Have you ever been bitterly humiliated and utterly destroyed inside and no one around you even noticed?
I must write about just what LAMB school gets up to and I will do at some point, but today I want to write about something else, something that explains a little about how I teach.
Or, more accurately, about how I don’t.
Take your mind back to the 80s. Britain specifically. If you’re not old enough or not British, think Billy Elliot. That was my town – Coalville – right in the middle of the Miner’s strikes and most of the town’s men becoming unemployed, part of Maggie’s millions. At the time, there was not a lot of hope. You took it where you could.
Imagine a high school for kids aged from 11- 14 yrs and there, in the midst of them, is a gorky, gangly 6 foot 13 year old towering over them like a beanpole with NHS black-rimmed specs long before Harry Potter made them cool – they were just a sign saying “beat me up” and older boys often obliged. Some even went to court because of it once.
That kid was me.
I was not what you might call a ‘sportsman’ much to the disappointment of my family. My paternal grandfather was an amazing sportsman. My mother thinks he represented England in the Olympics though I have yet to find confirmation of his name. Even if he didn’t, he was very sporty. My father too was a keen sportsman and a referee for many years. In his last decades he faithfully reported on local football matches for Radio Leicester showing his dedication to his area as well as his love of sport. He watched every sport on TV bar wrestling (which was just too silly for him). My brother was another keen sportsman – rugby being a favourite if I remember correctly. We used to have a full size snooker table in Coalville and I remember him revising for his A levels by lining the books around the table. As he took a shot he would read from whichever book was lying nearby! He is, to this day, a martial arts expert with more black belts than you can shake a stick at. A fit, sporty guy.
I am not – nor was I ever.
Instead, I never watched sport (I got into Wimbledon in my later years and still enjoy it but would hardly call myself besotted with it) and I certainly never played. I could not catch for toffee. I remember our PE teacher making us all stand in a field and he would hit a ball in the air. We would have to catch it. Whoever did so, got to stand by him. I was last, of course, and not just last but had a humiliating attempt after attempt failing to catch the damned thing as the entire class laughed at me every time I missed it. In the end, I caught it by fluke. I closed my eyes, prayed to God to kill me now and reached out with my hand. Thunk went the ball, straight into my palm. Thank you God.
To this day, I have no interest in sport though, when chance allows, I play a little squash. I am, of course, rubbish at it – but I enjoy it. But otherwise, I have no interest.
Except just once.
While at high school, my brother decided he would teach me how to throw the shot-put. Being the doting younger sibling, I did what I was told. Amazingly, school let me borrow a heavy metal shot-put ball (that would never happen these days!) and my brother would take me to a local field to practise. I don’t know why he decided I should learn it – but decide he did, so I obeyed.
He taught me well. Day by day, we practised. I learned where to hold it (under my chin), how to twist my body to give maximum thrust, how to thrust up through my arm and the angle I needed to aim it upwards that would give the best upward and forward thrust. I Could actually do it.
The school Sports Day came up. It was usually a ghastly affair. We all had to choose at least one sporting even to be involved with. Us weaklings always chose the track sprint on the basis that though the other kids would instantly leave us behind and we would be gasping for air within metres, by the time we had staggered round the track, been laughed at by the others until they got bored and moved on, we would then be able to sit around and watch the other events going on at the school field without attracting too much attention from the teachers or the bullies.
But not this year. Instead, I entered the shot-put.
I drew quite a crowd. Specky-four-eyes has entered the shot-put! Oh my god, no! Really? How funny! Can he even pick the thing up? They all came to see. The other boys competing were big lads, the ones who were something between muscular and obese. They had no technique though – just relied on sheer strength to hurl the ball.
I could not believe how easy it was. My ball shot past theirs every time. Not just a little bit – but by quite a distance. I damn nearly killed the PE teacher when I threw the ball in my excitement and had not realised he was still measuring the distance of the last ball. He was just about to stand up when mine (solid metal, remember) sailed over his head and landed by his side. “What the F…?” he shouted, standing up and looking my way. I thought I was in big trouble but I think he was impressed I actually got the ball that far! I got a ticking off but nothing worse.
The day ended and I had won the shot-put. Oddly, I don’t recall ever telling my family. I must have told my brother, but if I did I can’t remember. I know I would have thought they would just laugh, make some half-joking comment about how all the other lads must have been rubbish then and other comments suggesting they were skinnier than me or something and deride the achievement – all intended in a fun way. I don’t criticize them for this. It is what I do with my kids and with students. Always make a joke out of it. Only I try to make sure that I also tell them the truth about how proud of them I really am. I don’t forget that bit.
It should have been a proud day.
If you are still with me by now you may be wondering what this has to do with my opening question or, indeed with teaching. It’s coming. Bear with me.
A week or so later, we had assembly. The whole school crammed into the gym. They begin to give out the Sports Day awards. Shields, cups, certificates, badges and ribbons came out. Hands were sore with clapping from so many kids going up to receive the prize and a handshake from the Headmistress. I knew my turn would come soon. My friend next to me mocked me saying that when they announced it everyone would laugh, not applaud. I didn’t listen.
They all went by. Football, Rubgy, Running, Triple jump, High jump and so on.
And then it ended. No mention of Shot-put.
Looking back, as a teacher, I can only believe that it was a screw-up. They had forgotten about it. Missed a certificate. No decent teacher would have deliberately left it out. But so deep is the scar left that though my head knows this is the case, my heart feels, to this day, what I felt and believed then – that they were ashamed of me.
I must have been cheating. It is cheating to actually learn how to do it properly. Ken Ford-Powell could never have beaten those other boys. Everyone would laugh. Better to ignore it. Pretend it never happened. He doesn’t matter.
And so, that one small attempt to achieve something in the only subject my family ever really, truly cared about was snuffed out. My parents were proud of my other achievements – in music and so on – but looked on from afar, as it were, not from really understanding. Now, not only did I not have an interest in sport, but now had a true hatred of it. A shot-put never got picked up again and within a few months I began my annus horribilis. I never saw the end of my time at high school but went through a hell that changed my life. The shot-put incident was buried as I dealt with things much, much worse. But it remained there.
Has this ever happened to you?
I was crushed inside, but my family never knew (I told my mum just recently and she was surprised to learn I had won the shot-put. Dad would have been proud, she said. He would – I know that now). I had been given the message that adults were ashamed of me yet none of the teachers would have known they had conveyed that. The head was a good teacher and a lovely woman. I think she would have been gutted to know
The incident definitely made a mark on how I teach – or maybe how I don’t. It made me aware that I will have, without a doubt, missed something small that will have been huge to some student. I will have screwed up somewhere and, though there is nothing I can do about it, I have to bear responsibility for that. It means that, as much as I can, I never take a student for granted but try to make sure each one is valued. If I can’t say anything good about a student (and I’ve had a handful that fit into that category over 20 years) then I don’t say anything at all.
Most of all, I never praise a student for the achievement. Not in itself. I praise them for their achievement. How they have improved themselves. Whether that is a big thing or a small in ‘reality’ – I’m proud of how they have developed. So whether it is a student who taught themselves Grade 8 piano and passed the exam brilliantly, or my 11 year old daughter composing her first piece and using chords really well and beyond the teaching I’ve given her so far, both are equally worthy of praise. I’m proud of them and proud of hundreds more like them.
And deep down, if I search hard enough, I’m quite proud that once, just once, I won the shot-put.