perkins, the 4R form captain, did not come back after the Easter Holiday. A boy with loads of energy and good cheer, he had been longing to escape to a job. For some time now, he had viewed school as a place where he could entertain, a field for his cool talents. He would mosey into class, greet me with a “Hello Man,” snap his fingers, and break into a dance, winkle-pickers and all, You could usually bet one of the spikeytoothed Perkins clan was around (an older had already gone, a younger was in the second-year—the family was slowly becoming a legend) if a fist fight was in progress, or if low rumblings and curses were to be heard at the mention of the Queen—the thought of all that wasted money enraged the Perkins boys.
Johnowski, slow, large, blonde—an Olaf of a boy—took over as form captain when school resumed. He was a boy I trusted instinctively to speak for the form, to run errands. He was usually aided, more often vocally, by a selfappointed lieutenant, Stevenson, who in fact was the form gossip. Miles ahead of the rest of the boys in reading ability, he was used to being bored by either a slow pace or dull matter. He loved to come up to the teacher’s desk, lean his squat, stocky frame against it, grin from ear to ear, and strike up a chummy conversation. “Jogafee” was his favourite subject. His mate was Wright, an intelligent, good-natured boy who on occasion had spent whole periods helping slower readers. Lean, dark and nervous, he spoke with his whole body, was said to be the abandoned offspring of a broken Hollywood marriage. A more relaxed, joyful soul was Woodrow, the small West Indian boy with rich, brown skin and deep, melodious voice. Pleasantly industrious, he was content if permitted to read quietly aloud in a corner of the room. Reluctantly known as “Chocolate Drop” (Stevenson’s work), he prided himself on being a TV fan, averaged about thirty hours viewing a week. Goutas, the Cypriot boy, had little English and spent most of his time fashioning paper aircraft, pinching his neighbours, dreaming. There was still the hint of baby fat about him and he was never very far from sullenness. He represented a personal failure for me; my knowledge of Greek had somehow worked to create an even bigger abyss between teacher and student. In being able to communicate with him, to explain what work I wanted, Goutas had felt I had an unfair advantage and had come to resent me. Smith was a boy I saw little of. Lesley was a big, quiet boy with a quizzical smile, the kind of boy that melts into the middle of a form, never to be noticed again. West and Proctor were silent, indrawn shadows that sat side by side and stared vacantly at their books.
I had taken over the teaching of Religious Education to 4R, one period a week, at the start of the second term. As an American with no experience or teacher training, as well as no knowledge of R.E., I was an outsider on a number of levels. With 4R, as with the majority of the ten forms I took for R.E., I decided to stay away from outrightly religious areas and concentrate on stirring up discussions around moral issues. Indiscriminately, I began to present the same material in the same way to all of the forms. In the beginning I relied on short stories, excerpts from things like Arthur Miller’s Focus and Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners, and current affairs. Soon enough, because there was something to build on, a crude newspaper study began to spring up in most of the forms. Each week we discussed and compared small sections of the Sunday press and attempted to consider the
One of the things I noticed about 4R during these first two months was their enthusiasm and gratitude. On four different occasions teachers approached me with tales of 4R’s excitement for me. Whenever I passed them in the corridors, 4R were loud and possessive in greeting me. They were startlingly prompt in arriving for their one period of R.E. on Friday and they were well-behaved, paying deep attention and trying hard.
I also noticed that 4R were held in some derision by many of the other forms (particularly in the upper three years) as well as by some of the staff. It was not unusual to hear them referred to as “village idiots!” nor to see their individual accents and movements mocked and mimicked in the staff-room. A number of teachers often expressed a deep concern over 4R, a concern invariably tinged with a resigned helplessness. I saw that frequently 4R were used as the school’s errand boys, were shown films that might be about, were left on their own to “keep busy”. 4R took English with the head of the department but were merged with 4Y twice a week. This was a particularly unhappy arrangement, for 4Y were the toughest boys in the school, a form that prided itself on being unteachable. Inquiring into the past history of 4R, I learned that originally about twenty-five boys had entered the School as 1G, the first year remedial form. The next year they had spent the bulk of their time taking a variety of subjects with their form master, the same man both years. As 3G they had been given a new form master and had begun to adventure outward, to experience different masters more than in previous years. By the fourth year many boys had either left or gone up, and the dozen that remained became 4R, a form that was not remedial in any sense except historically, a form that in theory travelled about and got its specialist education just as other forms did.
During this time, as I learned about 4R, I was doing different things with them in our weekly sessions. Earlier I had noticed that the suggestion of reading or written work was enough to elicit a violent storm of resistance from them. Now I began to experiment in these areas with each one individually, sitting by Woodrow one week, Goutas the next, and so on. In this fashion, about the beginning of the third term (my second term with 4R)—I came round to the gentle, mouse-like Proctor. After two months of passing out newspapers and books to the form and having them read both with and without me. I had to face the incredible fact that Proctor could not read. His English master was aware of this, fortunately enough, and had been making an effort to give Proctor the close attention and guidance he needed. I now began to spend 4R’s weekly R.E. period also helping Proctor. The slow progress he made was mirrored in the essay he wrote a few weeks later for the English examination. The recognisable words he used were far outnumbered by his own personal symbols, words built with hooks, curves, curlicues. When asked to read his effort, Proctor read out a comprehensible, meaningful essay. In short, he would communicate with himself. As the year’s end approached, Proctor, primarily as a result of his English master’s efforts, had reached the point where he could read, unaided, a simple sentence in perhaps a half hour. A word like “early” was outside his reach. At the end of the term, Proctor went off to be a welder’s helper. Joining him in the search for employment were the rest of 4R, excepting Johnowski and Smith (whoever he was). On the last day of term but one, I went to a meeting of all masters who would be teaching maths to remedial forms next year. At the end of his outline of the department’s objectives and methods, the head was asked by one of our number—“I’ll be taking 4R. What about me?” The head replied that he would confer with the master, that 4R were a special case.