An inspirational English teacher will stay with you forever, infuse your mind mind with a love of language and literature, and an appreciation of the beauty of the language. I met Phil Riley when I was in my second year at Grammar School, and he almost put me off the subject for life. He spent the first lesson talking about himself, and how wonderful we would find his class if we were refined enough to appreciate it.
Ah, no, that’s unfair, Jason. He was a decent man trying to explain his expectations. He would have preferred, I’m sure, to have been extolling the delights of Wordsworth: it’s just gobshites like you that made the talk necessary.
The subject of homework came up, and he began to tell us what he expected. After a couple of words, he backtracked: ‘which one’s Jawando?’ I knew what was coming. In my first year at the school, I had already built up a reputation for my inability and/or refusal to complete homework on time. He addressed the next part of the lecture to me. In his class, I would complete all my homework without fail, on pain of him being quite cross.
I was embarrassed that he had singled me out; I was irritated that he had prejudged me; and, I wondered who he thought he was – did he really imagine that the other teachers were happy for me to complete work as and when I felt like it? Perhaps I decided then that I would submit as little homework as I could get away with; perhaps that is just what happened, but either way, he had set the tone.
Jason, you really need to get a grip on your argument, here. You’ve admitted (and you will go on admitting) that you didn’t do much homework. What was this man supposed to do, if it wasn’t encourage you to put the hours in? If you decided that you weren’t going to do the work, whose fault was that?
From then it seemed that whenever this fascist (I sort of knew the word at the time, and it seemed apt) wanted to single anyone out as a negative example it would be me. Did I did give him any reason to go on singling me out? I struggled to complete homework for all subjects, not just English, but English was the worst. Motivation was certainly an issue: sitting at home faced with a choice between buckling down to 1 000 words on To Kill a Mockingbird and another twenty minutes of daydreaming, the daydreaming would win every time.
In other subjects, I would sometimes manage to keep up-to-date for a bit. One term I even managed to put on a bit of a spurt, and got up-to-date in all the other subjects, in time for the end-of-year report. My best friend asked me why I couldn’t do it for English. I just shrugged.
Be honest, he wasn’t your best friend, was he? He might have been a friend, at some point during your first year, but by the time this happened, he had become well and truly fed up of your constant whining, and attention-seeking.
There was one lesson, when my resentment crystallised enough for me to try to do something about it. Mr Riley had singled me out for criticism. I’d written a fantastic essay about the pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood: it was witty, incisive and only handed in two, or maybe three, days late. He held the essay aloft. ‘Jawando,’ he said, ‘it’s OK, I suppose, but it needs a better title.’ Something began welling up inside my chest, like a kettle that has lost its automatic shut-off; I had come to the boil and was going to continue boiling until the filament burnt out. I tried to tell him how I felt, or at least justify my choice. I explained my position, told him I thought he had it in for me, that he was prejudiced against me. It was no contest at all, a middle-aged professional versus an irritating adolescent: ‘just come and get the essay back,’ he said. I should have started a fight like some boys would have done, smashed a desk and stormed out of the classroom, vowing never to darken the doors of this shithole ever again. Instead, I collected the essay and spent the rest of the session boiling myself dry. The other lads noticed and there were sniggers around the room, as Mr Riley airily continued the lesson, oblivious to the impractical revenge plans I was dreaming up at my desk.
Afterwards, I tried to outline a plan to sue him for defamation, or report him to the governors, or have him expose on Panorama. This made them laugh more. One lad told me that he usually took my side, but I was overreacting this time. I hadn’t noticed him taking my side in the past, although, I thought he might have been right otherwise.
You already knew about your tendency to overreact, didn’t you, Jason? It was something you noticed at junior school, how you would get angry about a slight from a teacher or another pupil, and seethe with an intensity that would make the heart of the sun look like a wet Wednesday in Wigan. And then afterwards, you would calm down and decide it wasn’t that big a deal. Wasn’t that what was happening this time? Inside you were screaming that this time you really meant it, so part of you must have realised you didn’t. Even while you were planning unspeakably hideous revenge, you were also preparing for the comedown that would leave you feeling drained and silly. And you never did get revenge, did you?
He put me at the bottom of the class when he had a choice, which was less often than you might think. End-of-year exams were marked as objectively as an English exam can be; my oral presentations he marked well –
I do need to interrupt, here. Your oral work received some of the best marks in the class. You took part in a ‘balloon debate’ as the Italian gangster Lucky Luciano, and won, despite speaking with a seriously-dodgy accent.
– despite his prejudice. When he was asked to provide an overall, necessarily subjective, mark though, he placed me bottom. One term teachers were asked to provide only brief reports on those students graded A or E. He told the class that he was definitely going to mark one student with an E. He didn’t say who, but said anyone who wanted to know could ask him afterwards. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t need to, but at the end of the lesson, a small group surrounded his desk ‘it’s you, Jawando,’ one lad said, running over to my desk with a smirk.
To be fair to you, this really did happen.
My biggest humiliation came away from the classroom at the school sports’ day. At 13, I weighed about five stone and stood a long way short of five feet. Unlike many boys of that age, I could run without getting tired, and I was selected to represent the house at eight and fifteen-hundred metres. Somehow, I fluked it in the long-jump too. In the eight-hundred metres, I finished fifth out of eight. In the long-jump I finished last by some distance. As I trotted back to the stand, I heard my nemesis announcing the results over the PA: ‘I think you need long legs for that one, Jawando,’ he said in a tone of voice that would later be perfected by Angus Deighton.
In the fifteen-hundred, I struggled for the first three-quarters of a lap. Coming into the home straight, I was barely keeping up. Optimism told me that some of the other runners had started too quickly and would start to flag, but I was struggling to believe. As we ran past the stand, Mr Riley was providing a commentary on what everyone could see. He rounded it off with a smug ‘and Jawando in last place.’ When I reached the end of the lap though, I pulled up, and sat out the race with my head in my hands. I never explained to anyone what was wrong.
Are you sure he meant to be smug? It was an accurate statement.
Part way through my third year, my family moved, and I transferred schools. Mr Riley was one of a number of teachers who threatened to write to the new school and ask for missing work. I don’t know if the letter was ever sent, or if it fell into the same category as my own revenge schemes. There was some communication between the schools, and my new teachers learned of my reputation, but by then they had found out how difficult it was to get work out of me themselves.
In fourth year (Year 10 in new money), in English, I was placed in a middle-ranked set for justifiable reasons. But I took this as a slight. I set about impressing my new teacher who was also head of department. Within two months I had been moved to the top set. Despite myself, I began to enjoy the subject. Within two weeks of joining the top set, I was collared by a friend who warned me that my contribution in class was ‘not appreciated’. I ignored the warning, and continued contributing enthusiastically in class, less so in writing, and finished with reasonable grades.
I probably forgot about Mr Riley at this time. If I thought about him at all, he was a complicated relic of the past, the reason I hadn’t succeeded in the subject before, and someone I’d never have to face again. At sixteen, life is about the present and the future. I considered studying English Literature at A-level; my teacher told me I was capable, but I decided against it. I didn’t pause to ask myself why. The subjects I did choose proved to be less than inspirational, but I put this down to my own laziness. The spurt that had seen me through GCSEs just about extended to my A-levels; when I got to University anything resembling a work-ethic disappeared in the first week, along with my student grant.
Come on: you surely can’t blame him for that.
I spent my twenties trying to make something of myself with little work experience, so-so A-level results and no degree. I occasionally thought about returning to study, and occasionally thought I might enjoy English; even more occasionally, I wondered if I might actually be good at it. At 29 I decided to give the A-level in Language and Literature a go.
I was warned when I enrolled: ‘It’s hard; we prefer you to take two years, only you’ll have to do it in one because the system changes next year.’ I wanted to complete it in a year anyway. I couldn’t attend regularly: they told me I could take a flexible-study option, but that would affect my grade too. I saw my tutor three times during the year and got an A. This lead to a second attempt at a degree, only now as a part-time mature student. Six years later I graduated.
Just finish the essay now and give the guy his dues. If he hadn’t antagonised you so much, perhaps you’d never have done it.
When I began studying English again I had to confront the memory of Mr Riley. At first, I put it down to a clash of personalities – I was 13; he was 33 and paid to behave like a professional. Now, my abiding memory of the man is my first day in his class, the day he singled me out in front of everyone. My reaction was childish and disproportionate. I was a child. Perhaps he wasn’t vindictive. I doubt I’ll ever meet him again. If I do, I have no revenge to take. I would remind him that he put me bottom of his class and tell him that I now have a degree in the subject. No, I would tell him that I now have a first-class degree in his subject and remind him that he put me bottom of the class.
 I feel I should point out to the reader that Jason knew the word ‘fascist’ because of The Young Ones, a TV series he wasn’t allowed to watch, because it was on too late, but somehow found out about, anyway. The teacher in question was most likely a soft-left, Labour-voting, metropolitan liberal.
Jason Jawando writes prose and drama. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the OU and lives in the West Midlands. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonDJ