|After two heart-felt posts on topics central to Jenny’s story, here’s my first go at my ‘apropos of nothing’ category. I hope adding a few of these will bring a bit of fun to what could risk turning into a somewhat gloomy affair. I promise to stick to a portion control of no more than one helping of ‘off topic’ posts per week.|
‘I don’t know how you have the audacity young lady!’
Another week, another education policy story making the headlines: the controversial approval of an ‘extension’ to a grammar school at Sevenoaks in Kent and apparently, more to follow. It takes me back to my secondary school days – mind you, no grammar in my case, they’d been abolished 20 years before by my Local Education Authority. I remember my local comprehensive not just for its reputation but mainly for the, let’s call them ‘assorted characters’, who went there.
As for academics, two subjects stood out – history and maths. It’s a strange mix I’ll grant you, most people would like one and hate the other, few would enjoy both. But for me they are very similar – all about finding out, whether it was information or ‘puzzle solving’.
Apart from it being my joint-favourite subject, what made ‘O’ level maths particularly memorable was the teacher – Mrs Wood. I don’t even know her first name but think it was Carol. She’d dark hair and can’t have been taller than 5’-5”. She must have done exceptionally well in her teaching career, as she was one of the three deputy heads at what was then the third largest comprehensive school in the UK (Outwood Grange, Wakefield). Thinking about this now, for a woman in teaching to have got to that level in the state system, she must have been one of the most motivated women teachers out there.
She was strict – strict to the point of it seeming anachronistic in a comprehensive on the edge of the Yorkshire coalfield. We were required to stand up behind our chairs as she entered the class:
‘Good morning Mrs Wood’
‘Good morning, class. You may sit down now.’
There was lots standing behind chairs on other occasions too. We had to stand up as an entire class and recite the formula for quadratic equations, for example. It worked too. I can still remember it to this day, how would I dare forget:
‘X equals minus B to the plus or minus the square route of B squared minus 4AC, all over 2A.’
And the formula for a straight line:
‘Y equals MX plus C.’
It wasn’t all good old fashioned reciting of formulas though; she had some quite profound insights which have stayed with me to this day too. It was the early ’80s, an era when the home computer was barely wearing nappies. She had a passing interest as her husband ‘he works at Leeds University, you know’ had been employed at Lyons Cakes in the 1950s, working on their huge mainframe computer which had a memory of 56. ‘That’s not 56 kilobytes’ – not that most of us even knew what a kilobyte was – ‘just 56’. We must have heard this story five or six times in the three years she taught us maths, but on one occasion, she looked up from her desk rather more wistfully than usual and said:
‘If there’d been the same advances in the aviation industry as the microprocessor industry as that’s what she called computers] industry in the last 30 years, it’d be possible to fly round the world in a light aircraft on half a gallon of petrol.’
OK, I suspect by now you’re thinking, ‘but who’s Samantha Barber and what’s she got to do with this?’ Well, Samantha wasn’t exactly the class rebel, it’s that she probably had much better things to do in her spare time than homework. She wasn’t particularly scared of Mrs Wood either. She knew she’d pass her ‘O’ level and was happy to do as little as possible to get there. Largely unbeknown to her at the time, her homework marks became one of the funniest parts of the school timetable.
In Mrs Wood’s class, at least once a week we’d go through our homework as a group exercise and mark it ourselves as we went along. Nobody would dare cheat. Even in the class of between 30 and 40 pupils, Mrs Wood’s sharp eyes were bound to spot anyone writing the work into their exercise book as they went along. And besides, as she frequently said, ‘in the end, a cheat only cheats him or herself.’
After the group exercise came the process of telling Mrs Wood – and the rest of the class – our marks. We were streamed in our form classes for English, so our names were called out in the alphabetical order of English top set boys, top set girls, second set boys etc. As ‘Green’ I was fairly high up the list. And that meant I was one of the group who could turn round and try to make everyone else laugh as Samantha Barber’s announcement of her marks approached. Not that much encouragement was needed.
Down the register Mrs Wood went, rarely making any comments unless you scored something like 29½ out of 30 – ‘what a pity!’ which sounded like a parrot. Or, if you usually got a high mark but told her you’d only got 12 right – ‘what went wrong?’
As Mrs Wood got to reading out the boys names in Samantha Barber’s form class, most of her class was by now attempting desperate measures to stop laughing. I found the most effective ones were biting my forefinger really hard or stuffing my handkerchief in my month.
Richard Willn gave his mark. Then came Samantha’s turn to tell Mrs Wood – and everyone else – how well she’d done.
This was followed by:
‘Samantha, Samantha…?’ is a wavery, questioning voice.
‘I haven’t finished counting yet Miss,’ replied Samantha at last.
Err, ‘hadn’t finished counting.’ This was Set 1 maths, there were usually no more than 30 questions and about 30 pupils had already given Mrs Wood their marks. It wasn’t difficult.
So Mrs Wood came back to Samantha at the end. Of course, Samantha hadn’t finished counting because there was nothing to count – she’d not done her homework. By now 90 per cent of the class was trying not to wet themselves with laughter as they knew the showdown was about to commence and Mrs Wood was going to utter her favourite number.
‘So Samantha, how many did you get?’
‘Err, I didn’t do my homework Miss.’
‘You “didn’t do your homework Miss”!’
Then came a long pause and an audible sigh, while Samantha remained silent.
‘I don’t know how you have the audacity young lady!’
With was always followed by:
‘Samantha Barber – nought’ (with the emphasis on the ‘nought’,).
‘That’s a big, round nought in my book!’
When Mrs Wood first used that phrase, she caught me open-mouthed and asked me why I was ‘staring into space’. I could hardly tell her I was thinking about what other kinds of noughts were there apart from round ones.
And then the final word on Samantha, this time in a plaintive tone: ‘Oh Samantha, what are we going to do with you?’
This strict approach, the parrot-fashion reciting, those dreaded log tables, the banning of calculators and the inclusion of such advanced topics as calculus, meant we all passed our ‘O’ level and most people got ‘A’s. For all the fun at her expense here, it’s obvious Mrs Wood was the best teacher I ever had. I still draw on the fast mental arithmetic skills she taught me – chuckling at the inner voiceover as I go along:
‘The audacity young lady!’