About two years ago, I was supposed to write a letter, and I never did. But a recent conversation made me wish I had, all over again.
My former secondary school has somehow ended up with me on their alumni mailing list (actually, all-girls school, alumnae mailing list..?) and mostly it all just breezes past me. It’s not like I hated school – at least that school. I’m just not… I don’t have nostalgia for it (not like I have nostalgia for my undergraduate years, oh my). But this one particular email announced that one of my former teachers was retiring.
Everyone has that teacher – or several of those teachers – the ones who actually taught you stuff that really stuck, and not just the knowledge-stuff. The stuff about . how to think and how to be, y’know, a you that might actually be an interesting, decent individual. I have a succession of them: the primary school headteacher who quite happily let me explore around the edges of the subject without complaining that I’d not only done exactly the work that was set; the English teacher who got us to learn chunks of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and told us to watch Middlemarch; the history teachers who actually made the subject something engaging and enjoyable and important to me that kept me studying it through GCSE and after; the university professors who gave amazing lectures, sucking me into the black hole of ancient history and then getting me through my PhD just about intact.
And then this one – who was my English teacher through GSCE and A-level, and who got me reading more widely than 15-year old me ever thought was possible within the bounds of ‘good literature’ and who probably ought to take a lot of credit for the fact I really engage in and with any literary and cultural criticism at all. And as an added bonus, he completely baffled my mother, who could never work out – at staff-parent evenings – whether he was talking to my parents or to me in reviewing my progress. And now I love that he took the effort to get us to think about our progress, rather than just talking over our heads to our parents.
For every set text (Romeo and Juliet, I’m the King of the Castle, Roger McGough, The Tempest, The Great Gatsby, Sylvia Plath, The Handmaid’s Tale, Mrs Warren’s Profession) there was a list of things thrown out to read around it. Some of it I’ve still not read (Hemingway, I’m sorry, I really will get to you one day, I promise). Some of it still baffles me (I cannot for the life of me remember what Interview with a Vampire was background reading for). But it was basically designed to give us a bit of breadth and get us out of our literary boxes. And as someone who went from classic children’s literature (Blyton, Ransome, Streatfield) to the classics (Bronte, Dickens, Austen) around the age of about ten, completely skipped ‘young adult’ and rarely venturing into the twentieth century – except to be utterly baffled by Brighton Rock at about 11 (love it now) and loathe Catcher in the Rye aged 12 (still loathe it), it was exactly what I needed.
There was creative writing, and random cultural criticism flung into the mix – he got us to storyboard adverts, spin-off short stories from poems, and we got to discuss the Simpsons and whether the ending of Seven worked or not (despite the fact that, at 16 and 17, we weren’t suppposed to have seen Seven…) He taught so well that, while I may not still have come around to Sylvia Plath, I cannot imagine not having a copy of Gatsby nearby to flick through, or me-being-me without having read the complete (non-poetical) works of Margaret Atwood.
This isn’t to dismis anyone else’s reading, but when I suddenly realised, mid-conversation, a week or so ago, that I’d not read anything that would live in the standard ‘fiction’ (lit fic) section of the bookshop since I read Murakami’s IQ84 at Christmas (I read Edwin Drood at New Year, but Dickens lives in the classics in shops…) I had to stop for a moment and blame him. And be really very grateful. He may not have introduced me to all the authors and genres I read in now – but without four years of his teaching, I’d never be as open to some of the things that other people have suggested to me over the years.
So, Mr Fee, thank you – for giving me bizarre reading list suggestions, safe in the knowledge that my over-invested and loving parents would buy the things a teacher suggested, for lending me Beach Boys CDs and helping me get into the university I really wanted to go to – and for being very possibly the best teacher I ever had. And I’m sorry I never got around to writing this to you properly when you retired. I hope you’re enjoying life without the traumas of teaching teenage girls.