Growing up in the chill of the neo-arctic of the sixties and the flared years of the seventies exposed me to much more than frostbite. Infant schools and junior schools became oceans of optimism for those who were done with world wars, post-war rationing and elitist governments. By the end of the sixties even the West Riding, with its shoddy and mungo, was not able to hold back the twentieth century. While men were landing on the moon, we had our first taste of empire with a teacher arriving from Ghana to tell us about cocoa and the Volta Dam Project. A black man in a village where the only previous black faces belonged to colliers coming up from the pits. It was a closed community with more than its fare share of violence, domestic and communal.
Thornhill, as the village is called, was at the top of a hill overlooking Dewsbury. My village had the pits whereas Dewsbury had the mills and factories. We, the alumni of the parish, were destined for either one or the other. Everything we did was done with the implicit acceptance that we would probably grow up, find work, marry, have kids, have grand kids, retire and die there. So why oh why did they bring a black man all the way from Africa to teach us?
I don’t believe that this guy ever had a lesson plan. He never had to raise his voice. And was never the brunt of any blunt xenophobia. He was a teacher and we listened to him. And once his accent fitted into our ears, we learnt. We probably learnt about lots of things but uppermost in my memory was the work we did on cocoa production, chocolate making and the Volta Dam. After over four and a half decades, that’s not a bad return for those few hours of instruction. How long do the children who we teach today retain their knowledge? How many lessons can survive the stride of time and be as effective as that?
The outcome of those lessons was far more enriching than mere facts and information. From my position of teaching in the first part of the twenty-first century, I look back to that teacher who had the courage to travel to such an industrial backwater, into a climate that could have not have been any more hostile, and a world that had still not fully appreciated that darkness was not a curse.
I think I owe a debt of gratitude to my junior school teachers who managed to teach me the attributes of respect and kindness. Most of our lessons were suffused with a Christian-Socialism. They were missionaries posted to the deepest reaches of West Yorkshire, their aim was to bring light. So, there was I at the start of this period of enlightenment. Although not all teachers were predisposed to the task of illumination (some were still cosily trapped in the remnants of the Victorian era that had stretched out until it was rudely interrupted by Hitler and the Second World War). Many of the new ones, however, were new to the role. Regardless of age, they had bought into the prevailing zeitgeist and were intent upon shaking up their social order.
With the Cold War whispering around us and the explosion of sirens in the middle of the night, many of us were aware that it was probably now or never. Any moment, we were sure, could bring about the end. I suppose that is why people were less shackled by tradition; when the bombs landed that would be that and the old world would be stuffed. The upshot was that we were taught to think, to question and to disagree. This was not instruction to a class of mutes but a long running debate or quest. These people, who were teaching us, also needed to find the answers.