Just after midday, following morning school, he would walk across the extensive playing fields, as he had done for more than twenty years, through a small copse and then cross the single plank that bridged the School Ditch. Opening the gate to his garden he went in for lunch, emerging forty minutes later to resume teaching history for the afternoon.
I went there with him once. I had said to him during a lesson that I was interested in the Saxons, but that was not on the ‘O’ level syllabus. A few days later, he said, “Come with me” and he took me to his back door and gave me a copy of ‘Everyday Life in Anglo-Saxon Times’ by Marjorie and C.H.B. Quennel. Written in the 1920s, it is little known or valued now, but I still have it.
He had written his name on the flyleaf – L.C. Vernon. ‘Elsie’ we called him and, smilingly, he knew we did.
History lessons in that grammar school of the 1950s usually consisted of copying regurgitated notes on either Elizabethan England or Europe 1815 -1914. There was little discussion and no opportunities for research, the need being to learn the notes in hope of the ‘banker’ questions that the teacher considered most likely to occur on the exam papers could then be re-regurgitated.
Elsie’s lessons were sometimes like this, but not often. He would happily break off to talk passionately about the history of the town where our school had existed since the 1500s. He would eagerly inspect bags of potsherds, bones and flints that I sometimes brought into his lessons. Not only would he handle each piece but would then speak elegantly about this piece of Roman Samian Ware, where it may have been produced and for what purpose -fragments which had been ploughed up on a field where my family worked. Or, he would provide a picture of Neolithic times whilst holding a polished axe head from the chalk hills above the village and where my grandmother had, for years, kept this to cover the foil on her daily milk bottles to keep off sparrows.
Somewhere in my wash-house, where I still keep my treasures, is a scrap of exercise paper where he had written “Coin of Constantine c 325-340, found locally 1957’ and asked me to take this note and the coin, scrapped up in my grandfather’s chicken run, to the museum as he could not be certain about its denomination. Of course I did as he suggested and when I told my grandfather about it, he said, “Well, I’m blessed, I hope them old chickens’ll dig up some more for you, if that’s what you’re interested in”. I was interested: Elsie had made me so.
That part of the ‘O’ level syllabus that required a semblance of knowledge about the first Elizabeth revolved, in the main, around the Armada. Elsie didn’t dictate notes about this, he just talked about English-Spanish rivalries; how the Armada came about, what could have happened, what actually happened and the unexpected consequences. He asked for homework on the battle and this usually required about a 4-page essay to be completed during the following week. I had found Elsie’s descriptions fascinating, so I wrote 20 pages.
When the work came back, he had avoided the usual marking comments of ‘good’, ‘fair’ or ‘re-do’ and had written about a page of comments. He didn’t say the obvious – that writing such a load of wordiness wouldn’t meet exam requirements. Instead, in some elegant phrases, he talked about being careful not to ‘overcrowd your canvas’; he challenged and confronted some of my statements with alternative phraseology that covered, in a few words, the many paragraphs I had used. His initial point, in not awarding top marks for this piece of work was: ‘You deserve much credit for this, but…” His words have stayed with me, just as his joy in handling an ancient artifact remains clear in the mind.
I’ve reached the stage where, in this rapidly changing education scene, I often say “It couldn’t happen now”. Nor should much of that happen: the dreary note taking, the cramming of facts and damning of failure, nor, indeed, the potentially offensive way in which we nick-named him.
But he found a shoot in the dour Norfolk clay of my upbringing, he thought to nourish it, he gave something of himself and felt able to depart from boring texts to inspire with his own enthusiasm and love of the subject. That has stayed with me for more than fifty years; it is something special, and it abides.
Richard Howard was Founding Chair of the National Education Trust, 2006 – 2016