BY PETER KRANZ
I STARTED TEACHING after Enoch Powell’s divisive speech, during the rise of the skinheads and at a time of still blatant and overt racism.
I was a new graduate from teachers’ school and accepted the only job offer I had – to teach at a multi-ethnic high school in London.
It wasn’t a particularly bad area and had a fair mix of students. But the school did segregate by performance: three grades for each form – A, B and C – the A’s being the best, the C’s the worst.
I was given the job of teaching English to form 4C (the worst performing 14-15 year olds). The class was 90% kids of black Caribbean origin, who had of course grown up in England.
I met many of their folks on ‘parent evening’ and understood they wanted the best for their kids, but knew they were up against the odds. They were sympathetic and helpful and hopeful that I could make a difference for their kids.
I quickly realised I was in for a hiding, and the only way was to try and get through to the kids. So I did a quick immersion course in black culture and tried to make my classes as relevant as possible.
We had to study some Shakespeare, so I chose Othello – and took my class to see a performance at Stratford. I illustrated it with comments from their experiences of prejudice against black people – and we found a contemporary-English version to read side-by-side with the original so we could talk about how language had changed.
For literature I chose amongst other books To Kill a Mockingbird and managed to hire the Gregory Peck film to show. We discussed it at length in class.
Then I thought we’d explore black music lyrics, and we had some lessons on Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix etc. This brought the ire of the school authorities down on me – as the music was too loud.
The school received a complaint from a white boy’s parents that I was teaching “too much black-stuff” but too their credit the school supported me.
Then came the social events. We had an annual cricket match – school versus parents. I happened to know that a father of one of my black students has tested for the West Indies team as a fast bowler, so encouraged him to join. The parents thrashed the teachers – largely because my ringer bowled out seven of them!
Then came the end-of-school picnic day out. I realised at the last minute that no-one had made an outing affordable or interesting to my students, so none was going. So I hired a mini-bus and said we’ll have a day at Clacton – it’ll only cost five pounds – ask your parents! You can do what you like! Fun-fairs, peep-shows, parades, circus etc – like a day at the Show.
They all came and we had a great time.
That was my last year there. On leaving, my 4C kids saved up between them and gave me a present. It was a lovely silver pen inscribed with the words “To Sir With Love”.
I still have it.
Ten years later I was walking though Wembley when I heard a cry from a construction site. It was a 25-year old black building labourer yelling out, “Sir!, Sir!”. He ran up to me and said – “Hey I’m Ivan – I was one of your students in 4C at high school, remember me?” Yes I did. He was one of the worst. But he had remembered.
He said “I’ll never forget what you did for us kids. Thank you”
That one small moment crystallised all that can be good about teaching.
Young Ivan wanted to learn to drive, but his family didn’t have a car, so I taught him after school in mine (an old Anglia). He managed to crash it into a lamp post and felt so sorry he saved up and gave me 10 pounds for the repairs.
His parents invited me around for dinner to say sorry.
The other teachers called him “Ivan the Terrible”, but I liked him.
When I left that school I asked the Head for a reference. He wrote “one of his faults as a teacher is that he feels too sympathetic for his students.”
I was rather proud of that.
Closest I’ve got to that feeling is teaching in PNG – but that’s another story.