This post is inspired by last week’s guest blog from young writer Natalie Cherry, who ended with an apology letter to her Year Five Teacher (go and read the post to find out why). This got me thinking about teachers who influenced me during my school years and the first one who came to mind was my English Teacher, Mr Letters. Yes, that really is his name.
Mr Letters was a young teacher (although I didn’t think so at the time), who taught one of my English classes when I was in the second year at school (I think that’s known as year eight now! Showing my age…). With his dark floppy hair and round glasses – slightly too big to be considered ‘hippy’ style but that sort of design, he could have been the subject of many a schoolgirl crush. Perhaps he was. I certainly had a crush of sorts on him but it was more of the ‘wow you’re so clever I wish I was as clever as you’ type crush than the usual infatuation teenage girls (and boys!) tend towards. I saved those crushes for my peers. Anyway, if anyone did have a crush on Mr Letters they would never have admitted it as he was considered too ‘old’ (he was probably about 25!) and too ‘geeky’ to be attractive. So, what was the attraction for me – other than his obvious intelligence? It was passion. So few of my teachers at the time had the same passion for their subject, with two notable exceptions (unfortunately one of these turned out to have a habit of snorting coke between lessons so I’ll leave their names out of this, lest the wrong teacher be accused). They both taught maths though, which was of little interest to me. However, the way Mr Letters wielded his words… It didn’t make me want him, it made me want to be him.
To be honest, despite this idolisation of my former teacher, I only actually have one memory of him that really stands out for me but perhaps it is this memory* that sums him up.
One afternoon, we all sauntered into his class and sat down, waiting for the lesson to begin. Mr Letters waited until everyone stopped talking (proving, as Natalie recently pointed out, that it’s not necessary to shout to get a class to pay attention) and then, with a flick of his hair and a flourish of his hand, he began to speak:
“`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
As he recited the Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, I was entranced. I had no idea what these nonsense words were supposed to mean but under his command, they came to life. I saw the wabe, with it’s slithy toves gimbling, and felt the outgrabe of the mome raths. I have no idea what the rest of the class thought as they faded into the background. I expect some of them continued to pass notes and poke the girls/boys they fancied with pencils as I lost myself in Mr Letters (well, Lewis Carroll’s) words. I once again entertained by secret dream of being a writer, of creating words like this for another teacher to bring to life. Curious now, with hindsight, that it didn’t make me want to be a teacher… Like Natalie, I guess I must have known.
I thought of Mr Letters again years later, the first time I stepped on a stage and wielded my own words at a poetry open mic night and wondered whether I would be able to pull the audience in the way he did me. I still think of him now, especially when I hear any kind of nonsense poem. That day, Mr Letters’ homework for the class was simply to memorise the Jabberwocky ahead of the next lesson. I say ‘simply,’ because for me, he had already given the poem meaning so all I did was play a movie of each stanza in my head and I could easily recall the words. I’m lucky to have a pretty good visual memory, I know this method doesn’t work for everyone. I enjoyed this ‘easy’ assignment. I did, however, wonder at the point of the homework. Memorise a poem? For what purpose? Well, I will end with a short letter to Mr Letters, with apologies to Natalie for stealing her style…
Dear Mr Letters,
I get it now. The purpose was for us to give the words meaning, that we would remember them and understand both the power of words, and the importance of their delivery.
Thank you for sharing your passion, and igniting mine. I hope you continue to do the same for all the future writers who cross your path.