Alan Cochrane re­flects on his school days and rem­i­nisces about the power of in­spi­ra­tional teach­ers to change lives for the bet­ter

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

Alan Cochrane cel­e­brates the in­flu­ence of in­spi­ra­tional teach­ers

With the last of my daugh­ters hav­ing now left home for univer­sity, it is per­haps in­evitable that I should some­times cast my mind back to her and her sis­ter’s school­days and oc­ca­sion­ally try to work out what the in­flu­ences were that set them off on the cour­ses they chose to fol­low. Mind you, there’s very lit­tle point in my in­sist­ing to them that it was this or that teacher who mat­tered most be­cause my choice would al­most cer­tainly be chal­lenged. Thus, it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter if I re­turn to my girls’ pick later and con­cen­trate, in the first in­stance, on the teach­ers that made the great­est im­pres­sion on me – for good or ill. But be­fore I start I should de­clare my firm view that good or, bet­ter still, great teach­ers can have a mas­sive im­pact on a child’s fu­ture. And I’m sure that most peo­ple can think back to those that in­spired them. In my case a cer­tain Miss Neil (the ab­bre­vi­a­tion ‘Ms’ did not ex­ist back then) might al­ways have reeked of her favourite fags but she got me read­ing any­thing and ev­ery­thing, a trait that’s never left me. Later on it was Ken Dron who en­thused us – well me at any rate – with a love of English lit­er­a­ture, es­pe­cially Shake­speare, and who cast me as Cas­sius in a city-wide pro­duc­tion of Julius Cae­sar. I had a most def­i­nite ‘lean and hun­gry look’ back then, so it was per­fect type-cast­ing. Mr Dron, who sadly died when far too young, had an open, en­cour­ag­ing at­ti­tude to­wards his pupils and a hugely at­trac­tive per­son­al­ity, even if it wasn’t at­trac­tive enough for the young lady mu­sic teacher who we all knew he fan­cied. There were oth­ers, of course, who were hope­less but it would be in­vid­i­ous to name names; suf­fice to say that there was one gnarled old PE mas­ter, who had in fact taught my fa­ther be­fore the war (I’m talk­ing about the six­ties here) and who clearly didn’t think much of ei­ther of us and made no at­tempt to hide his dis­dain. As a par­ent I, ob­vi­ously, took a very keen in­ter­est in the cal­i­bre of my daugh­ters’ teach­ers and there was one in par­tic­u­lar in whom I had al­ways the ut­most re­spect and, more than that, with whom I al­ways seemed to hit it off; in­deed, as the lady is still very much to the fore, I should say that I still do. She prob­a­bly won’t like be­ing sin­gled out in this way but Ju­dith McClure was, I think, an in­spi­ra­tion to sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of pupils at the schools where she worked – St He­len and St Kather­ine, Abing­don and Kingswood School, be­fore be­com­ing head of the Royal School, Bath. Scot­tish par­ents got to know her best dur­ing her time at St Ge­orge’s School for Girls in Ed­in­burgh, where she was Head un­til 2009. Su­per­fi­cially, her im­age was one of a galleon in full sail as she marched, no mat­ter the weather, in flow­ing gown and sen­si­ble shoes from one part of her charge to an­other. When I asked her what be­ing a me­dieval­ist – her aca­demic call­ing – meant, she replied briskly: ‘Noth­ing af­ter the 14th cen­tury!’ How­ever, there was noth­ing old fash­ioned or fud­dy­duddy about Ju­dith and there was noth­ing which she didn’t think her girls could achieve if they set their minds to it. That was her pri­or­ity. Not what the girls looked like; not what length their skirts were – as­sum­ing she even no­ticed – but the qual­ity of their work and their de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed. She was held in some­thing ap­proach­ing awe by her pupils, a sen­ti­ment shared by their par­ents, but in truth Ju­dith was en­joy­able and re­lax­ing com­pany and a mar­vel­lous host­ess. That’s not to say that her for­mi­da­ble in­tel­lect wasn’t al­ways ob­vi­ous – in her lat­ter years at St G’s she be­came (and re­mains) some­thing of a pi­o­neer in Scot­tish ed­u­ca­tion, es­pe­cially for the teach­ing of Chi­nese. Through my daugh­ters I know how in­spi­ra­tional Ju­dith McClure has been as a teacher and I was de­lighted to hear that she’d writ­ten a mini-me­moir ( Think­ing About Snow by Ju­dith McClure). It’s not about her teach­ing ca­reer; it’s mainly about her time as a nun. Yes, that’s right, a nun, a vo­ca­tion she fol­lowed for six years. In this mar­vel­lous lit­tle book she ex­plains her change from the path she was on – ini­tially of be­com­ing a solic­i­tor, say­ing it was ‘a pro­fes­sion I much re­spected but one that seemed to me to be con­cerned with the smooth run­ning of so­ci­ety and busi­ness’. In­stead, she in­sisted, ‘I wanted to con­tem­plate the in­fi­nite and to find the per­fect life’. I won­der if that’s what Ju­dith McClure is still chas­ing. I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised if it is.

That was her pri­or­ity – the qual­ity of their work and their de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed

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