to draw and that would be easy to mark. I managed to sneak looks at a human hair, a pin, a button, a coin, and a piece of dust, but they weren’t much fun either. The microscopes were put away, never to be used by us in another class.

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CROSS COUNTRY

It was announced that there was to be a cross-country race and that all boys were expected to take part. Whose idea was that? I suspected the new Phys Ed teacher.

To me it was an imposition, but some boys were training for it. Well, good for them, but the actual race was compulsory. This was before my bad heart absolved me from such activities.

We started, some hundreds of us, from a field on the Bridgetown side of the river, facing up stream. I remember lots of white running shorts, but what was I wearing? Probably my everyday clothes. The course followed a country road northwards (this was before a new bridge allowed a major road to cut through to the Paignton road), but the marked trail soon took us through a hedge and uphill through fields. Less enthusiastic boys, like myself, had begun walking by then, or were sprawling on the grass – taking it easy. Eventually the trail left the hill and crossed the country road and headed back. Good Lord! Boys were wading through a ten foot wide, waist deep, earth-coloured stream before they could get back to the start where hot showers and warm towels and fresh clothing would be waiting. (Was that true about 'warm towels' etc? No, of course not.)

I, and who ever I was with, baulked, and we wandered off to find a bridge. Whoever had devised the course had probably done the same because the brown water concealed coils of barbed wire and the top of what may have been a gas stove. I don’t know how many boys were injured, but some were. For all I know there may have been a shuttle of cars rushing them off for tetanus shots

While I was at the school there was never another such a race. The gym teacher who was super fit and talented soon moved on. I despised him because he wanted – like all his ilk - to work with the athletes, rather than with the wretched, bent and twisted, non-athletes who really needed his help.

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WEIRD

1946-7? A boy at school told me that after being bent over the back of a low armchair, and having the seat of his trousers smoothed, he saw the headmaster, Mr Claud Digby Thornton Owen, run around a small mahogany table before administering each stroke of the cane. I didn’t believe him, but when I was caned I saw that it was true.

All my adult life I've dragged a small but heavy mahogany table to the rooms of the women who I pay to cane me, and who often live several flights up...No! No! I'm joking!...Almost any small table will do.

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PHELPS

I had enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Mr Phelps asked to borrow it so I lent it to him.

Next day I entered the playground – probably returning from the toilets since the area was empty except for Mr Phelps who was steaming towards me. He seemed energised and angry.

“It’s a disgusting book by a disgusting man,” he said, shouted, proclaimed, roared, announced with intensity: “And I have burned it!”

He then gave me a copy of Wilde’s book of essays called Intentions which I’ve never read (although I might have done if I’d received it in some other way). He stormed off before I could ask him why Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour.

It was an interesting lesson for me. I’d never imagined that literature could excite such passion. I bought another copy and read it, looking for what I’d missed, but at age thirteen. and in the censored world of 1946, I couldn’t find anything objectionable (but of course I didn’t have images in my mind of Oscar romping in feather beds with his working class youths).

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THE INSEMINATION TEN

Dartington Hall was an Arts and Agricultural centre where men with beards swam naked in the River Dart and no doubt did worse things (Rabindranath Tagore might have been one them since the centre had been inspired by him).

Teachers had warned us to avoid this wicked place, and yet one morning a sign-up list was pinned on the school notice board next to an invitation to visit its artificial insemination centre. This was at a time when the local girls tried to avoid pregnancy by sticking postage stamps over their navels, or by ‘doing it’ standing-up, so I signed the list, hoping for more accurate information.

By mid-morning - when the invitation was hastily removed - there were ten signatures.

Three weeks later the ‘insemination ten’ were marched to the Hall, not to see pigs being impregnated, but – without explanation - to an exhibition of hand-made agricultural implements. These were much as you might expect, but five large books showing African masks and sculpture lay on a bench.

I spent twenty minutes leafing through them, not just because of the exuberant genitalia, but because they expressed an uncensored attitude to life (this was at a time when Nigeria had rejected a consignment of six hundred British dolls because they were smooth between the legs).

It’s difficult for people to understand how oppressed we were in the nineteen forties, but twenty minutes exposure to art of the Dobu and the Fang and the Gabon was like twenty minutes escape from a dark prison.

Then we were taken on a tour of this beautiful place that our teachers had told us to avoid. So many interesting artists had worked or studied there, Michael Chekov, Rudolph Laban, Bernard Leach, Imogen Holst (she was in charge of music all the time that I was at school less than two miles away), etcetera - the influence of the 'Hall' was extraordinary (elsewhere) and yet my school had rejected any contact apart from that invitation pinned on the school notice board by some new and inexperienced secretary.

It was our only educational visit anywhere (except for two that I arranged), I would have made use of that wonderful place but my home was fifteen miles away.

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NO SEX-ED?

Harper’s Index (Harper’s Magazine, March 2010) said that eighteen per cent of American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine still believed that ‘standing up during sex’ was an effective form of contraception.

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CUDDLES IN CLASS

In physics lessons the Reverend Smee would huddle beside Gerald Bennett and hug him and turn bright red. I had almost zero information about homosexuality, but I felt that something was not quite right about this.

‘Why Gerald Bennett?’ I wondered. He was a quite a short boy for his age, quite athletic, but the only exceptional thing about him was his very white skin and very red cheeks.

‘Why not me?’ I thought. It was yet another confirmation that I was repulsive.

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A PERFECT CRIME

I had acquired several ‘detentions’ – this meant sitting motionless at the front of the school hall while a teacher sat at a raised table, probably marking books (the school knew nothing of meditation).

The punishment book was kept on this table so I checked to see how many detentions I had received – seven! Far more than I had realised. That meant sitting in silence, half an hour at a time. for three and a half hours.

It should have been a huge book, like the book of spells in Walt Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice, but it was a school exercise book (there was no sense of style in Totnes school at that time). Seven detentions were too many, so I slid the book down the back of my trousers. An accumulation of so many detentions might have been remembered, so I sat waiting for the teacher. (The thief would hardly be expected to sit in detention if he had removed the evidence that required him to be there.)

The teacher tried to behave normally. He glanced around to see where the missing book might be. He moved to the wall and glanced down surreptitiously to see if some evil person had slid it into the space between the platform and the wall. Then he asked our names and seemed to write them down.

When we were dismissed, I asked if I could sit a little longer as I was ‘thinking’, but I was sent out with the others – perhaps so that he could search for the book.

I tore it into tiny pieces and flushed them away. Some bits of the red cover still floated, but I needed to use the toilet anyway and that got rid of them. I was happy for myself and for the other boys with multiple detentions.

I expected the Headmaster to storm and rage and issue punishments for the entire school until either the thief was handed over or confessed, but the missing punishment book was never mentioned. Mr Owen did not burst into my classroom, interrupting a lesson to finger me as the culprit. There was no investigation. The theft might never have happened. Even now I can't understand why!

They should have replaced the missing punishment book with a with a gigantic one that took two boys to carry! But maybe not (because a thief could still remove individual pages). Perhaps from then on the punishment book was carried too-and-fro from the staff-room. I wouldn’t know. I never received another detention.

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Mr PHELPS' CHANCE AT FAME

One drizzling lunchtime I returned to the classroom and began to read a book of essays. One was about a Chinaman burning his house down to roast a pig which may have been amusing when it was written. I was sitting with my feet on the seat of my desk and with my bum on the desk behind me. Perhaps I was unconsciously saying ‘this is not a punishment: I’m here by my own choice.

Mr Phelps came through and skidded to a halt, astonished to see a boy reading a school book for pleasure. “Every now and again we get a boy here like you,” he said.

I should have told him that the Headmaster was trying to get me transferred to a school for less intelligent boys, but I wasn’t quick-witted enough.

One day he called me out of class and asked me if I’d really written a short essay in my English exercise book – or had I copied it? When it became clear that it was my own work he wept and said he wanted to be known as my English teacher.

I read the paragraphs again and couldn’t see anything that was out of the ordinary. I kept the book, of course, because of Mr Phelps’ reaction, but I can’t check on it now because my mother threw it out.

Anyway we can add Mr Gilbert Phelps to the list of people whose hopes I disappointed.

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MR BASIL GUY

1945? I think Mr Guy must have been a soldier in the 1914-1918 ‘trench’ war, and that the horror had damaged him. He seemed to have no joy in him.

He caught me doodling a dog in his class (sounds disgusting!). Doodling has always helped me listen, and I still find it difficult to function in meetings unless I'm drawing.

As a punishment he demanded that I bring six drawings of dogs to his next lesson. (Perhaps he thought that they took a long time to draw.)

I drew six splendid dogs on high quality art-paper and wondered what his response would be. At first he was confused because he had forgotten the punishment, and then, when he remembered, he clearly had no idea how to respond. He put the page on the desk, and stared at it, and pondered while I stood, waiting. After a long, long pause, his eyes suddenly brightened (the only time I saw them do so). He took a black pencil – a laundry marker – and rapidly scribbled a large ‘tick’ in the centre of each dog.

His face resumed its usual blankness as he handed me the ruined page. I didn’t mind. I could draw six dogs at any time, but his solution made me wonder about his personal history, not even the tiniest bit of which he ever shared with us.

I threw the page away, but if I’d kept it I could have submitted it to the yearly art exhibition: ‘Dogs by Keith, Ticks by Mr Guy’.

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"NOT OUR JOB!"

Each sixth former had to take a turn at reading the ‘lesson’ aloud during Morning Assembly (even though this was a State school, not a religious school). I wanted to read Jeremiah 13-16 about the prophet who was told to bury his underpants:

Thus saith the Lord unto me, Go and get thee a linen girdle, and put it upon thy loins, and put it not in water. So I got a girdle according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came unto me the second time, saying, Take the girdle that thou hast got, which is upon thy loins, and arise, go to Euphrates, and hide it there in a hole of the rock. So I went, and hid it by Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And it came to pass after many days, that the Lord said unto me, Arise, go to Euphrates, and take the girdle from thence, which I commanded thee to hide there. Then I went to Euphrates, and digged, and took the girdle from the place where I had hid it: and, behold, the girdle was marred, it was profitable for nothing. Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Thus saith the Lord, After this manner will I mar the pride of Judah, and the great pride of Jerusalem.

(I think it would have 'gone over' rather well, but I was ordered to read a dubious story about God dividing the Red Sea so that the Jews could escape from the Egyptians. Of course, when I was standing on the platform beside Mr Owen, with the Bible in my hands, I could have switched to the underwear story, but the repercussions were incalculable.

I didn’t notice any reaction from the boys to my reading, but there was some badly suppressed sniggering among the teachers. When assembly ended Mr Phelps pulled me aside – still visibly amused - and said:

“You have to get some speech therapy, Johnstone.”

So my voice was funny (this was terrible news for a shy teen-agerr).

“Where do I get sit?”

“I have no idea.”

He absolved himself (and the school) from any responsibility. What mattered were our grades, not our physical condition or our 'fitness for life'.

“Ah, Quasimodo, you need some hump therapy.”

“Where do I get it?”

“I’ve no idea.”

Our teachers saw us as vessels that they had to fill with learning – not as creatures to help become passionate about learning, not as fellow human beings that they should help to function better. They were interested in our grades but not in us. I remember sitting in detention and fuming inwardly because the school wasn’t teaching us social skills. I was pining for a good drama training, but I didn't know it.

An example of such indifference emerged during a LifeGame. We were interviewing a seventeen-year-old who told us that one of her class mates, had begun to behave strangely; suddenly he was ‘into’ swastikas and guns.

His friends were afraid of him, so they expressed their fears to a friendly teacher who thanked them and said ‘It’s really important that we are told about such things’. Next day this friendly teacher sought them out:

“There’s no problem,” he said: “We've looked into it. His grades are very good.”

Almost unbelievable, and yet that was word for word how it was told to us.

My need for 'speech therapy' was one reason for becoming a teacher. My parents had never heard of it, and were no more aware of faults in my voice than I was. Their friends had praised my voice, probably because I spoke gently and correctly and was seldom raucous.

I was said to be a ‘natural teacher’, and I was certainly better at explaining things to my much younger sister than my parents were. I was physically awkward, agonisingly shy, uncomfortable in my body, with a ‘funny voice’ - and the time when I would have to earn my own living was fast approaching. If I trained as a teacher I would be taught how to move well, and stand well, and how to develop a commanding voice. My ‘self-presentation’ could be ignored at the Grammar School ('not our job!') but not when I was being trained as a teacher.

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THE GIFT OF LANGUAGE

Dario Fo entertained audiences by demonstrating the different ways that he’d seen people walk and use their bodies. He said he had no idea why so many of us grow up peculiar, but I think that he must have known (because it's so obvious).

In other species the baby animals become standard big animals.because if they functioned abnormally they would either be too clumsy to avoid being eaten, or too awkward to catch their prey. Cats move like cats, donkeys move like donkeys, and bears move like bears because they can neither give advice or receive advice.

Kittens grow up to move and stretch and leap and stalk and purr like cats without instruction, but imagine that adult cats could tell kittens how to move and how to present themselves: 'pick those paws up! Tail up! Stomach in! Chest out! Ears on ‘alert’! Stiffen those whiskers!' Kittens that obeyed such advice would become cats that bumped into the furniture.

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THE SYSTEM

I was eighteen, or perhaps nineteen (because I’d been held back a year). The last exam was over and we had three more days before we left school, never to return. At last our teachers could teach whatever they wanted to teach.

I arrived on the first of these days, eager to see what our teachers were really like, but we were told that the exams were over so there was no need to teach us: “so amuse yourselves!”

I was shocked, and doubly shocked to find that after seven years of expensive education my classmates preferred kicking a ball about, or bouncing one against the wall of the ‘fives’ court, or playing cards, or finding safe places to share a cigarette - anything rather than study! I can understand that happening for a couple of hours, but it continued for the entire three days. I understood Mr Phelps' delight when he had found me in the empty classroom reading a book of essays.

So the education system existed just to get us through exams - it had no interest in knowledge for the sake of knowledge! And for that the system had made us dislike failure instead of seeing failure as essential for learning, and it ignored the need for learning to be fun - fun meant 'wasting time' (just as spontaneity meant 'bad-behaviour!'). Learning had become work, so of course our teachers chose to sit in the staff room smoking cigarettes and reading the papers and drinking coffee - anything rather than having to teach us. School had tortured us instead of thrilling us. I asked an American expert of pneumatic structures about his schooling. He said: 'I should have sued the bastards!' Someone else - I forget who - described his school as 'hour after hour of organised boredom.' When I said to my son's teachers, 'I just want him to be eager to come to school in the morning, and to be a little sad at having to leave in the evening,' they looked at me as if I was insane.

How can we explain the ocean of 'light entertainment’ (that is designed never to teach us anything useful) except as a revulsion against education? Learning has been made stressful! Why else would we pay entertainers to waste our time with elaborate nothings? Life is short!

Students who are not eager to learn have been damaged. Instead of assuming that they were born that way, conscientious teachers should see it as a chance to heal the school-inflicted wounds. It’s difficult to destroy the curiosity of an ape, but Totnes Grammar School regularly achieved it. Let's hope that most of the students were eventually able to heal themselves. (I seem to remember that Einstein took only a year to revive his interest in physics after passing his exams).

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THREE GOOD DAYS

The exams were complete and for our last three days at Totnes Grammar School we could do whatever we liked.

“Could I use a microscope, Sir.”

“Of course.”

I had assumed that microscopes were too delicate for unsupervised boys to handle, and yet permission had been given so casually, and the cupboard wasn’t even locked.

What to look at? I remembered a tiny pool in the overgrown ‘school garden’. I ran there with no expectations. The water looked clean, but I put a drop of it on a 'watch glass' and looked at it through the microscope.

I don’t know how to convey the shock, amazement, alarm, even terror of seeing the life in that drop of water. These days we’ve seen so much, but this was before television had reached us. All I had seen were pictures in books, and magazines, and a documentary on Otto Lilienthal at a cinema show for children in Andover (and of course entertainment movies at the Electric cinema), but now I was seeing a world that was beyond my dreams.

I signalled to a boy to come and look. We spent three days together, and if possible, he was even more enthusiastic than I was (perhaps he became a biologist).

We were seeing a brilliantly lit, transparent world, of life and death, where circular creatures spun like wheels as a way to survive in a world where monsters attacked each other, and swallowed each other, and struggled to stay alive even when swallowed. Every drop of clear water contained a dozen Ben Hurs. It was like watching gladiatorial games on another planet.

Instead of sneaking up on flies and pulling their legs off, our teacher could have sent a boy out to fetch water from the little pond - and thrilled us! But that wasn’t what the syllabus demanded. And sadly, he would have robbed us of our amazement by telling us what to expect . And how would he have marked us?

Those were my three happiest days at school.

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LAST CONTACT

“And what will you make of your life now that you’re about to shake our dust from your sandals?” smirked Mr Claud Digby Thornton-Owen, MA. who during my time at ‘his’ school had caned me with the full strength of his arm.

I stared at the small circular table that he ran around between delivering each stroke of the cane, and said: “I rather thought I might teach.”

He leapt up from behind his desk, totally energised, and backed into a bookshelf. He gripped his right arm and roared: “You’re not the right type, Johnstone! Not the right type at all!”

I wasn’t qualified to enter a University, but teacher-training colleges had lower admission standards (having been ordered to replace the teachers who had been wasted in the war).

“I’ve heard that Dartington Hall runs a teacher-training course that specialises in Art, Music and Drama.”

“They’d never take a boy like you,“ he snapped: “Quite impossible! No point in applying. Don’t waste your time!”

It was his final act of vengeance (or a desperate attempt to protect the teaching profession from a menace). I’d played the first movement of the Schumann piano concerto at an end-of-school-year concert (accompanied by Mr Crute), and I was better at art than any other student, so I’d have been perfect for them; unfortunately I believed him and enrolled at a college that was rampant with Welsh rugby players, but where the admirable Anthony Stirling was my Art tutor, and Clifford Sealy (from Port of Spain) became my closest friend.

Ten years later when I was teaching at the Hall (and sleeping in a room once occupied by Michael Chekhov) I was woken by a thunderclap. Lightning kept jerking the room into existence, and it occurred to me that the books on African Art that I had seen on my first visit to the Hall had been nothing to do with the exhibition of hand-made agricultural implements. Perhaps they had been taken out from the library by one of the young women who were curating the exhibition.

I pulled my trousers on over my pyjamas, crept downstairs at four in the morning, and lifted the wooden latch soundlessly. The books were on one of the lower shelves to the left - perhaps they’re still there (hardly anyone had ever signed them out). I studied them until dawn and felt that some sort of circle had been completed.

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