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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 8 - Lure of journalistic lucre blotted out teaching’s celestial light

YOU may not believe that not only was there a time when meadow, grove and stream, the earth and every common sight, to me did seem apparelled in celestial light, but also that I had ambitions to become a teacher.

In my visionary gleam, the school, an ancient, ivy-covered enclave of enlightenment, would resemble those in boys’ magazines from the 1920s to the 1950s, its pupils the human equivalents of the best of breed winners at Crufts, its teachers either barking mad, as discipline-insisting as Prussian Guard NCOs or, like myself, quiet, purposeful and academically impeccable.

As in vacant or in pensive mood, I would pace the quadrangle, wearing gown and mortar board headgear; boys would doff their caps respectfully and receive my curt but kindly nod. In the school chapel, the choir would sing battle hymns of the empire and in the bat-haunted eyrie of the headmaster’s room, the few malcontents and ne’er-do-wells who flouted the rules of civilised academic behaviour would get condign punishment of a stern but just nature.

Alas, it was not to be. The lure of journalistic lucre was too strong.

The vision briefly flickered the other night when I watched BBC2’s Scotland on Film, in which ancient Scots recounted their schooldays, and images were shown of children sitting to attention without any suggestions that their teachers might be knocked insensible in the surge and thunder of the class struggle.

These were the times of the Lochgelly tawse when its use felled classroom indiscipline as if by mace. The programme’s participants revealed, mainly in jocular fashion, as ones who had been to Hell and back and were none the worse for their experience, how some of their mentors would, for a particularly heinous offence, such as cheek or dumb insolence, get the culprit to place one hand on top of another so that the belt’s short, sharp shock would be intensified. I got the double-handed treatment for a re-fusal to remain conscious during algebra.

Scottish education made me realise that school days, dear old golden rule days, often meant that the rule was used to clip you across the head to remind you of the date of the impeachment of Warren Hastings and that, for other scholastic misdemeanours, there were not just the belt and backhand but also the shake, slap and push that could come to shove.

Schools, from experiences of my ducking and weaving peer group, were places of flailing tawses, flying pieces of chalk and, in secondary schools, the occasional science jotter or Bunsen burner fired across pupils’ bows as a warning to heave-to and concentrate their reluctant minds on, say, Lavoisier’s gaseous, even nauseous experiments.

There were teachers who used the belt with the subtlety of a steam hammer and others, like my superbly-sculpted, female art teacher with delicate skin tones, who could unroll it onto the open palm with the accuracy of a chameleon’s tongue.

And the teachers themselves? Sometimes grim, gaunt and even ghoulish, the men often in austere suits as tightly-wrapped as rolled umbrellas and the women, diffusing an air suggestive of Lysol, clad in garb, battleship-grey or tints of autumnal mellow fruitfulness, with both sexes given to outburst like, "Larking about, Morris? I will not have larking in the classroom. Go to the headmaster and ask him to beat you within an inch of your life - and remember to say ‘please’."

It was excellent preparation for Army conscripts, like myself, who thought military life a disciplined stroll compared with scholastic assault courses.

Generally, my teachers were dedicated, often highly-talented and humorous, who strove to drill education into the resisting permafrost of pupils’ intellects. When they occasionally used the belt, I have to admit, grudgingly, that it worked; discipline being instantly restored and the class allowed to concentrate on their tasks.

It was these teachers I admired. "The members," wrote the author, Ian Hay, "of the most responsible, the least advertised, the worst paid and the most richly-rewarded profession in the world."

In my scholastic days, corporal punishment was often too freely delivered and an atmosphere of fear could overcome enthusiasm for learning. Nowadays, it is teachers who fear aggression - from pupils and parents.

I am glad I saw what might have been the celestial light and chose journalism; in Britain it’s safer.

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