I’ve been lucky enough to meet quite a lot of people on my personal list of heroes. In almost every case my heroes have not just been inspiring, but they’ve been prepared to give me their time and encouragement and they’ve always given a good impression of being pleased to know me.
But there is a saying that you should never meet your heroes, and on just a couple of occasions I found myself rather wishing the meeting hadn’t taken place at all. One of those disappointments was EB.
Early on in my career I had a class who with deliberate malice would make their teachers’ lives miserable, and they were old enough and clever enough to make a pretty decent job of it. I was unlucky enough to have to teach them three years running, and it wasn’t until the final year that they decided I was good enough to be allowed to teach them in an agreeable manner.
For most of those first couple of years they’d have me in near despair. I didn’t have many weapons in my armoury. Just two really; one was a dogged refusal to be beaten by a gang of kids when my self-respect was on the line; the other was a couple of books by EB. The books presented an unglamorised picture of a young teacher in the toughest of London secondary schools, inch-by-inch moving from regular humiliation to something like comfort. If he could do it in the most demanding of environments, then there ought to be some hope for me; I probably read the books half a dozen times, not really looking for tips, but using them like a comfort blanket.
Fifteen years later we’d both moved on. I had indeed become soundly established, and EB had long since left teaching to become a full-time writer and broadcaster. Our English department invited him to speak to our top year and I couldn’t have been more excited at the thought of meeting the person who’d meant so much to me, and whose books are still on my shelves today.
And what a disappointment it was! I couldn’t blame him for being an old-age pensioner rather than a dynamic young teacher, but I could resent that there were no signs of the spark that had won over his pupils a generation earlier. What was left was just another visiting speaker with nothing of interest to say to young people, and – worst of all – not for one moment did he sound like anyone who’d ever met a group of schoolchildren before. Afterwards I introduced myself and attempted to say how much he’d helped me, but he clearly felt he’d left those days far behind, and the conversation didn’t last long.
EB died nearly twenty years ago and an obituary said of his classroom books “EB portrays himself as a martyr rather than the boastful messiah of other autobiographical classroom accounts published around that time. But behind the initial panic he never lost sight of the essential good-humour of the young tearaways he was in charge of. Gradually teacher and taught came to an accommodation satisfying to both. His account of those years is still the best book ever about life in the classroom. Lessons that did not work are described with a rueful honesty that makes descriptions of the more successful times to come all the more convincing.”
I suspect that he and his books are no longer particularly well-known, though anyone interested will be able to identify him easily enough. He was a decent, civilised man and I’ll never forget how much his books meant to me – but I really do wish I’d never met him.