My Best Teacher
In that curious and confusing way the English sometimes have with their own language a “public” school is in fact “private.”
Fees were paid by the parents of students who were then accorded the privilege of learning ancient Greek and Latin. Students were also taught French and/or German but it was clear the prevailing philosophy was that sending a young man out into the world without fluency in dead languages was a grave mistake.
Some members of the teaching staff, always called Masters, at my public (private) school were crazy old coots who really should not have been allowed out in public without close supervision. No doubt the selection of teachers has improved since my day, but back then the public school system was the repository for many eccentrics who would otherwise have been unemployable except in the clergy or House of Lords.
There were some notable exceptions and Miss Dorothy Ennals was one of the best. She, of course, was called a Mistress, and it was several years before any of the spotty youths in her care would learn there could an interesting other meaning to that title.
Starting a Decade-long Sentence
With fear and trepidation I began my first year at Stamford School, an all-boy seat of learning, in September 1951. I entered Form One, a class of 24 boys about half boarders and half day boys; luckily I was in the latter group. We were all eight years old, in short trousers, blazers, shirts, and ties.
We were greeted on our first day by Miss Ennals, a sturdily constructed woman of mid-30s vintage. Dressed almost exclusively in tweed, she had a stern bearing and brooked no nonsense.
One boy’s idea of fun was to consume sulphur pills and wait for the subsequent noxious release of highly pungent gas; he did not last long in Form 1. But, Miss Ennals was not unkind and she was a terrific teacher.
Teaching of Writing
Back then, I had no idea how much I would owe to Miss Ennals and her drilling into us the correct usage of the English language. It was through her that I learned the elements of grammar, the arcane intricacies of English spelling, sentence construction, punctuation (despite the baying hordes of change I have stubbornly clung onto the serial comma, or Oxford, she was adamant about), how to do a précis, and some elements of style; all very important, because I have spent most of my working life scratching out a living in the writing racket.
(This homage is presented secure in the knowledge that it is filled with grammatical howlers that would have brought down the Ennals wrath – it could be pretty fearsome – and an evening of writing lines; “I must not split an infinitive.”)
The Horrors of the Swimming Pool
It fell to Miss Ennals to teach all of us to swim without actually getting into the water herself. The pool was outdoors and unheated, as befitted the notion of Spartan suffering that English public schools believed built character. The water, exposed only to the weak and fleeting appearance of the Sun during an English spring remained mostly at the same temperature it had when it came out of the tap – frigid.
I remember standing, shivering and teeth chattering, several yards away from edge of the pool. There was a canvas belt around my waist attached to a rope; at the other end of the rope stood Miss Ennals at poolside. The plan was that she would haul me in to give me the sensation of gliding through the water. I spoiled this scheme by grabbing the rope, changing the dynamics of the whole process of sliding along on the surface. I plunged to the bottom of the pool. Fellow students were much amused – evil little reptiles.
Despite her best efforts, Miss Ennals was never able to make a swimmer of me; it has never been anything other than a desperate attempt to stay alive in water – briefly. The problem is mostly that I have the natural buoyancy of a reinforced concrete beam, compounded by a healthy fear of drowning.
Needlework for Boys
A revolutionary idea of Miss Ennals in the days when the roles of the sexes were so clearly defined and largely unchallenged was to teach needlework to eight-year-old boys.
With felt, kapok, and cotton thread all Form I students had to make a stuffed toy. Mine was a fox in jodhpurs and, with a stunning lack of regard for self preservation, I entered it into my local village fête to be judged alongside the best plate of taters, the top clutch of Buff Orpington chickens, and the finest gooseberry fool. Amazingly, my jodhpured fox won first prize of one shilling and a Women’s Own certificate in the children’s needlework contest.
I still have the certificate somewhere but, alas, the shilling was squandered on some of Mr. Cadbury’s fine products, whereas if I’d invested it with one of the country’s more prominent financial institutions it might now be worth as much as a penny.
News of my triumph at the village gala eventually reached the ears of the grizzled old hacks in the newsroom of the area’s weekly newspaper. A writer and photographer were despatched to provide coverage, now doubt expecting to encounter a delicate youth a little light on his feet, if you get my drift.
They arrived at my home at the same time as I did. I was returning from a day in the harvest fields, a willow cudgel over my shoulder, and dangling therefrom (Yes Spellcheck - it is a word) a pair of bloodstained rabbits that I had beaten senseless, my mother no doubt waiting in eager anticipation to skin and gut the unfortunate bunnies; skills the redoubtable Miss Ennals did not impart.
The poor old reporter must have been disappointed - the narrative he was building in his mind totally destroyed – he did his interview and took off. The item was picked up in some of the nationals in their news-in-brief sections under “Man Bites Dog/Boy Wins Sewing Prize” sections.
Miss Ennals also taught us about the wildflowers of England now sadly sacrificed to Prairie farming, liberal applications of Agent Orange, and the annual cow parsley massacre along the verges of rural byways.
She held a competition for the boys bringing wildflowers to class on Monday morning. The world 60 years ago was less cruel; I cannot imagine an eight-year-old boy taking a posy of flowers onto the bus to school today and not getting a lot of stick.
I can now confess that the foxglove I presented one Monday morning was indeed purloined from my mother’s garden not a hedgerow as Miss Ennals suspected. But, I stuck to my story and did not wilt like my foxglove under a withering cross examination. Fortunately, the prize, a copy of The British Book of Wildflowers, went to another so I did not profit from my deceit.
However, despite being armed with the ability to tell the difference between a marsh marigold and rose bay willow herb some years later I still needed a halfpenny short of two shillings for a pint of ale at The Crown and Anchor.
Held Over for Another Year
My year in Form 1 was not a resounding success as, early in my years as a student, I mastered the art of performing to a standard that just kept me out of trouble but did not earn me any accolades. Sadly, I suppose, I became a chronic under-achiever over the decade I spent in that school.
At the end of the summer term I was deemed not yet ready to face the rigours of Miss Celia Edwards and Lower Two. So, I became the holder of a rare distinction; that of spending two years in Miss Ennals’s Form One.
Can’t do that sort of thing now of course. Holding back a little blister who’s not catching on will create a deep psychosis that will lead to a life of low self esteem, failed relationships, serial unemployment, substance abuse, and prison time; although such a person will be creating the perfect resume to hold elected office. Yes, it will.
Totally changed from my era the school is now coeducational in the higher grades; a very good thing.
A few of the notable graduates of Stamford School:
Sir Malcolm Sargent (conductor)
Colin Dexter (author – Inspector Morse)
M.J.K. Smith (England Cricket Captain).
In 1960, I was on an army cadet camp in Scotland and shared a hut for a week with a fellow Stamford School inmate known to us all as Mad Jackson. The two of us were detailed to guard the school armoury, which consisted mainly of World War I-vintage .303 rifles. “Mad” went on to become General Sir Mike Jackson, GCB, CBE, DSO, ADC Gen. Chief of the General Staff, and the head honcho of British forces in Iraq.
My Failing Memory