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News > RGS Alumni News > English lessons

English lessons

Getting it Write
27 Sep 2021
Written by Nev Johnson
RGS Alumni News
Nev Johnson (1958-63)
Nev Johnson (1958-63)

A lasting and definitive memory of lessons at WRGS between 1958-1963 were those relating to English. On admission to the school in the autumn of 1958 I was very much the lowest of the low - "streamed" to Form 1C, and housed in a dungeon below ground in the Main School Building. Our only sign of life above was obtained by standing on a desk and catching a glimpse of the grass almost 2 metres above -leading to a wooden shack which alleged to be the Music Room.

Our form master was a kindly, elderly gent called Mr FC Holland, who taught us English (Lang). This tuition was basic but very sound, and provided a grounding which lasted throughout school and well beyond. Some of my form mates with an interest in philately succeeded in that traditional practice of "Getting the Master off the Subject" by raising the topic of stamp collecting, as Mr Holland was a renowned philatelist. By the end of the first year I had acquired an appreciation of the English language, a life-time loathing of poetry (daffodils and hills retain no charm for me), and dear old Mr Holland had very occasionally learned to remember my name. In the meantime, I drew even more benefit of the intricate nature of English grammar via our first lessons in Latin and French.

The following year I found myself in 2B, in a form classroom affording real daylight. English was taught by "Jake" - under his alias of Mr FG Illingworth - more of this Master of the Language later. 3A was formative in many ways, including the tuition of English by one E Billingham, whom we quickly found had his favourites, from which initially I was excluded. One's ability seemed to be ignored and as a consequence his classes frequently fell into totally chaos, and very little education was obtained. At this stage a certain unconscious deviousness in my character (of which I am NOT proud) emerged.

We were given the task of writing an essay on "Laughter". Rather than sticking to the usual description of the subject (its biology, causes etc), I focused on the often cruel nature of laughter. To my astonishment - mirrored by that of my classmates - "Bill" was impressed and gave me top marks, and thereafter, whatever rubbish I produced, I found myself in the echelon of his "favourites". On reflection, I realise that I had stumbled on one his vulnerabilities - he was clearly upset by the lack of respect we paid towards him, which was often reflected in our jocularity and unkind laughter. Sadly, again with hindsight, the remedy had always been in his own hands - self-analysis would have helped him to understand why he consistently failed to carry the class with him, and make appropriate changes, such as the recognition of individual qualities of the boys and avoiding the temptation to have favourites.

Form 4A remains a bit of a blur, as other matters affecting 14 year-olds often intruded on academic work, but grammatical progress was enhanced by continued Latin taught by our kind and understanding Form Master, "Dinky" Protheroe, and German studies administered by "Sid" alias Eric Orton - by far my favourite subject. The strict division of gender has never been so professionally taught - in every respect !!

Then came my final year at WRGS, 5 Arts A, where English classes were again led by Jake. I fear that my fulsome appreciation of the teaching qualities and terrific personality of this genius of the English language was not shared by the Beak and certain other members of the Masters' Common Room. Other Masters had their own means of instilling respect and knowledge of their subjects in our minds - "Pop" Wright's ability to part my hair with the accuracy of his thrown board duster undoubtedly helped me scrape a Maths O Level (nobody else could have done it: "5 minutes, 5 marks Johnson !"), and slipperings governed by "Chunky" Robertson certainly improved my knowledge of the Angevin Kings of England.

But the enduring love and respect I have for the English language in all its forms stems directly from Jake. He made the subject interesting, infused with an extremely dry sense of humour and delivery, which thus made the subject highly relevant. He would specialise in examining its foibles: "Books of all shapes and sizes Boy? Whenever have you seen a book the shape of a cow or the size of a ship ??". The correct uses of "whose", "whom" etc, and the art of precis, which has had a lifetime of benefits in all my various careers. (Apologies if the reader finds this quality lacking in this particular piece of prose). Jake also helped me appreciate the huge variety and quality of English Literature - from "Romeo and Juliet" to "Larkrise to Candleford". And last but by no means least, Jake's classes were FUN.

No other master could redress the tedium of tests by making legions of cardboard tanks along his desk from empty Woodbine packets, and improve the stale atmosphere of the classroom with the aroma of the beer Jake had consumed during his "lunch" break at the nearby "Talbot Arms".  All that I can say is that it's thanks to Jake, and many of his other teaching contemporaries, that I find myself in the wonderful position of being able to pay this tribute to their efforts. All mistakes, in grammar or spelling, in this reminiscence are entirely down to my own faults and inability to use Spellcheck ...





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