March 06, 2010

Eric Bloodaxe: Teacher and Mentor

I had the great fortune, aged seven, to spend a year in the class of Mr. Eric Jacks, Primary School Teacher. Mr. Jacks was a complicated man, but a man of straight talking and straight justice. He once asked me to draw for him an icon of Eric Bloodaxe, which thereafter adorned his classroom door for many years. Eric Bloodaxe, a tenth-century Scandinavian king, was famed for his prowess and his strength. It was this with which Mr. Jacks identified; that and a reputation for merciless punishment, which can also go a long way.

Eric Bloodaxe

It is a cliché that everyone remembers a good teacher, but what that means, or how it comes to be, is rarely explained. I have had twenty-five years to reflect on my encounter with Mr. Jacks, and I cannot escape the conclusion that his influence was truly profound. Mr. Jacks taught the curriculum, just like all the others. But most importantly, Mr. Jacks taught the difference between right and wrong; between courage and stupidity; between tomfoolery and vandalism; between good manners and slovenliness. It was in that class, at the tender age of seven, going on eight, that I learned self-reliance, self-defence, and discipline. Mr. Jacks taught boys how to be men.

I cannot, in good faith, provide a biography of this man. A child carries a small and skewed set of memories into adulthood, and my account will certainly say more about me than it will say about him. Nevertheless, I maintain that I was shaped and directed by this man whom I did not really know, in ways of which he himself was probably not aware. And for every me, there are hundreds of men who passed through this able mentor’s hands. He taught, I should think, for forty years. Woe betide us if we underrate the power of teachers!

I had not before seen a male teacher. In fact, I was under the impression that all teachers were women. It was a fearful day, therefore, when I was inducted into Mr. Jacks’ care, in loco parentis. He announced to the assembled class that his name was Eric, and he wrote it on the blackboard in cursive script. I recall his languid and rather fluid handwriting (later replaced with stern block capitals as commentary for shoddy work). Cursive script had been banned up until this point at school. And until then, no teacher had ever had a first name, let alone divulged it. This was transgressive, exciting, and also scary. Did he mean to speak to us as people?

Any sense of familiarity was soon followed by an unequivocal introduction to authority. A beating stick, broken into two halves, was produced, with the (I am sure apocryphal) tale that it had been broken on the behind of an unruly boy, before corporal punishment had been outlawed in England. Mr. Jacks lamented the demise of the cane, but liked to threaten its reprise in exceptional circumstances. In one fell swoop, he had gained our trust, and then our respect. For one knew implicitly that it would not be advisable to cross this man, but that fair play would be rewarded.

There used to be more latitude given to teachers in the exercise of their authority. Mr. Jacks always claimed that many parents had given him permission thoroughly to discipline their children, and his full-throated shout alone was enough to petrify the most agitated. Yet he was not a dictator, and the ethos of his authority could carry down to those he taught. A bully, he averred, was a coward. Always. The best cure for being bullied, therefore, was to punch the bully on the nose. Invariably, this cured the problem, and it came with a good deal of manly satisfaction. Mr. Jacks despised cowardice, and taught that the key to self-reliance lay, more often than not, at the end of one’s own arm.

It was not all fisticuffs and shouting, however. I felt that Mr. Jacks was a tender, Godly man, whose vigorous manliness did not get in the way of his love of tradition, the fine arts, the religious calendar, and the piano. He introduced me, and the rest of my cohort, to the ballet. Imagine compelling thirty scamps to sit through The Nutcracker Suite, which lasted for an age. He sold it to us. Could not balance, poise, elegance, and all the finest qualities of the finest footballers be inculcated through ballet? Maybe that was a cheap trick, but I’ve always remained convinced of it. Mr. Jacks had us singing ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ (Matt., 6:33) in rounds, and loving it, as he roughly chopped out chords on the school upright piano. If anyone mucked about, he’d bring his whole weight down on the bass keys like so much thunder. Music was joy; music was force. These things he taught us, without telling us.

Mr. Jacks was also the man to see for school drama. He always had a spare play up his sleeve, and directed ridiculously ambitious performances with complete confidence in his young cast’s ability to remember its lines. Of course, they would go wrong like all school performances do. But the sense of engendered trust was invaluable, and I think a rare thing for children to feel. Trust inspires responsibility and arouses an awareness of consequence. You cannot put that kind of thing on a school curriculum, but that does not mean it cannot be taught.

School was only nominally about the three Rs. School was substantially a preparation for a life among people who would judge you on intangible qualities – style, comportment, manners. Mr. Jacks critiqued our posture, corrected our speech, taught us that cursive script (having allowed us to bring in our own fountain pens – this was a coming of age). We had a class competition to see which of us would be chosen to write to the Queen. I forget the occasion, but I didn’t win and it still hurts.

Eric Bloodaxe. Well, maybe not. But Mr. Eric Jacks was a king among the men in my life.

7 comments:

  1. He sounds like a man who was worth knowing. May there be many more like him. :)

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  2. At the age of eight, I and my fellow pupils were appalled by the story, told with relish by the headmaster, of a master in the eighteenth century who had torn a boy's ear off and battered another to death with a form (a long wooden bench of the type we had in the gym hut). In the story, this master's only punishment was to have to apologise to the mother of the dead boy.
    Almost certainly fictional, but it kept us in order. The eighteenth century did not feel long ago in an English private school in the early 60s.

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  3. Nadia, I share your wishes, but fear that it takes men like him to make future men like him. Unfortunately, the extra-curricular qualities of being a teacher are becoming increasingly rare. Teachers live in fear of parents, litigation, and violence to which they cannot respond. Governments care only for targets and the assumed advantages of a rhetorical soundbite about targets being met. Quality, and any discussion about what that might mean, has gone out of the window.

    Tom, your school sounds a bit like mine. The eighteenth century wasn't that far away from a non-private English primary school in the 1980s.

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  4. Nadia,

    I can vouch there are many more like him.

    My Good Man,

    Has been on on your docket for a while? I would have had to take my time with a post of such acclaim and reminiscence.

    I, too, had many educators of this nature. Coming from a family of educators, I can appreciate their influence on your character. One was an ex-boxer. He kept us keen through his speeches by MTC and other great Romans. One a scholar, who played keyboard with the Greatful dead and a thespian as well. He often punished sleeping by making that man stand while taking notes. It was he, who taught us to read the bible as historians and faithful (of any variety). Another was a baseball pitcher, who had lost a World Series. He would throw erasers and chalk, or kick your desk to keep you honest. The list continues from my all boys preparatory school. Yes, most teachers were men. It was not all fisticuffs and tomfoolery (two of my most favorite words - so thank you). I learned a great deal from these men and, indeed, the lives they chose to live. Great men offered me a great education. Thank you for this.

    BTG

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  5. BTG,
    Your influences are enviable! Indeed, I have been thinking about this for several years, but only of late did I commit ink to paper. It then flowed freely. I think I had allowed my feelings on this matter to well up sufficiently to let catharsis take care of their realisation. I am now trying to track down Mr. Jacks. I would like to let him know.

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  6. Just like everyone to know - He's my dad - a perfect gentleman and father.

    Helen

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  7. Thank you Helen. That testimony certainly serves to crown this piece.
    VB

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