I was making notes for potential blog posts based on childhood memories and memories of my own children when they were younger, and my memory threw this one back at me…
Some 30+ years ago at school, I was not a great English Literature A level student.
Had I studied English Language A Level, as my daughter Natasha is doing now, I may well have done better than my lowly E grade in Literature. Nuances of language, analysis of accents and other things on the Language A Level syllabus would have been far more interesting and would have provided a bigger intellectual hook to teenage me, than attempting to absorb, appreciate and analyse great works of literature ever did. Aside from robbing me of some university choice options, due to not getting a better grade alongside the far more respectable ones I got in other subjects, the only thing it did for me was to leave me with a lifelong hatred of Chaucer in middle English, John Dunne and metaphysical poetry.
Despite what I said above, I have always loved reading. Aged 17-18 at school however, I simply wasn’t intellectually mature enough to overcome dislike of a work to sufficiently articulate my thoughts into discussion thereon. One teacher, Mr Chris Rowe, once referred to me as a “cultural desert” whilst trying to coax articulate critique from me in response to a set text I’d expressed dislike for. I’d say I could probably make quite a decent job of literature A level nowadays, but back to 6th form me however, and the title of this blog post…
I recall one homework assignment, where my classmates and I were given a couple of sample extracts of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the assignment being to simply write a piece in response to something from the Milton. Being at the time devoid of much original creative thought, and probably thinking no further than my next rugby game or Saturday night at a pub, I vaguely recall wondering what the hell I was going to do. As I read one of the pieces however (from Paradise Regained) my eyes alighted on one phrase: “Brood of folly, without father bred”.
My parents divorced around the time of my 11th birthday, shortly after which my mother, sister and I returned to the UK from South Africa where we’d lived for a while. When my dad returned to the UK a little over a year after we had, I became a bone of contention between him and my mother (i.e. him wanting to see me and her initially refusing to countenance it). Fast forward a few years, via finally being allowed to see him, several teenage faux-pas and scrapes with parental / educational authority (and associated emotional turmoil) along the way, and there I was aged 18, looking at this extract of a piece from John Milton. “Brood of folly without father bred”.
Despite the tenuous nature of the link (i.e. how the words, in context of the piece around them, related to what I started to write), I started to write nonetheless. After all, I was fulfilling the brief of writing in response to one of the pieces or a part thereof! Now, as semi-eidetic as my memory is, whilst I recall with clarity the words I responded to, the occasion, and the teacher’s response (more on that later), I don’t recall the exact content of what I wrote. It was however a mix of “angry young man”, regret for many of my actions and attitudes, and theories on the effect of the sporadic nature of paternal influence and / or guidance in my teenage years. No doubt there was a (un)healthy dose of wondering what would have been different had my parents not divorced, alongside an element of envy towards most contemporaries of mine and their nuclear families as well. However, as I said, I was responding to the brief; I read, words came!
A short while later, my classmates and I were anticipating the return of our submitted pieces and the marks we’d receive. It was usually the case that an essay question on one of the books on the syllabus would merit discussion in advance of receiving the (marked) work back along the lines of “I don’t think I remembered to write X” or “I reckon I did quite well because…”. The anticipation and discussion in advance of receiving this work back was clearly different due to the nature of the piece however. When the teacher, the aforementioned Mr Rowe (a very ruddy-faced intellectual fellow) handed the work back, in place of a mark or grade there was a simple sentence in his handwriting at the bottom of the page:
“It would be insensitive of me to mark this.”
These days, I recognise much of what Mr Rowe tried to instil in us all those years ago in my approach to and love of literature and cultural things. Sitting in that classroom for the portion of the syllabus taught by Mr Rowe, there was a certain intellectual richness or je ne sais quoi about the prevailing class discussions over the two years of the course, compared to the portion taught by others. As we’d filed out at the end of that lesson after receiving the work responding to the Milton piece back, he caught my eye and motioned for me to hang back for a moment. When all others had left, he simply looked me in the eye and said thank you, and offered himself as a listening post should I ever require it. In the context of our usual student – teacher relationship (with which normal service was soon resumed!), coupled with what he’d written, high praise indeed…
Chris Rowe passed away after a happy retirement in August 2015. On the school alumni Facebook page, and amongst the many acknowledgments that he was a great teacher who would be missed (my own included), an erstwhile classmate and friend wrote this of him:
“…hospitality was definitely an integral part of Chris Rowe’s approach to teaching – and in a way it sums him up. I always felt he saw his job as turning out well prepared young men, not just English scholars. I maintained correspondence with him for years, and I know he never grasped how well thought of he was by the vast majority of his students. Very humble for such a larger than life character.”James Heming, August 2015