St Michael’s was at times a pretty hard school in the 70s and 80s. Being caned (whether you were a boy or a girl) was so routine it was barely commented on. I still remember the Headmaster’s collection of canes, and how he occasionally lingered over them before selecting one that he felt suited the ‘crime’. And then the holding out of the hand, the flash of wood, the smack on skin, the sudden, stabbing pain. As well as the mandatory bullying in most year groups, there were also fights between us and the kids from the local comprehensives (these were occasionally pre-arranged in some no-man’s land between the schools, but I’ve no idea who organised such events, or how, or why come to that). Staff threw board dusters (and sometimes chalk) books, pens, and whatever else they could get their hands on, at children who were talking, or misbehaving in some other way. But nobody seemed to complain, least of all our parents, who seemed to take the view that if a child was caned, or punished in any way, it was the child’s fault, not the school’s. Today the school is transformed, and is considered one of the best independent schools in Wales.
Although it charged fees, St Michael’s had a very broad intake, both geographically and socially: it shipped pupils in from towns as far afield as Carmarthen, Llanelli and Swansea; and the sons and daughters of barristers and doctors would sit side-by-side with the children of shopkeepers, farmers and manual labourers. This was a time when a private education was in the reach of the aspiring, lower middle classes. I can’t really remember how good the teaching was: no doubt some was good, some mediocre, some poor. But I liked the school: I had good friends, and learned a lot, and regardless of its failings (and mine) I went on to university, did a PhD, and have done okay professionally. Most of those I know who went there speak warmly of the place, and all seem (outwardly at least) well-balanced and successful. The school has to take some credit for this.
And one teacher takes particular credit for moving me on academically. Nick Burree – who joined the school when I entered the Sixth Form – taught me A level Politics and History. I got good grades in both. I found out this week that he died last month and, more than once since I heard the news, I found myself reflecting on what made him a good teacher. His death reminded me of how fortunate I was that at that pivotal time in my development he happened to be there.
To be honest, when he first walked into our classroom he didn’t seem likely to be transformative. He was unprepossessing, shy even, overweight, and seemed to perspire rather a lot, regardless of the weather. His hair stuck resolutely to his forehead at all times, and he wore oversized, thick-framed glasses. He would sit at the front of the class, often hugging his brief case, but he would…discuss things with us, and he did so in a way that allowed this rather unappealing collection of adolescents to feel they were his intellectual equals, and that he respected their views. He also knew his subjects very well. He was a Liberal Democrat activist in an area which was deeply Labour, and this political allegiance perhaps allowed him to indulge those pupils who were nascent Thatcherites, as well as those who were exploring Marxism (and everything else in between, including apathy). Above all he listened, and debated, brought in articles ‘that I thought you would like’, lent us books, and if he didn’t know an answer to something he would admit it, and find out by the next day what it was (and this in the days before Google).
I regret now that I never went back to say ‘thank you’ to him for teaching me so well, for sparking a lifelong interest in politics and history. Too late now. But I hope that he did realise how much of a difference he made, and that he did hear those words said to him by others. There is always enough time to acknowledge one’s gratitude, no matter how long ago it was, and that is something I’ve learned as a teacher, because it is such recognition by students that is one of the profession’s quietest, but greatest, rewards. Rest in peace, Mr Burree.