Ironic adventures with my high school English teacher, part 483,586

A while back I found a file with all my old high school reports – which, apart from their wonderfully silly judgements of my nature – reminded me of the adventures I had in high school English.

In the first term of my sixth form year at Napier’s Tamatea High School I had a great English teacher who got me inspired to push ahead in a field I’d been keen on, alongside the sciences, since I was a kid. (I won’t say exactly when this was, other than that the ‘word’ that year was ‘Grease‘.) The class got stuck into Shakespeare with a great deal of verve, I enjoyed it, and the report shows it.

After the term break I found I had a new English teacher. Alas, it appeared I had also suffered a total character transformation during the two-week break because, suddenly, I was wrong at every turn. The new teacher informed my parents that I would always fail at everything, especially anything to do with English or writing. Yup, I was totally worthless, and it was wholly my fault. The weird thing was that I hadn’t changed a single thing about what I was doing, and my magic character transformation only affected my English classes. A mystery. I mean, it couldn’t possibly have been the teacher, could it?

I was still keen to learn English and writing, of course, so my parents sent me to after-school English and writing courses at the local polytechnic. This happened against the direct objections of the headmaster, who actively tried to obstruct the effort. That didn’t work. What’s more, at the polytech I magically became the same enthusiast for English I had been in that first term. Yup, now my weird transformation in which I went from zero to hero and back again, all without changing a single thing about what I was doing, was happening in minutes, over and back again, and once again the only difference was the teacher.

I venture to suggest that a publications list since that includes nearly 60 books, over 500 articles, academic papers, and other stuff including international academic recognition of my writing might give the lie to my Tamatea High School report. But, of course, if Tamatea High School’s English teacher said I was utterly worthless and would fail at every turn – well, obviously I was utterly worthless, and how dare I suggest otherwise? On the plus side, I got tertiary-level education in writing, before I left high school. I enjoyed the polytech classes a lot (one report stated ‘Matthew Wright well’, which I didn’t ‘get’ for ages). I took that further with the polytech in a gap year before I left Napier for university. What this did was set me up with all the frameworks needed to be a writer. And I did it in spite of Tamatea High School, its obstructive headmaster and the witless incompetents he chose to employ, not because of that school. Sigh.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018



7 thoughts on “Ironic adventures with my high school English teacher, part 483,586

  1. In reading your school recollections, I feel fortunate to have large escaped experiences such as yours. Indeed, with one really notable exception (a horrible high school history teacher), my teachers were very good. I’ve found that people who went through public school at the same time as I largely have the same impression of our schools here.

    What motivates me to write, however, is something else, that being the tyrannical effort to reduce writing in my profession, the law, to the Dick and Jane level. It’s amazing. There has been a dedicated effort, the entire time I’ve been a lawyer, to reduce legal writing to the lowest common denominator. Lawyers coming out of law school now, in my experience, can barely write.

    I don’t mean to suggest that legal writing should be full of Norman Latin legal phrases (although a little Latin is occasionally justified), but good writing is good writing. Insisting that everything read like “See Plaintiff drive. See Defendant run red light” isn’t that. It’s just dumb.

    1. I think the effort of late to produce clear legal phrasing has gained a bit of ground – as a writer, the contracts I sign these days seem to be less convoluted than they used to be. The lack of writing skill, I fear, is fairly common these days across a range of professions. A friend of mine teaching at University of New England in Australia used to make his students pass certain competency tests in writing, because he felt (rightly) that it was a basic tool of expression. He was criticised; the focus of education, he was told, was on making people think and analyse. Writing wasn’t important. But he was right – if you can’t express the analysis properly, what’s the point of being able to do the analysis in the first place?

      Apropos high school history teachers – the ones I had were pretty good, which is why I ended up ultimately doing history at university. My recollection of New Zealand school history at the time was of a curious curriculum; local history had no place and the focus was on such matters as the nineteenth century European state system. A function, I realise now, of the concept of the day that New Zealand had ‘no’ history – that we were a part of Britain and Europe. That mind-set has completely reversed since, luckily.

  2. Keith Moon’s school report had his teacher describe him as, “Retarded artistically. Idiotic in other respects.” Which is just astonishing. With him, his academic ability was low. But he had a natural wit and intellect about him.

    1. I can’t help thinking that some people simply think differently from the way the school system is set up – Roger Waters would appear to be another one, based on that song… That said, there’s a lot of game playing in academic assessment and systems seem to have been set up to allow gutless passive-aggressive bullies masquerading as teachers (or university lecturers) to hide behind the pretense of impartiality (and shocked indignance when called out for not doing so). Ultimately it seems to come down to personalities and opinion. Apropos Mr Moon, I recently read part of Roger Daltrey’s autobiography and description of Moon – interesting stuff.

      1. I agree with the basic elements of education – teach the basics. But then the rest often devolves into a memory test. In the wway I memorised Henry VIII’s 18 knives and all that. It never got me no job. But then, I’m dead smart. So that wasn’t needed.

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