Soham Grammarians - Teaching Empathy?

Trevor Smith 62: I wonder if there was any 11 to 12-year-old who walked up the drive of Soham Grammar School during the ‘Golden Years’ who did not have any idea of what a privilege a grammar school education was? He may not (and I realise now that I’m not that different to anyone else) have had much idea of what that entailed, but that just made that first walk up the drive so much more full of trepidation.

Would there be ‘beatings’ and ‘roastings’ the like of which one had read in Tom Brown’s Schooldays? Was Tom Brown an SGS boy? Was his body still hidden away in these spacious grounds somewhere? Well, it’s good to have a vivid imagination! I have to say, however, that I wasn’t too convinced I could kowtow to becoming a ‘fag'.

Sitting here now looking at my latest DIY creation, I can’t help but think of Tabby (what a tame nickname for an SGS master when compared to Slug, RAT, and Dalai - let alone Punch!) as I made the inevitable trek up to his desk to get another technical drawing assignment checked. I can recall, “Ah, another offering from Spider Smith.” Yet there was no malice in his comment - perhaps just acute observation. The final pencil lines of my work were often pretty close to the mark (and the Grade 3 CSE well-deserved!), but their close accuracy was heavily marred by the spider’s web of the attempted erasing of previous attempts at accuracy.

As I look at my latest achievement (assembled from a rough sketch only) I can’t help but imagine a possible ‘lost calling’, but be a little embarrassed at the screwed (not even glued, sorry EHT!) final assembly. Perhaps Dickie Bozeat could have put me straight? But I doubt he’d have allowed even one of those visible screw heads!

By the way, for those who don’t know me - I’m talking about the stool, not the piano!

As we reflect on these alumni, making their way to instruct: RAT with his RSM march [Editor: it is understood that RAT was a Sqn Ldr PE Instructor with the RAF in Canada where many aircrew received training in WW2] (wishing he were on his way to the cricket pitch, not the geography classroom?), Slug with his miserable demeanour (you had to look very closely to catch the twinkle in his eye!), and Tabby with his sublime glide, you could not help but notice the ‘gowns of office’ billowing behind them. Does any academy still require their instructors to wear gowns?

So what was it that made these images spring to mind so clearly nearly fifty years later? Was it the severe punishments and fear that these figures brought to mind? Was it the vivid imagery of the subjects they taught? Was it the browbeating that every student received once sitting in their classrooms? Or did one feel that they were proud to be part of the grammar school experience? Willing to pass on the richness of their wisdom? Somehow empathetic to every boy’s needs, and encouraging with that empathy?

The trepidation of that first walk up the school drive never really left me in the whole of the six years I was at Soham. The walk down the drive had certain trepidation too, though I’m not sure why, and that, too, stayed with me. Departing the school by the back entrance down to the Memorial (now why would I be doing that?) could not compare with the grandeur of the main driveway. I sometimes wondered how that might affect the boarders’ lives at SGS. I never aspired to being taught by Ted. I’m sure my education would have been better for the experience. I was one of the few rule-breakers who escaped his prowess with the cane (thanks mum!), but in fact that’s a poor choice of word as I find it hard to imagine even a trace of sadism in his character.

Well, I learned my lesson.

PS EHT - the stool’s not a patch on the outside cupboards - photos upon request.

received 20 April 2008
last updated 9 July 2008