I’ve been thinking about the role teachers play in the writing process. I don't mean that much-debated chestnut of whether creative writing can be taught. Instead, I mean the influence of school and how key individuals early on may have prompted us to take this exhilarating, frustrating, addictive path of writing.
In the last year of primary school, I had a certain Mr Hyde, a teacher I adored and feared in equal measure. It was pre-National Curriculum, and every week we were given the task of filling the back wall of our classroom with pictures, news and stories. This task was known simply as ‘Magazine’. My contribution was writing melodramatic stories in weekly instalments and I can remember ferociously working out a plot issue on a family walk in the country at the age of ten. It’s scary how little has changed in the [ahem] however many years since then.
He also set us a regular descriptive writing task. We’d be given a concept or even a single word (one week it was just ‘grey’) and then told to write about it in a certain number of words. It was probably something like 150, but at the time the word count seemed epic. He loved a good metaphor, did Mr Hyde, and he also encouraged us to pack our sentences chockfull of as many adjectives and adverbs as we could squeeze in. He didn’t want flat writing, he wanted descriptions that sang, danced and got right in your face. This wordy tendency has been discouraged on just about every writing course I’ve been on as an adult, but even so, I think Mr Hyde taught me a very important lesson. Words weren’t flat, two dimensional entities, but a type of magic that anyone was allowed to dabble in.
I think Mr Hyde would have guessed I might end up writing. But by secondary school, a very run-down comprehensive, I kept it all much closer to my chest. In the third year there, I had a teacher I’ll call Miss Smith. Central Casting couldn’t have been crueller when it came to a middle aged, unmarried teacher. She had bad teeth, a giant mole on her chin, thick glasses, was very overweight and had greasy grey hair pulled back in a limp ponytail. Her job was mainly about crowd control than shaping young minds. One day she announced we would be studying Shakespeare the following year, which prompted much jeering and complaining. I probably added a few 13-year-old eye rolls to the mix too. But this time, Miss Smith didn’t shout to make her point. In a low voice, she just started to quote from (she told us) Romeo and Juliet. Her eyes were closed and she had a rapturous look, as though the words were transporting her somewhere better. The chaos continued all around but I was rooted to the spot, transfixed, and the classroom noises seemed to fall away. The words seemed so powerful and musical, they literally took my breath away.
When she’d finished she met my eyes. I blushed and looked away. But I think she knew she’d made her point. I believe that it was on that wet, Wednesday afternoon, in a room that smelled of teenage hormones and chalk dust, that I properly understood the transformative power of words.
So if you’re a teacher and you sometimes wonder why you bother, don’t despair. You too might have touched someone who’s never said thank you in person.