Last time, after the obligatory waffle, I told you about the most significant memories I have of my English teacher Mr Moody. Now, let me do the same for the memories I have of Mrs Bradley. Nothing about buttocks this time, sorry.
Mrs Bradley was what any good teacher – in fact, what any good person– should be; identifiably human. Mr Moody’s One Of The Lads approach worked perfectly for him, never to the detriment of his job, and is largely why I shall remember him forever. Mrs Bradley on the other hand struck a miraculously perfect tone between friend and mentor. She must have been more than twice the age of the oldest of us, but could talk and listen like your best friend. Nonetheless, if anybody tried to take advantage of this, it was always immediately clear that she put our education above her desire for us to like her. That was one of the things that made her such a wonderful teacher.
Even though we discovered she could shout very loudly.
People shout. Sometimes in pleasure, sometimes in pain, sometimes because everybody else is doing it and they’re a bit thick, but they shout. It’s what people do. Teachers don’t shout though, they aren’t even able to… are they? I don’t mean ‘raising their voice’, which is I presume the first thing teachers learn at university. I mean shout, as in yell, as in roar, as in throw your voice at somebody as hard as you can. That’s what Mrs Bradley did.
Not on a regular basis; she wasn’t a maniac. But woe betide the boy or girl who had pushed her too far. It didn’t happen often, but when it happened it HAPPENED. With Bradders (as some affectionately called her) it wasn’t so much a case of the straw that broke the camel’s back, as the straw bale used to murder the camel by cracking its head open which then brought the wrath of the camel mafia upon you. Make no mistake; whenever this happened, whoever was on the receiving end fully deserved it. She was a real person, like us. So we listened to her.
It’s funny, but my strongest memories of literature we studied at school are of books I didn’t like. Some, like Brave New World (Mr Lanaway’s class – memories of him in my next post) and Animal Farm (Mr Moody’s class), I’ve read for pleasure at least twice since leaving school. I must make the terrible confession that I’ve never read Great Expectations all the way through. I just couldn’t get on with it. I bodged my way through studying it, somehow, by reading the first third and the final third while skipping the middle entirely. I’m no literature hipster – Dickens is famous for a reason, and I absolutely love David Copperfield – but I always felt confused, and a little guilty, for not enjoying that one.
I think Great Expectations was in Mrs Bradley’s class, but I know The Handmaiden’s Tale was (hated it, sorry; maybe I’ll try reading it again now I’m all grown up) and so was Women In Love by D.H. Lawrence. Crikey, I found that book a chore to go through.
The reason I remember Women In Love – better than any other book I studied – is because not only did I not enjoy reading it, I was forced to regularly write or talk in class about how terribly clever it was. That’s one of the fundamental flaws in how literature tends to be taught, in my haughty opinion. The class is not asked if a book is worthy, or important, or intelligent. They are told (sternly) that a book most certainly is worthy and/or important and/or intelligent, and then instructed to explain (in great detail) how and why they agree.
The thing is though, I really liked Mrs Bradley, and greatly admired her. I didn’t want to disappoint her by revealing my secret identity as a pleb. So I forced myself to read the whole thing, and spoke in front of the class about how a nutshell was a terribly clever metaphor, and listened to how people calling “Di! Di! Di!” when looking for somebody called Diana in trouble was also terribly clever. I still learned a lot and enjoyed myself. It was Mrs Bradley’s class, after all.
What I remember from my time learning under Mrs Bradley, though – what I really, really remember – is A Streetcar Named Desire. The play itself I certainly remember in great detail. What I remember equally well is us acting it out at our desks in class – because I got the main role, of Stanley. I don’t remember if it was an uncharacteristic urge to take centre stage, or if Bradders thought it would be a good way to get me to crawl further out of my shell (not a nutshell, I assure you, I haven’t the brains). The point is, I didn’t just take on the role – I embraced it. I felt comfortable in, and enjoyed immensely, the role of a violent alcoholic womaniser. Take from that what you will.
The day before we started, I decided that I might as well go the whole hog and try an American accent. I did this by sitting at a desk with my friend (I usually only had one at a time) in the common room, pulling a prayer from my Philosophy notes out of my bag, and trying to read it as an American preacher. Much to my amazement it worked, it really worked; a thick Southern drawl that really didn’t sound like me at all. Heads quite literally turned in class when I started reading in my new voice for the first time. Of all the people in the classroom though, the only reaction I remember is Mrs Bradley’s. She was hugely impressed (everybody was, even the ones who were loathe to admit it) and I suppose that now, over a decade and a half later, I finally realise she was probably the one in the room I wanted to impress most of all.
My favourite line at the time (possibly even now) was, because it gave me a perfectly valid excuse to say a vaguely naughty word out loud in class, “Let go of me, you sons of bitches!”. The day that particular line came up, I expelled the words with such volume, passion and glee that I got some unintended laughs; which increased when Mrs Bradley commented “You were really looking forward to that, weren’t you Luke?”. Good old Bradders.
The universal praise for my performance meant that my ego inflated to the point where I was floating home from school every day. It didn’t really help when, on the train back from a class trip to watch Streetcar being performed by professionals, one of my classmates turned to me and said “We still prefer your Stanley”. I was egotistical enough to almost immediately ignore any doubts I had about the sincerity of this statement, so I suppose it was inevitable I would grow up to be a writer of one kind or another.
I wasn’t in the habit of trying accents or impressions then, but I certainly am now (much to my kids’ delight). I seem to spend an awful lot of my time nowadays pretending to be somebody I’m not; but in a good way. To a large extent, I have my teachers to thank for that.
The third and final post where I shall bore you with school memories shall concern Mr Lanaway, and is to include:
- The nonsense of Polonius!
- The Teacher Who Never Stood Still!
- Trying to work out what the hell Chaucer was on about!
- And more!