I love it when people talk about their favourite teachers.
Teaching is one of the most noble professions. Guiding and shaping people and facilitating their education, helping them fulfill their potential, broaden their horizons and unlock the mysteries of the world.
A big shitball of cliches there. I think maybe everyone has that ONE teacher who did all of that for them, but the rest were a bunch of oddballs and incompetents.
I think my great teacher was a bloke called Peter Pold. He was no Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society. He was a disillusioned old punk who’d seemed to have found himself a decade-and-a-half after the fact washed ashore with a family and a mortgage and a job in a suburban shithole school. He was one of three art teachers at my Upper school and was pretty obviously the outcast. He certainly was the first person to open my eyes to the concept of art neither being a fusty old classical subject or an exercise in technical proficiency. The kids who were the best at drawing and had praise heaped on them by the other art teachers were the ones who copped the most flack from Pold. I remember him leaning over a student who was doing a really good pencil drawing of a building from a photo and mocking ‘Oh, isn’t it nice? Isn’t it lovely? Isn’t it nice? The human photocopier!’ and walking off unimpressed. Pold had no time for technical excellence and even less time for kids who didn’t care.
He encouraged me in my film-making and allowed me to use video equipment to produce a lot of my submissions. He wasn’t a film-maker but he taught me that the brilliant thing about the equipment was not just it’s ability to capture but to present. He once challenged me to use film to make a 2p piece appear dramatic. He was teaching me to find the best camera angle and to think about composition. He was ace. Never gave compliments to anyone. If you were doing good work, he would treat you with respect and talk to you as an equal about it. If you weren’t, he’d disparage or ignore. I’m sure for some in the class he was excruciating or cruel – he was a jester who didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he instilled in me a certain cultural elitism that has always served me well. The notion that anything could be art as long as there was a level of thought behind it. He sent me and my friend Lucy off to some crazy modern art exhibition in South London which featured an inflatable sheep having a huge dildo rammed up it’s bum by a pneumatic pump once every three minutes. On my last day of school, I tracked him down to say goodbye and he shook my hand (nobody used to shake your hand when I was a teenager) and very seriously said ‘I’m glad you’re going to film school. It’s the right choice. You’ll do well’
This is in stark contrast to my second-least-favourite teacher ever. This guy was around at the same time as Pold. I won’t name him but he was my form tutor and I thought he was an arse. He was a science teacher and gave off a kind of strange vibe of lazy contempt for most of the students. Like if he could be bothered to engage with us fully, he knew he wouldn’t really like us. He was kind of oafish too. Myself and some friends agreed that he didn’t even engender from us the basic respect that we would pay any adult in general because he didn’t seem to treat us with much respect. One of my greatest memories of him was watching him storm across the room and pick the cheeky kid up by the throat and slam him into a wall. The kid didn’t deserve it. It was unprofessional and dangerous and, I felt at the time, an indication of a weak and petty man who couldn’t control his patience. The over-riding memory I have of him, though, is him sitting me down and telling me that it was time to put aside any notion of a career as a film-maker. He essentially told me that I not only had no chance of such a career but that I was also making a fool of myself by trying. My parents were already taking me to film school open days when I was about 14 to see if I’d really like it. I have no doubt that I was precocious and arrogant then but his personal attempt to derail my ambition blew my mind. He suggested I train to become a cinema manager instead. I hated him for that. My mum was pretty angry too.
About a year ago, I saw him in a pub, lounging against the bar alone. I got a sudden rush of indignation and really had to work hard to fight the impulse to storm over to him and tell him he was a dick and he’d been wrong and that I not only was making a living as a film-maker but my life had been constantly enriched by the experiences I’d had in that pursuit. I didn’t bother, of course. What would have been the point?
He died this week. I was really surprised to hear that. It turns out he was only 46, which means that he would have been under thirty when he was my form tutor. Significantly younger than I am now. On Facebook, my schoolmates expressed sadness along the general lines that he was a ‘good bloke’ and had bought them beers when they’d seen him in the pub as sixth-formers. I felt bad that he’d died so tragically young but wasn’t likely to revise my opinion on the man. Until I read the the Facebook page of condolence today. Within a day, it had collected over 400 comments, not only were they uniformly praising but some of them were really touching. People relating personal experiences where this man had helped them out, inspired or supported them. The sheer volume of these heartfelt stories was impressive and obviously outweighed my personal gripes with the man.
It made me incredibly glad that I hadn’t confronted him in that pub. I guess as a teenager I’d very much seen the world in black and white and in the intervening years had never had to change or examine my opinions so just relied on them. Maybe I’d judged him wrong. Maybe I’d been right but hadn’t stopped to think that he had been an inexperienced 27 year old working in easily the toughest and most problematic shithole of a school in the county. Maybe the fact he’d bothered to try and advise me of the potential pitfalls of my chosen future was the sign of actually quite a decent man. So, RIP Mr Nicholls, you clearly made a positive impact in your short time.
As for my actual least favourite teacher, though? What a cow.