Sunday, 1 January 2017
The Retirement Dinner
His name was William Thomson, known as Bill. He was a teacher of French in a small secondary school in the Highlands of Scotland. This was a job which, over the course of some thirty-five years, had gradually but quite relentlessly taken over his life (in common with most teachers) as he devoted his time to organising lessons, events and trips, produced materials, reports and test papers, considered and developed teaching strategies and techniques, even performed at charity concerts, and of course lost countless hours of sleep due to anxiety and an obsessive desire to do right by his pupils.
Now, somewhat to his astonishment, he was about to stand up before his colleagues to deliver his retirement speech.
He had looked forward to “escaping” for the last couple of years as the constant flow of dubious changes, questionable initiatives, pressure to justify just about every action he took, and the general daily grind seemed ever more intense, while the prospect of retirement offered a chink of light at the end of the tunnel and the thought of just saying “no more” was ever more appealing.
He had, of course, joked about the prospect of retirement for many years – if a pupil took an inordinate length of time to answer a question, he would remind them that he was due to retire in nineteen, then fifteen, then ten years and so on.
Now, at his own retiral “do”, as he was about to say his farewells to his colleagues, it was all of a sudden real, imminent and somewhat disconcerting.
Naturally, in the run-up to “the end”, many people had asked him about his plans for the future and he always jokingly answered that he was so preoccupied by thoughts of all the things he wanted to see come to a halt that he had never actually considered what he would do with his time and energy in the (now very near) future.
Joking though he was, it was actually the truth – immediate issues such as finding strategies to deal with that potentially difficult third year class, coaxing some senior pupils through their dreaded speaking assessments, adapting an exercise to make French grammar amusing and engaging at least to some extent, and dealing with a few poor wee souls whose difficult home circumstances were affecting their school work – all these things had indeed diverted his attention from the more personal and increasingly pressing matter of just what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Discussion of this issue consisted largely of inane platitudes such as vague talk of travel, increased correspondence with friends and family, and regular trips to the cinema. The truth was he had given scant consideration to his future as he was too preoccupied dealing with issues in his present.
Then there was the small matter of his speech.
He had attended numerous retiral events and, in search of inspiration, he recalled the variety of tones and content of the speeches he heard at them. One or two were virtually scathing in their indictment of the direction in which they thought education was going (goodness only knows what they’d make of the present system!). Another colleague was remarkable in his brevity and conciseness - after hearing a couple of speeches in which his praises were loudly sung, and in the presence of many admiring colleagues, the retiree stood, said “Thank you”, and promptly sat down again! Then there was the colleague who stood, announced his year of birth and went on to provide a year by year account of his personal development and career. He took twenty minutes to arrive at the end of the Second World War!
So, these approaches had been done and Bill didn’t want to repeat others’ style – he wanted something that suited him, and then he remembered a quote from actor James Stewart who reportedly said that the best films were made up of “moments”. Bill thought that this notion applied equally to careers and indeed life itself, so he decided to recount some of his most memorable and cherished memories of his time at the school before simply thanking his colleagues for their support, camaraderie and friendship over the years.
Preparing the speech brought back many memories that had been buried in time and the process lent a focus and clarity to events, feelings and reflections. Bill had always been so immersed in the moment and his immediate concerns that he failed to perceive the bigger picture, but now, on reflection, he perceived patterns which perhaps only existed in his own mind, but which it pleased him to think might attest to some kind of overall purpose and even a modicum of success.
Bill’s working life for the last thirty-five years had been dominated by routine, duty, preparation, caring, supporting pupils and colleagues, but also camaraderie, mutual support and ceaseless humour in the face of adversity (on the part of both staff and pupils), all of which helped Bill get through some difficult times both professionally and personally. But all of this was within the context of his working environment, and within the next few days that entire framework would be gone. If the truth be told, Bill was somewhat unsure of the future largely because he was shortly going to gain that for which he had so long pined – his freedom, and he was none too sure of how he was going to handle it.
At one point, Bill even wondered if he was doing the right thing by retiring. However, he quickly disabused himself of that notion by recalling a few of the negative features of his working life:
Waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
Anxiety over the content and delivery of lessons.
Further (and perhaps more profound) anxiety over exam results.
The unpredictability of behaviour (pupils and staff!).
The feeling that whatever you do is not enough or good enough.
The constant accountability, justification, analysis and demands.
Actually, however daunting the prospect might have been, freedom suddenly looked mighty attractive!
Applause from his colleagues upon his introduction stirred Bill from his reflection and he stood up to embark on the speech that was to sum up the last thirty-five years of his life.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is difficult to sum up in a few words the thoughts, feelings and experiences of some 35 years. The obvious thing is to discuss the changes I’ve seen in the education system in that time, but don’t worry – I’ll spare you that rant. However, I will tell you about my first observation.
Bear in mind what is involved in an observation today – a double-sided evaluation sheet incorporating at least 20 if not 30 elements. At the end of my first observed lesson the Assistant Head Ken Carlisle (who was responsible for probationers) approached and gave me his purely verbal feedback – “That was fine, Bill, but you might want to move the tables away from the wall”, and that was it. How things have changed ….. .
When starting out in teaching, it is essential to find your own style – you have to work out what works for you and your pupils, and you have to learn from your mistakes.
I would like to think I did learn from my mistakes, but sadly I have to confess I continue to make mistakes from which to learn.
For example, I learned that it is best to prepare in advance and not have to leave a class to collect some photocopying you’ve forgotten, giving the class time to set up a waste-paper bin filled with water above the classroom door which has been left ajar. This is particularly true if the depute rector decides to pop in to your room just ahead of you.
It’s best not to assume that parents will be able (or willing) to exercise control over their offspring. At one parents’ evening, a pupil and his father sat in front of me and the pupil held a polystyrene cup filled with tea. While I was speaking to this pupil, he bit a chunk out of the lip of the cup and proceeded to eat it. A little taken aback, I pointed out to the pupil, quite slowly and deliberately, and with something of an air of disbelief, “You’re eating the cup”, whereupon he took another bite. I looked at the father and again pointed out quite slowly and deliberately, still with an air of disbelief, “He’s eating the cup”, at which he looked at me and smiled, making a bizarre high-pitched sound while shrugging his shoulders which indicated agreement, amusement and a recognition of his complete inability to influence events.
It’s probably best not to physically remove a pen from a pupil’s mouth – even if he has arrived late, is under the influence of magic mushrooms and refuses to remove his pen when speaking to you. Physically removing the pen is particularly ill-advised if you consequently discover it is ridged and causes a distinct rattle of teeth while being removed.
It’s probably best not to inadvertently lock a pupil in your cupboard and leave him there during morning interval – even if that attention-seeking little devil had crawled his way across the room and sneaked in to the cupboard to try to access some exam papers and amuse his classmates.
There are many, many happy memories from the classroom, charity concerts, school trips and the staffroom, car sharing to get to work, even meetings – far too many to be able to share with you here tonight, but memories which I will cherish and may well go on to write about in my memoirs. Be afraid!
Although there are many happy memories, I have to say it hasn’t always been great.
There have been difficult and frustrating times both professionally and personally, and I think in teaching it is often difficult to separate the two, and it is during the more difficult times that I learned to appreciate and value the wisdom and camaraderie of my colleagues. At the risk of sounding like the theme song to “Neighbours”, it’s at those times you discover that good colleagues become good friends. Clearly, I worked most closely with my fellow languages teachers Liz and Clive over the years, but I would like to thank you ALL for your camaraderie, friendship and support.
I have frequently said that I have no luck – I rarely win anything, have no luck in cards and the only time I put a bet on the Grand National, my horse actually ran away before the start of the race.
However, I have come to rethink my position concerning luck. I met my wife Anne (aside to Anne - “that is what you wrote, isn’t it?), and I was lucky enough to find a job at Shiel Academy and have some of the best colleagues and pupils I could hope for, and I am now lucky enough to have been made redundant!
It has frequently been said there is something special about Shiel, and actually I don’t think it’s hard to define – it’s just not that common.
It’s about caring. Putting pupils first and wanting what’s best for them, but extending that attitude to colleagues. It’s about professionalism with humanity and I know that I have benefited greatly from that environment and I thank you most sincerely, past and present colleagues.
My experiences have not been restricted to the school itself - I have also participated in several trips and I’ve been to France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, London and Edinburgh.
I’ve met many interesting people along the way – not just colleagues and pupils, but people like Alastair Burnett (news journalist), Tom Weir (TV presenter), Rudi Oppenheimer (Belsen survivor), Jon Lee (former member of S-Club 7), John Owen-Jones (Valjean in Les Misérables), and I scared the living daylights out of Gareth Gates!
I have sung, danced and presented events.
I did a year-long exchange with a teacher from France and taught English in Rennes.
I was a union rep for many years and delivered milk, tea and coffee for 17 years.
As a result of one trip I developed an interest in “Les Misérables”, and wrote a study guide which led to the creation of a website, which in turn led to making several hundred acquaintances on the internet.
The point is that working in a school is a two-way process and if it is felt that I have made a contribution to the life of the school, it is equally true that my life has been a product of Shiel Academy, and I thank you all for the contributions you have made to my life.
I wish you all the best for the future, but whatever that holds, please remember you are already getting it right.
Reflections on “The Prisoner”
(1967 TV series starring Patrick McGoohan)
A video presentation of this material is available here.
This is not intended as a detailed analysis or review, but rather a personal interpretation of the much admired and unique TV series.
In terms of the its televisual background, the series is clearly influenced by McGoohan’s previous work in “Danger Man” (known as “Secret Agent” in the USA) and is a sequel of sorts, though this was strenuously refuted by McGoohan who doubtless saw “The Prisoner” as a separate and individual work dealing with much broader and universal themes. Although in the same category as several other spy/action/adventure series of the early sixties, Danger Man’s plots and characterisations reflected a more profound perception of events of the time and were treated with a level of intelligence and awareness not always shared by its contemporaries.
During his time as script editor on Danger Man, George Markstein, who went on to collaborate in the development of “The Prisoner” and wrote and edited the scripts of some 13 episodes, became aware of the existence of a mysterious resort-like prison in Scotland where some were held during World War Two. This style of prison seemed an ideal setting to present ideas McGoohan had been garnering for another series for some time during his stint in Danger Man. An episode of Danger Man was filmed in Portmeirion (on the north western coast of Wales) and it appealed to McGoohan as a location. Executive producer Sir Lew Grade gave the go-ahead to the project based on McGoohan’s outline (with no written contract between the two men), and the rest is history.
What is it about?
In a nutshell, it seems to me that “The Prisoner” is about the place of the individual in society and the restrictions a social framework must impose on the freedom of the individuals within it.
The series considers various aspects of conflict between an individual’s freedom and the lengths to which members of society will go in order to protect the “sanctity” of that society.
We start with the resignation of an agent (who holds important and potentially sensitive information). He is kidnapped and held in a comfortable resort-like village in order that authorities might ascertain just why this agent has resigned and whether or not he represents a threat to the security and best interests of the society he formerly helped to protect.
This contrasts with the right of the individual to exercise his freedom to cease fulfilling this function – whatever his reasons might be.
From this relatively conventional start (which fits well with the end of Danger Man and contemporary issues concerning the lives and careers of former agents), we experience episodes which are increasingly allegorical in nature (to the point of being arcane at times), but which are always engaging, thought-provoking and compelling.
The authorities in the Village seek information from Number 6 (inmates/inhabitants of the Village are deprived of names and are reduced to mere numbers, like cogs in the machinery of society) about why he resigned and use a variety of means to achieve their end.
They play psychological games to test Number 6’s strength of character and spirit, though he frequently manages to turn the tables so that the authorities (usually in the form of the current Number 2) fail and may even reveal important information to Number 6.
Along the way questions are raised about the very nature of democracy and the trust we all place in the (sometimes shady) figures who run our society. “Sides” become irrelevant as ultimately all parties would behave in the same way, leading to the conclusion that no-one can be trusted. We are also invited to question motives and the very positions we are expected to adopt in society, placing the interests of that society above those of the individuals who collectively form it. Clearly, these ideas are a product of their time (the Cold War was at its coldest in the sixties), but the series develops these ideas to deal with universal concepts of freedom and identity.
Within the context of extraction of information, the authorities resort to confidence tricks, application of drugs and even science-fiction duplication – all exploring identity, strength of character and principle (Number 6 doesn’t know which “side” is trying to break him, therefore it could be argued that he is actually trying to protect the society he has known, or, if his own colleagues are responsible for his incarceration, he is fighting for the principle of personal freedom and choice).
The persistent and ubiquitous use of technology throughout the series also serves to emphasise the apparent futility of trying to preserve individuality or escape the clutches and influence of modern society. Yet Number 6 manages to outwit the users of said technology or find weaknesses within it, thus offering hope for humanity.
In the end, when we have moved into purely allegorical territory, Number 6 does indeed escape and returns to London, but it is clearly implied that some degree of supervision is maintained. Number 6 is unbroken and intact but he (and we) can never escape social pressure and supervision. Total freedom is an illusion – the best we can manage is relative freedom within limits, though these may be limits of which we remain largely unaware.
Number 6 also remains a prisoner of himself, condemned to behave in certain ways by his character and genes. Might his refusal to co-operate be regarded as a character defect or weakness? Are the authorities simply trying to help him adapt to reality and enable him to lead a “fuller” life within certain confines? This appears to be the interpretation of the remake of 2009, a remake I found desperately disappointing exactly because it appeared to preach conformity.
“The Prisoner” is undoubtedly a work of art. It is a representation of ideas which all should consider at some point. It is intriguing, inspiring and thought-provoking, but by its very nature it is also personal, subjective, can lack clarity and is open to a variety of interpretations. It has even been suggested that we are witnessing a mental breakdown as Number 6 faces the consequences of his actions in resigning. Perhaps he is in a coma and is dreaming. Whatever the context, the questions the series poses remain valid and the thoughts it provokes remain intriguing, important and relevant.
The performances and production are highly polished and assured. The viewer feels those responsible know exactly what they are doing, suggesting that any lack of understanding is due to some inadequacy on the part of the viewer (though this may be far from the case!).
The idea behind the use of the penny farthing spinning out of control in the end credits was that society was getting too big for its boots, developing at such a rate that control can no longer be exercised and might eventually lead to self-destruction. I suspect something similar can be said of the series itself as, toward the end, it shifted to ever more outlandish and perhaps indulgent representations and arguments concerning freedom and society.
For all that (and perhaps even because of that), I am grateful for the production of this unique series which continues to provoke reaction and thought.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page – I hope you found it of some interest.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .