‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Labs and all Manner of Magic, Misery and Mayhem. What Must have been the Worst job for a New Teacher, Chemistry with Boys with only one Aim, to Make Your Life Hell!

David’s Bookshelf Issue 2 Cup of Tea Tales

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://davidmcameronauthormusician.com/2022/10/02/davids-bookshelf-issue-2/ — Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/david-m-cameron/message
  1. David’s Bookshelf Issue 2
  2. David’s Bookshelf – Issue One
  3. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A Lifetime of Global Successes, Disasters and Wonders! Space the Final Frontier.
  4. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Hetchell Woods (Bardsey) and Crags – A Special Piece of God’s Own Country or County! One of my Favourite Places to Visit.
  5. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – The Wonderful Yorkshire Dales. Trollers Gill, a Place with a Mysterious Legend and the Hell Hole where I Diced with Death.

I was thinking about High School and what was particularly different to Primary School, and a number of things swirled through my mind. The first big difference was that for most lessons we had to move to different classrooms, labs or workshops, whereas at Harehills County Primary we basically had one teacher, one room and only moved for assemblies, sport, physical education, swimming lessons and for school dinners. At Roundhay, it was a constant movement of large numbers of students between lessons and, as a result, a lot of time was wasted. At first, it took some getting used to. It was easy to get lost, and arriving late was often the subject of the scorn or sarcasm of the teachers. One often used ‘put down’ was when a boy asked ‘Can I go to the toilet?’ A teacher would often use this to humiliate the unsuspecting boy, by saying, ‘Of course, you can go to the toilet, but you may not!’ The difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’ was lost on most, but some, particularly the teacher, thought this was a merry wheeze.

Not originally being a school, Roundhay had an interesting campus, with a converted mansion, stables and other buildings adding to the main purpose-built school. One example of this was the Biology lab. This was in a long old building along the ginnel boundary and it was everything a boy, newly moved from primary school, could wish for. It smelt of strange chemicals and along its walls were shelves full of strange preserved samples in glass jars. There were calf foetuses, newts, frogs, and a myriad of other exotic creatures, much like one read about in tales of magic, or nowadays, the Harry Potter stories. There was also a collection of stuffed animals, cow skulls and assorted bones.

In one of our early lessons, we dissected grasshoppers that were reared for such purposes. There was a human skeleton hanging in the corner and, as another staff wheeze, and probably as a lesson for impressionable boys, soon to be teenagers, a stick of white chalk was to be found clasped in its teeth, or held smoker style between its finger bones. The first lessons in most subjects included how to set up your page, how to write an experiment and general housekeeping, but they did hold the promise of more exciting experiences. For some reason, Biology was seen as mainly a female activity. Real men did Chemistry and Physics and, as a result, Biology was the initial, unique example of having a female teacher. ‘Sweaty Betty’ was only to be found in her lab. I am not sure if she ever ventured to any of the staff rooms. Clad in a white coat and much to our disappointment, she was quite old, at least thirty, and not in the least a sex goddess, but rather a serious scientist who saw it as her purpose to make at least some men value Biology. I looked forward to the lessons and still have an interest in the subject.

 Physics and Chemistry were held in the real labs of the main building rather than hidden as an afterthought. The Lower School labs were old, sparse, and had rows of big, heavy science benches, with gas taps and sinks. The wood appeared to be old dark mahogany and was scarred with evidence of a long history of careless boys’ experiments. The walls, for the most part, were unadorned and away from the window side, there were evacuation cupboards to vent noxious gas experiments and jars with assorted chemicals inside, with labels of exciting names and even jars of various acids. Heaven! Gas taps, acids! Now we were talking! Science, real science must take place here. 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, and 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.

 Lesson one saw the boys gather around the front demonstration desk. The teacher presented a Bunsen burner, connected the rubber pipe to the gas tap, and showed us how the ring collar could turn, opening and closing the vent. He turned on the gas, and with a taper, lit the Bunsen burner. A flickering yellow flame rose from the end of the burner and he showed how the flame was quite cold, and he passed his hand through the flame quickly. I was impressed. A scientist would have hands of steel that were impervious to flame, but then he turned the collar on the burner and the flame changed. It became an angry, fierce blue flame, shorter and noisier, and with a cone of unlit gas at the top of the burner pipe. The teacher didn’t demonstrate his powers by putting his hand in the flame, this time, but slid a tripod and gauze over the flame. Within seconds, the metal gauze glowed red and then white hot and we were left in no doubt which of the two flames was the hottest. Demonstration over, we returned to our places, perched on hard wooden stools, were told to take out our books and copy what the teacher put on the boards. A diagram of a Bunsen burner, parts, and instructions on how to use it were written, and we dutifully copied it down. It was a little disappointing, but on a promise that we would have a go at setting up the burners, tripods next lesson, we left with some anticipation. The fact that I can remember this is some testimony of the efficaciousness of the teaching.

Health and safety rules were very different in those days and the asbestos boards were old and fibres were clearly peeling away, but we all had them. Another practice that is now long banished was the way we used mercury. We had it in Petri dishes, spilt it 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.

Physics was also interesting. The lab was similar to the Chemistry lab, but this had one added feature of a large Periodic Table chart hanging on the wall, and the blackboard was a more modern, moveable board, with a surface that could be rolled up or down. The purpose of this was to allow more notes to be written up and the board just raised to allow the teacher to add more to the bottom. You were in trouble if you didn’t keep up, as the notes would disappear over the top and you were then in a mess. As in Chemistry, we gathered together to watch ‘Sir’ in action. He had the obligatory Bunsen burner, and he pulled out, from the voluminous depths of his black gown, like some conjurer, a strange item. It had a wooden handle, a thin rod, and then a ring like a big washer at the top. A metal ball connected to the rod by a metal chain. He held this up in front of our eyes as if he was to cast a magic spell. He demonstrated how the metal ball would just fit through the ring. We watched, anticipation on our innocent faces. He then lit the Bunsen and dangled the metal ball into the blue flame. He didn’t hold it in the flame long, but then manoeuvred the ball onto the ring and behold, the ball would not pass through. Much like the camel and the eye of the needle, or was it the rich man? Anyway, there was a muted response from the boys. They would rather have seen an explosion or two, or billowing clouds of smoke, but never matter, those things could be later. This demonstration was followed by a brief explanation to the fact that metal expands when heated. Eventually, the ball cooled, and it dropped back through the ring, but by this point we were busy copying down the expansive notes and diagrams that were being scribbled onto the board, trying to keep up with the teacher’s prodigious speed.

The next lesson I remember was the bi-metallic strip experiment, which demonstrated that not all metals expand equally and the resulting bend in the strip had some practical uses. I can’t say that Science was taught with passion, but to be honest, few teachers saw it as their role to inspire in the school in the 1960s, but some did, and they tended to make lasting impressions. I didn’t do the sciences in the sixth form, so I can’t really comment on the end result of science beyond O-Level, but I think I could have been more successful and interested with the right teaching. Times were very different and I hope Science is now more relevant and that lessons don’t seem so isolated and disconnected.

Now, the calibre of teacher at Roundhay was quite marked and there were 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 being inexperienced, and I will recount one now to illustrate the point. Probably the hardest lessons to teach to an unruly bunch were the sciences, because of 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, and 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 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 briefcase. 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 a 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.

My latest novel. A mystery set in North Yorkshire and suitable for teenagers upwards.

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 rest of the lesson. 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 hung 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 with 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, after 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.

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.

The Upper Sixth 1973. The first co-ed year group.

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.

The second collection of my stories based on my blogs. This covers life from 1966 until leaving high school in 1973.
My first collection of tales from birth until 1966.

4 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Labs and all Manner of Magic, Misery and Mayhem. What Must have been the Worst job for a New Teacher, Chemistry with Boys with only one Aim, to Make Your Life Hell!”

  1. Enjoy reading about your experiences at RGS. Remember a lot of them. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I left after the lower sixth to go to Kitson College to finish my A levels. I recognise most of those in the upper sixth photo but not the names.
    Ended up in East Kent working for Pfizer (Viagra). Now retired and enjoying every minute.
    Hope you are keeping well.
    Kindest regards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steven, Glad you are enjoying my mmories. Good to hear how well you did after leaving Roundhay. Another friend of mine left and went to Allerton Grange for A levels and he did really well. I too love being retired. Great to hear from you, David


    2. Hi David, another great collection of memories & this time featuring my favourite school subject, Chemistry. Loved it & particularly the more explosive aspect of the subject. I got my first chemistry set for my birthday at the age of about 8 or 9 in the late 50s when it was deemed quite natural to include in this set, flowers of sulpher, powdered carbon & potassium nitrate, the ingredients of you know what. It wasn’t long before we lads learned about a certain weed killer, easily available and how it performed when sugar was added, scraps of copper piping sought and Jetex fuse attached. Oh the fun we had, increased when we found a copy of Spons Almanac which contained the recipes for every firework imaginable.
      I went to Allerton Grange probably four or five years earlier than your time at Roundhay but I never encountered the type of mischievous behaviour that you describe witnessing at Roundhay. Always regarded by we comprehensive lads as the posh school, the assumption being that discipline there was even more strict than at our school, but seemingly not.
      Best regards,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Clearly your learnt far more chemistry than I did, Tony, though a friend of mine attacked a nursing home with rockets fired from plastic drainpipes, but they were bought ones. Many of the teachers had great control, some used violence and some unfortunate ones were our prey. Glad that you enjoyed my tale, Tony.


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