One of the new challenges of high school at Roundhay School was Chemistry. The thought of laboratories for a boy just leaving primary school was one of wonder and excitement. It was in such places that strange concoctions were created and experiments carried out, and I looked forward to my first lesson in the lab.
The chemistry labs were old and were furnished with large, solid benches that filled the room in rows. Each bench had sinks with tall thin taps that arched like upside down umbrella handles, rectangular porcelain sinks and gas taps. The wood appeared to be old dark mahogany and was scarred with evidence of a long history of careless boys’ experiments. There was at least one fume cupboard, but I don’t remember ever using one during my time studying chemistry. The lab had a distinctive smell, a mixture of gas and other chemicals and solvents. There were tall stools arranged around the benches and we had to wait outside in a line on our first lesson and were then allowed in, directed to take a seat. The floor was bare boards that were uneven due to a history of wearing by shuffling feet and scraping stool legs.
We took our places and waited to be addressed by the teacher. The first lesson consisted of our learning how to use a Bunsen burner, connecting them to the gas, sitting them on the asbestos boards, and positioning the tripods and gauze and then lighting them. We were then shown how to control the flame by turning the collar and the flame changed from a dancing yellow to the noisy blue spear with a cone of blue at the top of the burner. This excitement soon ended and we spent the rest of the lesson copying notes and drawing a scientific diagram.
Health and safety were very different in those days and the asbestos boards were old and fibres were clearly peeling away, but we all used them. Another practice that is now long banished was the mercury that we had in Petri dishes, spilled onto the bench tops and pushed about in balls of mirror clear metal. Apparently the tales of milliners going mad (Mad Hatters) and lighthouse keepers going insane and throwing themselves off the lighthouses were due to the poisonous vapours of mercury. Both professions came into regular contact with liquid mercury and maybe that explains some of the antics that I describe below.
Now the calibre of teacher at Roundhay was quite marked and there those who had authority, charisma and were basically good teachers and there were those who were none of the above. Some made up for their lack of talent in pedagogy with a sadistic nature and no hesitation to use physical punishment, but some were just out of their depth. Student teachers or early career teachers were no match for the clever and moral lacking students who made up the lower classes at Roundhay. I have tales of cunning and ingenuity that the boys inflicted, without mercy, upon some teachers whose only crime was lacking in experience and I will recount one now to illustrate the point. Probably the hardest lessons to teach to an unruly bunch were the sciences, due to their practical nature and potentially dangerous materials and equipment.
A new chemistry teacher arrived to take us in our second or possibly third year and his name was Mr H. He arrived at his first lesson like a lamb to the slaughter, wide eyed, bushy tailed and we salivated with the knowledge of how we would torment him. Why would we do so, you may well ask? I suppose because we could and there was something in the sport of making teachers suffer. I guess it was payback for how some of the masters victimised us. The point was that he arrived and made the fatal error of showing a sign of weakness. That was all we needed and then it was game on. He tried to be friendly and all he got in return was rudeness, surly and disrespectful responses from the boys in the class. Of course it was not all of the class, but sufficient to make his lessons excruciatingly embarrassing to sit through. He was a typical teacher at the time: tweed jacket, baggy trousers, tie and checked shirt and he would wear a white lab coat. I know he carried a brief case, the reason to tell you this will be revealed shortly, and to make matters worse he had a strange voice. It was a little quiet and had either a Yorkshire or possibly Lancashire accent. This was an added bonus that allowed us to quickly mimic his voice and we would use it when we were speaking to him or asking questions.
His lessons were a shambles and he would often send boys out to stand in the corridor. The problem with this was that other Science teachers, such as D.H. might catch you and he was merciless. Boys could be returned to the lessons from outside and a stern warning was issued to the class about what would happen to the next boy sent out that he caught. It was also a clear reprimand to Mr H that sending children out of lessons was not the ‘done’ thing. This had the desired effect, but only for the remainder of the lessons. Matters got worse as Term One progressed. It reached the point that when the lab was the scene of Bunsen burners on full bore and smells and gases filling the lab that we even dared to smoke at the back. Mr H’s nemesis was one class member, John S. Now John seemed to take a particular delight in winding the poor teacher up, and he developed a knack of fainting to order during Mr H’s lessons. Picture the scene. The lab was full. Bunsen burners were ablaze. Hot liquids were everywhere and Mr H was trying his best to get the class to follow instructions and to listen to him. Just as the teacher was just about as stressed as he could possibly be, John would appear to faint. He was sitting on the stool with his legs through the bars when suddenly he would fall straight backwards and hang upside down apparently unconscious. Poor Mr H almost lost his mind and shot over to help the boy, asking those seated next to him what had happened. John was pulled upright and miraculously regained consciousness. He was excused from the lesson and sent to get some fresh air. I seem to remember this happening more than once and the effect was always the same.
Poor Mr H began to disintegrate before our eyes as the term progressed. It was like a scene from Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. The man began to unravel as we cruelly picked him apart. The problem was that it was just so easy. I am telling you this tale with no sense of pride. As a teacher of forty years’ experience I know how hard some classes can be, and how you can literally dread them all week before you have to take them. Having said this, I have seen classes that made ours at Roundhay look like kindergarten in comparison and the outcome more severe for the teacher concerned.
The final straw came on one late morning when Mr H made the fateful mistake of leaving his open briefcase on the teacher’s desk in front of the class. He had his back to us all as he wrote notes on the board. For some reason his lessons had become much less practical and much more chalk and talk. I guess he thought that we could get up to less mischief, but how wrong he was!
John S, I believe it was him again and I know he reads some of these blogs so he may confirm it, sneaked up to the briefcase and started looking at what was in there. He slipped out a letter and scurried back to his place. He opened the letter and read it surreptitiously. His eyes opened wide and within a few minutes he returned it, but then began to quote from the letter. Apparently it was from Mr H’s fiancée, Flo, and they must have gone away for the weekend. She was very effusive about what a lovely time she had had.
My latest Christmas single, to get you in a festive mood.
The quotes were just audible and Mr H finally caught wind of them and turned a very bright red. He snatched his briefcase off the desk, checked to see if the letter was missing and then just carried on writing the notes. The rest of the lesson was agony, but somehow the poor man saw it to the end. It must have been a tremendous relief when he could send us all out.
Whatever else I could say about Mr H, he gets full marks for perseverance as he saw out his first year and others afterwards, and I am sure became an accomplished, if permanently scarred, teacher. When I was a new teacher I also suffered some very difficult classes, but never as badly as some of the newly qualified teachers at Roundhay School did. The worst thing is that Mr H did not suffer the most. That award probably went to Gobbler, but that tale will have to wait for another time.
Below you will find parts 1 to 9 of my audiobook, Blaze. It is free to listen to on the Soundcloud player and a new part is added each week.