In one of my senior primary school years back in 1950s/1960s at Glengormley Primary School, North Belfast, I and the rest of my class, along with I suppose all the preceding years and subsequent years, had the teacher from hell. To describe him as a bully would be so kind as to be dishonest. The man belonged in a madhouse – for that is what he turned his classroom into.
One expects teachers to be a bit formal, a bit impersonal. This teacher had an insidious over-familiar style. His manner was always in the personal zone – the verbal equivalent of over-intimacy. There should be social distance between a teacher and class. He occupied that classroom with the miasma of his personality so completely you felt you were in his living room.
Zealous micro-managing control freakery was his style. I don’t remember him actually teaching anything. Not that anyone could have learnt anything in the atmosphere he manufactured – everyone was sitting in silent terror in case they moved slightly, or breathed out of place and ended up the focus of his attention. Then he would descend with a gleeful grin and proceed to humiliate and emotionally demolish his victim with a stream of double bind questions, every answer held up for derision – the classic – there is no right answer manipulated scenario of the bully.
He caned a lot, and detained a lot. Other children complained they were always getting into trouble with their parents for being late home from school. When they explained they had been kept behind their parents either didn’t believe them or got angry because they had misbehaved. But you could be detained for any invented trivial reason.
I don’t remember him teaching us anything, but I do remember his vivid description of what Nazis did to their victims in concentration camps. I recall him laughing as he described people who had been driven insane and would smash glass with their hands and smile at the rivers of blood.
Just to check that my impressions were not subjective after I went on to Belfast Royal Academy, one of the few in the class who went on to grammar school, I went back for a visit. He seemed surprised. In typical fashion he kindly found a chair for me and placed it in a large space at the front of the classroom – nice and isolated, on my own, designed to let me know he controlled this space, from where I surveyed his class. They showed all the suppressed nervous tension, like they were walking on glass, that my own class had experienced. I had verified it to my satisfaction. My impressions were accurate not subjective.
After I had left his class I had wondered how was it possible that the school did not know they had a diabolical teacher in the senior years, where disruption of education at that point in the students career could lead to them failing the 11 plus and losing their chance for grammar school? In contrast, perhaps one of the best teachers I had ever heard of was also teaching in the senior years. The children in his class responded enthusiastically to his creative and open teaching style, where he employed a lot of drama techniques to involve his students with their subjects. A brilliant teacher and a diabolical teacher – in the same school?
When I first started that school it was normal for children to stay until age 14, then go to work, Only middle class children went on to grammar school. Then the secondary moderns were created and the 11 plus enabled working class children for the first time to access grammar school education. Glengormley was a country school, outside the Belfast boundary, and when the changes were introduced it was not the intention of the city authorities to allow the country children access to the secondary schools. There was such a revolt from the parents they were forced to back down.
In old age, and no longer trusting of authority, I now wonder if that ghastly teacher was just someone that the school overlooked – that year after year of terrorised children in his class was completely unnoticed by the school authorities and other teachers. And it is just a coincidence that this trasher of children was teaching in a senior year which was crucial for the future educational opportunities of the children in his class.
What brought that on? Just in case you think I am an obsessed neurotic who can’t let go of the past, I pushed out of my mind that horrible year at school the moment I left and have scarcely thought of it since. What revived my memory was a “directed conversation” about emotionally abusive teachers when I was recently in the library.