Substitute Parents

Values learned at school


1. Substitute Parents

Growing up on a council estate in the ‘50s wasn’t much fun. The ‘baby boom’ meant that there were thousands of us. We were the ‘latchkey kids’, who ran wild while our parents were either enjoying themselves or out at work. Looking back, I have less than fond memories of my childhood. I got off on the wrong foot and I was probably the youngest tearaway in the district. Foul-mouthed, with no respect for anything or anyone, I was heavily into mindless vandalism. Until I went to school that is.

There I was taught some of the values I should have got from home. Not only lacking in social skills, I couldn’t even tie up my own shoe laces or do up buttons. I’d never been taught. This is where the teachers came in. From Mr. Thompson in the primary school to ‘Potty Potter’ in the final year of my school career, they all had a part to play. Many people remember their teachers for the inspiration they instilled. I remember mine because they were truly in loco parentis. They were unaware of it at the time, they thought they were merely doing their jobs. Unknown to them, I was taking in everything they did. I followed every move they made, tried to emulate every gesture. The things a child should learn from their parents, I gleaned from my teachers. 

My parents were not cruel or deliberately neglectful. They just didn’t have much experience in bringing up children, I had no grandparents they could turn to for advice, they lived to far away for casual visits. Like most of the children from my estate, I was not encouraged in my school work. University and further education were impossible dreams. Not for the likes of us working class kids, playing truant was tolerated and the idea was to leave school at the earliest opportunity and get out to work. It just didn’t cross their minds that I needed more than that.

My teachers saw things from a different point of view. They didn’t look down their noses at me and their attitude was that everybody should be entitled to a good education, whatever their background and family circumstances. They impressed upon me that a place at university was not unattainable. There were grants, scholarships and bursaries available. All one had to do was to work hard!

Some of the teachers were so good at their jobs, attending their classes didn’t seem like work at all. Mrs. Skinner for instance, my English teacher at secondary school, took pains to make her lessons fun. I, like most of her students, enjoyed her lessons so much that we would willingly volunteer for extra-curricular activities such as rehearsing for the school play.

Life at school was not all a bed of roses, however. There were some teachers who could be very cruel. Mr. Homerton, the maths master, was in the top class when it came to inflicting pain – both physical and emotional. He always carried a thin bamboo cane which he could use with deadly accuracy. Sadistic teachers though, were very much a rarity and I don’t think I am viewing my school years through rose coloured spectacles.

I still see Dai Thomas, who taught us on the sports field. He was a barrel chested Welshman with a wry sense of humour. Age has taken away his physique and he now walks with a stoop, but he retains his lively mind. He not only taught us how to kick a football but introduced us to concepts such as teamwork and helping each other. I call him ‘Dai” now but I still find it hard not to address him as ‘Sir’.

Most of my former teachers have passed on now, but they live on in my memory. The   values they instilled in me were as important as the knowledge they imparted during their lessons. I was the first member of my family to benefit from a university education but certainly not the last. All three of my children went on to higher education and graduated with good degrees. I shall always be grateful to mentors who opened my eyes to a world I barely knew existed.

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