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The Book That Reminds Me of My English Teacher, as Pondered by #BookadayUK

By Hannahreadsstuff
Macbeth Theater Company poster by Daniel Warren Art

Macbeth Theater Company poster by Daniel Warren Art

Last week, #bookadayUK asked “What book reminds you of your English teacher?” I answered with the promise of an extended blog post on the matter, so here it is:

I had the horrible misfortune of being good at English at my Secondary school. This meant, that come GCSE time, I was hoiked into the top set.  Reward for all my effort and attainment leading up to this moment was leaving behind the warm sun-drenched, spider-planted world of Carrie’s War and a teacher who was a human being and entering the dark cornered world of, [lets call him] Mr Beckhead, Macbeth, and ritual humiliation.

Within minutes of entering Mr Beckhead’s class and finding a place, I was wishing I had left the dictionary alone a bit, used banned green ink more, or generally made a “not-done-me-‘omework-miss” nuisance of myself in the years leading up to my GCSE set-gradings. Your place in Mr Beckhead’s class was at the very bottom of the barrel and at the very end of his tongue lashing scorn.

Mr Beckhead was a horrible creature, strangely and constantly purple as though his Burberry shirt was buttoned up too far, or his Harris Tweed jacket was a little too tight about his port addled tummy. Though, attire aside, I think his Ribena berry complexion may have been drawn out by the fact he found himself teaching a bunch of  oiks in a nondescript comp and not quaffing lunchtime brandies at the Grammar school.

But, if that was the reason for such pent-up anger, it really was only up to him to sort that out. Why he decided to take his purple-faced shortcomings out on us I will never know.

From day one he made it very clear who was in charge, he strutted about his classroom with a Dracula-esque grin stretching the corners of his face, smelling blood and delighting in even the faintest flicker of  fear. He dripped with contempt, derision and temper. All of us who didn’t know any better (that teachers could be dicks) were immediately terrified. In the course of 50 minutes, English went from being my refuge at school – a place where I could equally shine and hide – to a place of nerve jangling angst.

I will always associate him with Macbeth in my mind. It was the first thing we studied under his tutoring, and having thought I’d got the cut of his gib, I spent my weekend pouring intensely over my essay. I wanted to sound as intelligent as I possibly could, I wanted to demonstrate all that “very good at English” I’d been getting since Primary school. I thought, if I can only show him that I got the play, that I could write an essay well, that I FELT the turmoil and suffering of these characters as if it were hitched to my own back, I would be ok. Those threats and insults he banded about during his bile-filled introductory welcome speech will be felt by others, I shall be safe from them.

I was delighted with the result, reading and rereading, convincing myself that my dazzling writing style had secured myself peace in his classes forevermore.

That wasn’t to be the case. As we filed into his classroom for the first time after handing in our efforts, his feelings towards them were clear. He leaned on his desk, legs crossed and stretched out in front of him, a tripping hazard he already knew not one of us would have the balls to ask him to remove. So having hopped over his brogues and sunken into my chair I let the horrible silence descend about us.

It seemed to go on forever, all of us twitching in our seats, some stifling nervous giggles, as his almost-smile crept from puzzled face to puzzled face. You could feel the whole room gulping.

“Well he said” untangling his limbs and lifting himself to his feet, “what a terrible pile of essays you all managed to eek out over the weekend….just. Awful.”

I waited for the “except”: “except Hannah’s, whose insightful and reimagined exploration of the work I have already sent off to Cambridge”.

But none came.

In fact, he not only thought my essay was a debasement to his human rights to have to read, it was also one of a handful that he quoted from, just to illustrate how disgustingly illiterate, amoral and abhorrent we all clearly were.

I burned with embarrassment in my plastic chair, barely breathing and unable to tear my eyes from the table. Tears stung in the corners and the 45 minutes left of the class stretched out in front of me like death.

I would read all future set texts in a sweat – barely taking anything in, such was the blindness of my panic to make sure I got EVERYTHING right. Reading became something I fretted over and dreaded, something that could end in a very public tongue-lashing if I didn’t interpret stories in a way that was 100% acceptable to him.

Still, everytime I start to write anything I have to silence those quotes of mine that he spat out in front of everyone with strange delight. This was my first taste of rejection – public and bruising.

That is bad enough, but it is also impossible for me to untangle the genius of Macbeth from his clutches, he will always be a part of  any experience I have of The Scottish Play.

It just goes to show – you shouldn’t waste any of your time trying to impress A-holes.

In fact, the only time I can remember him giving me any praise was when I was awarded an A* in my Speaking and Listening GCSE (does that still exist?!) – I was arguing in defence of war….which says it all really.

I should say here that I have also had good English teachers too, but nobody earth-shatteringly inspiring enough to erase Mr Beckhead from my memory (his is the only name I can remember). It makes me sad for any other student who finds themselves in a classroom with someone of his ilk, shown-up and trodden-down, having all enthusiasm for books rung out of them. I was lucky, my love of books was already ingrained, and he wasn’t even enough to stop my desire to read (and god, how he tried), but this may not be the case for many students who never get to have a love of reading ignited in the first place.

That for me is more horrifying than anything the Weird Sisters could cook up.

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