When I was in primary school I struggled.
I had ideas, observed things, thought about them, tried to explain them to myself, and sometimes to others. It wasn’t easy. But I tried.
I went to secondary school. It wasn’t much fun. I liked English though, and was good at woodwork. But English was my favourite because I loved to write. I hated the rest, maths particularly. Well apart from art, I liked art, but I couldn’t do that either.
I got into trouble, often, for winding up my teachers. Not because I was particularly naughty, but because I thought about the things they said, and questioned them, challenging their assertions. For some teachers this WAS being naughty, I’ve since learned.
The fateful day, the one where it all came to an end, was when I submitted my essay on ‘A winter walk’.
I got 27 out of 30 for it. The three marks off I was told were for “things that are not true” and they were underlined in red in the text with a comment that I “should learn from my errors”.
I’d written that I’d seen salmon under the ice in the river I grew up beside. A river in which I had been swimming since childhood, canoed on using home-made canoes, seen in raging spate with trees sailing down it, watched otters playing in, and one year diving deep into a dark rocky pool beneath a waterfall I found a cannonball, rusted and pockmarked, but a cannonball for sure. One exceptionally cold winter day my friend and I cycled on the river for miles on impossibly thick ice and saw salmon swimming beneath the frozen surface. We saw them several times that winter. One day we chased them in delight, sliding on our stomachs, our faces pressed hard against the cold surface watching their chillshimmer far beneath.
The teacher told me I was wrong, that salmon don’t swim under ice. Ever.
I’d written that I’d seen wood pigeons alight on a snow covered branch. In the glen with the river that I grew up beside, where, in its upper recaches I’d watched golden eagles at their eyrie, and could tell them apart from buzzards by their slow stately motion on high, and the shape of their wings. The glen where I’d seen tawny owls ghosting through the last fading glow of day as night stole in, as I walked in the forest returning from a high ridge walk in winter. I saw wood pigeons roosting in the snowy trees that evening too, a plume of snow drifting featherlike from their settling, like some inverted exclamation mark.
The teacher told me I was wrong, that you don’t get wood pigeons in winter. Ever!
I’d written that I’d seen a bow above the moon one winter night. High overhead in the glen where I grew up and had first worked. ‘Work’ was helping the shepherd drive his sheep down the riverbank each weekend for him, and putting them safely through The Big Gate. As I worked I could see red deer wandering on the higher ridges. This was a place I knew through childhood in all it’s moods. And one bitterly cold evening the moon was full at the top of the glen, high and clear, casting my shadow in front of me on the snow as I walked back very late from somewhere wild, and arching over it was a bow, a moonbow. Clear and beautiful, a light bridge across the velvet of that January night.
The teacher told me I was wrong that they are caused by the sun. They are called ‘rainbows’. And you only get them in the daylight, not at night. Never.
I asked my teacher why I’d been marked down for things that were correct, things everyone knew were correct. Things I’d seen with my own eyes.
She would not tell me.
I pressed her.
“Do you think I’m telling lies?”
She avoided the question, instead replied that teachers swap essays for marking so another teacher marked my essay, so she had not marked it.
I asked her to tell me which teacher did the marking so that I could go and speak to the person.
She would not tell me.
I pressed her.
She got angry.
I pressed her some more.
She got angrier.
Finally she got very angry gave me a telling off, wagging her finger at me, and said, “What do you expect, full marks? Do you, well do you? We wont give you full marks, ever. How do you think it will make the other pupils feel? Go and sit down! It’s over.”
I did. I sat down. And I knew. It was over. I didn’t know how the other pupils felt, but I knew how I felt.
I also knew that I’d learned the lesson they had hoped I would. The one about “learning from my errors”.
The grave error I’d made, and never made again, was to believe that all teachers know what they are talking about.
They taught me very successfully to discriminate.
So I did…..
@ieshasmall @JamesTheo @gwenelope @deadshelley for being (mostly!) English teachers, but enlightened ones. And for recently giving me back those three missing marks. It’s forty years later, I’m a bit older, a wee bit wiser, but your encouragement still mattered. Encouragement always matters.)