A Miscellany of Memories – Part 5
One of the things that attracted me to want to teach at Stewart’s Melville was knowing that rugby, which was very important to me both as a player and a young coach in Dublin, was at that time very much the major school sport. I enjoyed my rugby-coaching days so much that as far as I can remember I did not ever miss a Saturday looking after a rugby team (and cricket in the summer term) for the 16 years I spent as an SMC teacher. The first nine years saw me looking after the top team in third year before I was invited to coach the 1st XV in 1983. My six years in charge provided me with some of my most cherished memories and I was even invited to coach the Edinburgh Schools team, and also the Scottish Schools Sevens team who played against Ireland at Twickenham! There are of course far too many incidents to recall, both amusing and serious, but here is a flavour:
- Early on in my career and unbeknown to me a boy in S3 had been ‘asked to leave’ Stewart’s Melville for various reasons, mainly involving bullying other boys. He had ended up in another school and was selected for their top team against whom we happened to be playing on the first weekend after he started. Our boys kicked off, an opposition player caught the ball and was immediately jumped on by half of our team in what I quickly realised was an extremely aggressive manner, something which I had never seen before. The referee blew his whistle very loudly and, as he could not identify who had started the ‘attack’ he demanded to know who it was. To my amazement half of the Stewart’s Melville boys immediately claimed it was them and it was only afterwards that I realised they were all very proud that they could get their own back on their former schoolmate without fear of retribution. I had already apologised profusely to the referee for their disgraceful behaviour but at least I now knew that their actions were not typical!
- I remember very clearly one frosty morning when the 1st XV were about to play a vital match against George Watson’s College wondering why one of our star players had not turned up and why there had been no phone-call to explain his absence. I was just about to call for a replacement when another boy’s parent told me that he had just seen our missing star on Ferry Road and that he was in the process of being booked for speeding! He eventually arrived just in time and seemed surprised that I wasn’t as grateful as he had hoped cosidering that he had been willing to drive over the speed limit because he was so keen to arrive in good time! I half expected him to suggest the school paid his fine!
- It was a fairly regular occurrence for boys in the 1st XV to pass their driving-tests at some point during the season. One morning when we were about to set off by coach to play against St Aloysius in Glasgow, Doddie Weir drove very loudly in to the car park, told me he had just passed his test and asked if he could drive to the game with a couple of other boys who had arrived in the car with him. Looking back I have no idea why I agreed but Doddie was always very persuasive but I eventually did on condition that they stayed right behind the bus the whole way. I took the extra precaution of telling Doddie that, if for any reason they ‘lost’ the bus, he should take the turn off the motorway to Shotts.
Needless to say they ‘lost’ the bus but I was nevertheless surprised that they had not shown up half an hour after we had arrived. This was of course before the advent of mobile phones so we had no option other than to enlist the support of four boys who had just finished their own earlier game. Shortly after kick-off the four missing boys arrived. I demanded an explanation and Doddie told me that they had been looking everywhere round Shotts for the school, including the area around the prison, before eventually being told that perhaps their teacher had meant to tell them to take the exit to Stepps, not Shotts! I realised with a sinking heart that they were correct and the fault was mine so the matter was quietly dropped. We did of course lose the match, some of my colleagues reminded me of the incident for years afterwards and no one was ever allowed to drive to an away match again!
- During my time as 1st XV coach a directive was issued from the SRU that each home team had to have a doctor on the touchline. On a very wet and muddy morning at Glasgow Academy, our very large American winger, who had a slight eye defect which made him appear cross-eyed (a significant advantage whenever he eyed up an opponent prior to sidestepping him!), was tackled heavily and initially appeared to be quite badly injured. The referee insisted he was removed from the pitch to be checked over by the doctor. I wanted him back playing as the scores were very close and he had an important role to play.
I was initially very impressed that Glasgow Academy had two doctors on standby but not so happy that they seemed to be very worried as they looked at him, neither willing to make a decision about his fitness to return. I realised they were concerned about his eyes and tried diplomatically to explain about his eye defect. I got the impression they did not believe me so I said they would simply have to make the call. They clearly did not know each other and neither seemed willing to make a decision. I wondered whether the fact they were Glasgow Academy parents meant they were deliberately taking as long as they could, but when they told each other that they were respectively a Gynaecologist and a Clinical Psychologist I understood that they were about as useless as I was. In the end they decided to believe my explanation, the boy returned to the pitch and from memory scored the winning try after selling an outrageous dummy!
BACK IN SCHOOL
There was of course much more to my early years at Stewart’s Melville than tours and rugby and I thoroughly enjoyed the years I spent as a teacher, a Form Tutor, Housemaster of Cromarty and Head of Classics before for some reason best known to others I was invited to join the Stewart’s Melville Management Team in 1987 as Head of Middle School at the same time as Ernie Wilkins was appointed Head of Upper School. I use the word ‘invited’ deliberately as I found out about my appointment by reading the Staffoom notice-board. The post had not been advertised, no one was interviewed and everyone was surprised, including me. When the Principal, Robin Morgan, was asked by colleagues why he had not advertised the posts he said he knew who he wanted so what was the point of advertising? I suppose that made some sort of sense to him if not to anyone else and is certainly almost as far from what would happen in today’s schools as it is possible to imagine!
A few special memories of my SMC years:
- I loved my three years as Housemaster of Cromarty and, being naturally competitive, devoted a lot of time with the Cromarty boys in S3 working out how we were going to win the Carbisdale Shield, awarded each year to the House scoring the highest aggregate number of points across all the Carbisdale activities. We were pretty successful but perhaps deemed by the organisers to be taking everything too seriously, the result being a decision that the Shield would instead be awarded to the House which won the orienteering competition at Carbisdale. By then I was Head of Classics so I never had the chance to try to win the Shield again in its new guise.
- I remember trying to show what a modern and up to date approach to technology we could offer boys studying Latin by ensuring we booked lessons in the first-ever SMC computer lab which was situated in a tiny room next to the Technical Department. It contained a few early BBC computers and, with a lot of effort and wasted time, we could just about manage to teach a few Latin verb endings, or at least we could when the boys stopped playing on-screen table-tennis, which was an early attraction. Those were certainly not the days and I have no idea why we ever bothered to leave Room 89 in order to spend 30 minutes or so watching white dots on a screen, always assuming that the computers happened to be working that day.
- Weekend Form camps at Ardgartan on Loch Earn, at the Loch Etive bothy and elsewhere were always great fun – we canoed with the boys, we climbed Munros, we sat round innumerable camp-fires and we were bitten by midges. On one outing we showed the boys how to cook for themselves and they set up their calor gas stoves. Unfortunately one of the boys ended up in A&E after we heard a loud yell and discovered him with blistered fingers. I felt a twinge of responsibility when the other boys said it was my fault that he was suffering. I had to agree that I had told them to follow instructions on tins carefully but said I had not expected them to interpret what I said literally. The injured boy had apparently decided to cook some beans and, as the instructions on the tin said very simply ‘Heat and serve’, he had put the tin straight into boiling water, watched it bubbling for a few minutes and then poured away the water before picking up the tin with his hand, That, I suppose, was one way to learn and, after he recovered, he promised that in future he would remember to open the can first before attempting to heat beans!
- In 1983 I was joint author (with John Robertson, at that time a colleague in the English Department and later Rector of Dollar Academy) of ‘Stewart’s Melville – the first 10 years’, still available at a bargain price (!) and easily recognisable from its rather lurid pink cover. It was full of anecdotes about what was an amazing period in the school’s history following the merger between Daniel Stewart’s College and Melville College.
Some years later I took a group of Middle School boys to the National Library for some obscure reason. I explained that the National Library held a copy of every book published in Scotland and told them how anyone could borrow any book by having the book date-stamped so that the librarians would be aware where each book was. I even explained that authors received a very small payment each time their book was borrowed.
As we looked around I spotted a lurid pink cover in the Scottish Education section and realised it was the book I had written with John 15 years earlier. I proudly pointed it out to the boys, explained what it was and said how pleased I was that it was still on display 15 years after we wrote it. One of the boys was clearly so impressed that he went across to the shelf and took it out for a look. He seemed somewhat surprised when he opened it. Looking at me he said:
‘Didn’t you tell us that every time a book is borrowed it is stamped?’
‘Yes’, I said, ‘well remembered’
‘And didn’t you say you wrote this book 15 years ago?’
‘That’s what I said’
‘Well then, why has no one ever borrowed it?’
Cue deflated teacher! However, feeling slightly mercenary, I told the boys I would borrow it myself. I did exactly that and am still waiting for my royalties.