I’d been splitting firewood next to a log cabin in Canada when my white-haired and wise old great uncle Wally told me that teachers did the most important job in the world. A humming bird was sipping sugar-water from a sun-dappled plastic flower feeder dangling from the tree. Beyond it and beyond the decking was a bay full of blue North Pacific ocean. I wiped a sleeve across my brow, looked at the blisters starting to rise in my palms, and told him he was talking nonsense. Wally was happy with the effort I’d put in, the pile of fuel neatly stacked against the perimeter fence of his island home, but he was unhappy with my response. I was young, he said, but some day I would realise that teachers were the ones shaping the future of the world. Old folk like him would perish to be replaced by the children following behind. What they were taught to know and believe now would shape everything that human beings had influence over… and that was everything. He said it again, the world would be shaped by the qualities of the teachers.
I was sixteen, accompanying my Irish granny out to British Columbia to see her formerly wayward brother for what everyone accepted would be the last time before old age claimed them both. Wally had told me that he had been a “black sheep” of the family, having run away to sea, jumped ship in North America, and scraped from one no-questions-asked job to the next, until he finally became a legitimate citizen of Canada and rose on a wave of worldy-wisdom to a senior position in Canadian Pacific Airlines. He was now comfortably pensioned off to this shoreside plot with a lovely wife, a lovely life, and a rapidly growing stack of firewood. It seemed to me he had succeeded despite his education, rather than because of it. I had already left school having hated it quite literally from day one when, I’m led to believe, my first ever teacher had to physically drag me, kicking and screaming, from the arms of my weeping mother. I thought of the qualities of the subsequent procession of teachers who, up until a few weeks ago had been charged with preparing me for the world, and I concluded they were mostly a sorry lot. Whoever chose them to shape the future of civilisation had chosen badly. If I hadn’t suffered from motion sickness, I’d have already run away to sea too.
I love the music of the prog-rock band Pink Floyd. I love the melancholy in the minor keys, the humanity of the crushed dreams, the rage against injustice, imbalance and unfairness. It has been a soundtrack to my life for decades. The single Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), taken from the concept album The Wall,brought me to the band at a time when to describe my relationship with school as “fraught” would have been a massive understating of the quivering tear-stained reality of the experience. To borrow a phrase from Woody Allen, I had always been “at two” with formal education.
The opening line of Another Brick… – and a recurring theme throughout the song – is a defiant, “We don’t need no education”. As many before me have pointed out, if ever there was a line that proved its own lie and shot itself in the foot, this is it. The grammar is appalling, and its defiant, double-negative scream of rebellion displays a deeply juvenile misunderstanding of what education is, why it’s important and why acquiring it is a key to success. I know this now, but I didn’t know it in my mid teens. For me at that time, anything that condemned the school system, chimed a chord with my own experience. Uncle Wally’s wisdom was lost on me.
Before the forensically insightful Floyd-nerds start bludgeoning me for taking the line out of context or misinterpreting the sentiment as the honest combined belief of Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason, please be assured that I do know where the song is placed in the vast rock-operatic composition, and what it’s saying in the context of the sad, sad story. But for me at the time, it screamed of the way my schools had been trying to shovel learning into our young minds in the 1960s and 70s like they’d been shovelling coal into a bucket. With me, they had failed to take the lid off the bucket first, so facts, useful facts, had ended up bouncing off and piling up around me in black, dusty heaps. They were wasted because I never understood why I was being forced, yes forced to learn this stuff.
I’m told learning has changed. I’m told schools are generally better now than they were in my childhood. But I still see, hear and read even today of kids who are bored, baffled and bunking off lessons.
I was recently working up a fictional scene for a story that was set in a classroom and I wanted to come up with a few good lines that a new teacher could use to motivate his class on Day One. I pictured him going straight into asking his pupils to put up their hands if they wanted money. Then asking them to put up their hands if they wanted happiness. Then asking them who wanted both money and happiness. His punchline would be that if they wanted either or both of these things, this classroom, at this moment, was the place where the road began. Being drawn forward by desire and ambition would always be better than being goaded from behind.
If I had been helped to understand that education was about finding happiness, I might have been more receptive. If I had been shown that with a solid background in biology I could have spent a lifetime working in the world’s jungles and ice floes, I would have done what it took to acquire it. If I’d been shown that an understanding of the elegant logic of mathematics and physics could have put me in the driving seat of a space rocket, or allowed me to search for extraterrestrial life with deep-space telescopes, I would have been frantic to learn all I could. If, as an adolescent, I had been told that my French language lessons could have helped extend and enrich the passionate and erotic autumn I would be spending with a Parisian dancer in my early 20s, my teachers would have had to use great force to lever me out of the classroom.
Photo: Lisette Wolter McKinley
But I was told none of these things. Days dragged. Resentment grew. Time and opportunity were wasted. The playwright George Bernard Shaw is tentatively attributed with having said that, “youth is wasted on the young” and a popular corruption of that is that “education is wasted on the young”. Well it was certainly wasted on me, but I’m sure it was only because I never understood why it was an opportunity, rather than a chore.
Yes, my education failed me. The education system failed me. I’m sure it wasn’t helped by the fact I moved around a lot when I was young – I went to two different primary schools and three different secondary schools before I finally escaped at the age of 16 – but none of those schools brought “inspiration” any closer to me than a distant ship’s smoke on the horizon. School left me high and damp, wondering why I was wasting my time drawing graphs, taking dictation on early 20thCentury political manoeuvrings in central Europe, and stirring pots of warm chemicals that smelled like piss and changed colour when you mixed them. The only good memories I have from my school days are of looking out of a classroom window, but the bad memories are legion, featuring such pocket-crises as panicking over my inability to remember my times-tables, my inadequate attempts at regurgitating essays on geography, and my hatred of team sports.
I was scared for most of my school days too… scared to death of teachers with their authoritarian attitudes and their threatened sanctions of the cane and detention, but even more scared of the pupils… my so-called classmates. Every time we moved house, I was effectively parachuted into an established community of kids which already knew who was tough, who was weak and who was just boring. I probably appeared exotic and strange to most, bringing my other-school ways into their time-established stratified societies. Who the hell is he? What kind of accent is that? Can I kick his arse further down the pecking order than mine? There was plenty of bullying. Pushing and shoving, laughing and mocking, ignoring and marginalising. It made me solitary and self-reliant. A perpetual outsider. It made me quiet, retiring and frightened. I kept my head down for fear of being slapped, metaphorically and literally. I became risk-averse. My speech I dumbed down. I never spoke in class and I never mixed at playtimes, preferring to sit for as long as possible, as quietly as possible, as far from the school buildings and the bullies as I could get, until the ringing of the bell would call me back to class. I was always the last to re-enter the building. I trudged quickly enough to not be late, but not quickly enough to be early. I wore shoes of lead that gripped me to the lino floors of the world.
I’ve just been listening to an archive documentary on BBC Radio 4 about a school in the 1970s, and although it wasn’t about any of my schools, it may as well have been. There were audio recordings, taken from a Panorama fly-on-the-wall television programme, that featured what was for me a common pattern – schools of swots and scrappers, staffed by a mix of shouty authoritarians and apologetic, brow-beaten impotents. It seemed to me that the truly bad kids ran free and feral because they couldn’t be controlled, and the good kids got unfairly punished for minor misdemeanors because they could be controlled.
I usually try not to think back to those days – there’s no virtue in needless suffering – and I had come to believe that my memory of them had atrophied enough over the decades to leave no more than a few featureless monoliths of vague impressions, but this radio programme brought back so much long-dormant detail that my mind is now “squirming like a toad” (credit: The Doors). Up until now, those days have only resurfaced in the unconscious. I occasionally wake from a nightmare about being lost in the swarming corridors of a big secondary school, unable to find the classroom, and choking down tears at the prospect of detention. And I sometimes dream dramatic reenactments of episodes from the years of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, when as a small English boy in a protestant school uniform I was chased, punched or stoned on my way home by the catholic boys at the neighbouring school. It baffled me when it happened first. It still baffled me when I left. But bafflement was very subordinate to the sheer terror of those encounters.
Downpatrick in late 1960s. Photo: Belfast Telegraph
Schools all sound the same. I mean the noise they generate. From outside the gates, they all sound the same no matter what religion or denomination it teaches under, no matter where it is in Britain or Ireland, and amazingly no matter where you are in the world. I have listened to children in playgrounds, whooping, screaming and yelling to be heard, in many corners of the globe, and kids are just kids. I can never make out any words, just sounds and impressions, and whether they’ve been in the mountains of Albania, the islands of the South Pacific, the rich-lands of the South of France, or the housing schemes of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, they’ve all sounded the same. And they have sounded the same since I was a boy. I know that because even to this day, that sound puts me on edge. I sometimes have to go into schools as part of my job – education is an important subject for a jobbing BBC journalist – but even as I mix with the children as a middle-aged professional, talking to them about what I do, and maybe interviewing a few of them, their teachers, or their parents, I’m on edge. It would be too melodramatic to say I’m on the verge of panic, but I do have to concentrate to know that none of this can affect me any more, I no longer have to stay in the class, and I no longer have to be a sitting target for insults and aggression in the playground. And one other thing I do is I keep an eye out for the kid who seems to be the outsider in their own class, and if there’s an opportunity to make them feel just a little bit more special about themselves, or even just a bit more at ease, I will do it.
Because it’s important.
I should have been able to rise above all this nonsense as I’ve got older and had time to analyse it, but I can see how my school-days have shaped the way I’ve developed as an adult and even sculpted the way I am now, 40 years after I took my last school bus home. And it’s not just because I left as soon as I could legally do so, with an underwhelming handful of barely scraped O’ levels and CSE’s and a resolution to never again return to an educational institution. It shaped the personality I was to take on. I did go back to college a few years later, to learn to be a gardener so that I could earn money while out under the sky. But even though I was starting a course where everyone was equally a stranger to each other, I kept playing the now naturalised role of an outsider. I was socially inept and awkward, and the only things that made me stand out were my clumsiness with girls and my stone-walled naivety over the shades of grey in things like sexuality, drugs, and morality. It took all three years of college in the company of two or three very special friends to show me how opinionated, backward and ill-informed I was about most things, and to give me a glimpse of what the world could really be like.
I learned more about becoming an understanding and tolerant human being in those three years at horticultural college than I had in the eleven years I went to school. I actually learned more about it than I learned about horticulture… my conditioned hatred of educational institutions pushed me towards my default settings of avoidance and evasion, in class and in the hostel. Even though my parents were paying their hard-won cash for me to study, and even though I very much wanted this career path, my bad experiences in school were sapping the potential from my further education. My college shoes, just like my school shoes, were made of lead. It was poet and writer Dorothy Parker said: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
What I learned mostly in school had been fear and resentment. Fear of the establishment and fear of other children. The resentment was against being channelled into structured days and ways that took away the opportunity to grow and evolve out of the rut that had been dug for me by others. When I went to the careers teachers, I had no imagination, and they had no clue how to engender it in me. My memory is that when I showed interest in any of the jobs that sounded engaging or attractive, the teacher would say that it was a “very competitive field”, a phrase to which I always heard the implied if unspoken suffix, “and you’re simply not good enough”. There were four posters I remember on the wall in the careers office – army, navy, air force and police. I have a vague memory of choosing the Royal Marines, and an even more vague memory, which may or may not be true, of my Irish mother steering me away from a job that would put me in an armoured Land Rover with a gun on the streets of the towns in which I grew up. I considered the RAF because dad had joined up as an engineer by this time. I even went to a recruiting office but my immature chat with the warrant officer ended with him effectively saying, “go away, grow up, and maybe come back in a couple of years when you have done so”. So I joined the police. I chose the North Yorkshire Constabulary because I had enjoyed holidays in The Dales. I was a cadet in Scarborough for, I think, two months before I realised I was back in a regimented, regulated hierarchy and I had no stomach for a lifetime’s worth of servitude.
Being out of work wasn’t to my liking either. To make matters worse, when I signed on, back in Cornwall after Scarborough, I discovered that one of my classmates from Wadebridge School had actually got a job in the dole office. Every time I went in to claim my benefits and do the obligatory search of the job adverts, he was there watching. His job seemed as boring as hell, but he was earning and I wasn’t. This was the stage at which The List of Things I am Frightened Of extended to include unemployment. All my adult life since then I have needed a secure landing point before I’ve ever taken a career jump, and most of the times I have jumped, it’s been because I was either pushed from behind by redundancy, or pulled forwards by someone who wanted my skills.
Fear and solitude could have turned me into something rather rotten if it hadn’t been for a few close and understanding friends who appeared to see something in me and take the time to show me a better way. But I firmly believe that many of the activities and life choices I’ve made over the years have their roots in that unhappy time at school. If you look at the sports I dabbled in, they were mostly solitary and centred on self-preservation. Camping, hiking and birdwatching took me away from people and into the wild. The judo, kung fu, karate, fencing, archery, rifle and pistol shooting were attempts to build confidence and make me feel I had less to fear. Not that I’ve ever had to punch or shoot my way out of trouble… yet… but my interpretations of the “peaceful warrior” Yamakoa Tesshu’s concept of the “sword of no sword”, and the Chinese concept of “chi” as spirit, focus and intent, have helped me tremble slightly less when faced with all sorts of confrontations.
This long and meandering tale of educational cause and effect has given me one strong and abiding impression, and that is that great uncle Wally was right. The education of the young is the most difficult, sensitive and downright important thing anyone can do. There can be no greater calling than to show a child how much easier it is to find health, wealth and happiness if they take the lid off their brains and cram them with as much knowledge as they can get their grubby little hands on. Get it right and the world around the student will be a much brighter, better, safer place. They’ll push a widening cone of warmth and positivity ahead of them as they grow in confidence and influence. Get it wrong and you create little black holes of depression, cynicism and negativity that will also grow with time.
I have wrestled with my own black holes, and maybe that’s why Pink Floyd is my favourite band of all time. One of my greatest entertainment regrets is that I never got to see the group play live – rock music elevated to the realm of the symphonic, and light-shows that make science fiction feel like fact. But even on records, those massive bawls of melancholy and frustration chime with my battle-conditioned soul. Much of the band’s best work has been an expression, verging on a celebration of failure, cynicism and depression. And now, in the post-Floyd era, I still enjoy listening to relatively new work on similar themes by former lead singer and guitarist David Gilmour. I have a DVD of him in concert, performing some of his fresh pieces alongside scaled-down versions of big Floyd classics like Shine On you Crazy Diamond, and the monumentally magnificent Comfortably Numb. He’s an older man now, the voice is more strained, and the exuberant band he once led is now replaced by a talented, but less flamboyant collection of session musicians. I watch him on a flat-screen in the corner of the living-room at the remote cottage I now live in alone. The raw creative anger may have faded, but the old warrior has introduced another aspect of rich melancholy to the mix… the experiences and regrets of age. I’m still with him there.
My education failed me. Because of that, I’ve lived my whole life in a box of someone else’s making, turning round like a dog in its basket, trying to fit and trying to make myself comfortable. But if there’s one thing Pink Floyd has shown me, it’s that shades of dark can be turned into creative bursts of light. I’m trying to work up the courage to step out of my box and into the void without a safety net, to leave my career of 30 years and dedicate my remaining time to the things I enjoy most – learning and writing. After a lifetime of looking before leaping, it’s not proving easy, but I feel the the box is now too small and the time has come.
“Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time. Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.” (Time)
There is another line in a Floyd classic that I believe should be hammered into copper, hung over the entrance-gates of schools, and polished every day by pupils so that they can get it burned deep into their minds and souls. It’s from High Hopes– the final song on the last proper studio album the band recorded – and it describes what good, inspirational schooling can help us achieve.
“Leaving the myriad small creatures trying to tie us to the ground, to a life consumed by slow decay”.
Sadly for me, that was what I felt I was doing as I walked out of school for the last time.