There’s little doubt in my mind that my English teacher, Roy Birch, was the best teacher I had at school.
He became my teacher in what is now known as Year 10. I was part of the first ever cohort to take the GCSE and none of us really knew what to expect, but I do remember dreading having Birch as a teacher. He was a physically imposing man – well over 6 and a half foot tall, with a spade beard and size 13 Dr Marten shoes. He was widely considered terrifying and there were rumours that one 1st year student had been so scared of asking to go to the toilet that she’d wet herself rather than risk his wrath. I suspect this was untrue, but it made for a wonderful school legend. He was certainly a teacher for whom no student ever considered misbehaving. This was back in the days before corporal punishment had finally been outlawed and a good few of my teachers were sadists, but I cannot recall Mr Birch even raising his voice. I had something of a reputation for being a ‘challenging’ student and made many of my teachers’ lives more difficult than they needed to be. (I was regularly in trouble for silly behaviour but my headmaster once told me that of all the children he ever had to tell off I was the one who was always the sorriest.)
I have three things in particular to thank him for. First, I credit him for giving me a love of literature. We had to read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and, despite struggling with it, he somehow also got me to read two other Hardy novels (The Trumpet Major and Far From the Madding Crowd) in my spare time. He got me reading and writing poetry. He’d give me poems like ‘Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress’, Donne’s ‘The Flea’ and Lovelace’s ‘To Althea From Prison’ and say, “I think you may appreciate this.” I did. And I made sure to read them carefully and thoughtfully and he’d always listen to my ill-formed musings and was enthusiastic about my writing. I actually won the school poetry prize in my last two years at school (although this was not something I wanted to broadcast at the time.)
He also taught me how to spell. My spelling was atrocious and it was widely believed – not least by me – that I’d never learn to spell. Mr Birch was having none of that and told me that he would not accept work handed in with spelling mistakes. Often I’d know the word I was trying to spell was incorrect but would have no idea where the problem was. He taught me that most people who could spell knew tricks. He taught me that I could learn to spell by thinking about what words look like, what they sound like, and by making links and mnemonics. For instance, I still remember feeling that it’s rather profound that there’s a lie in believe and the fact that there are two rs in February was a huge surprise. He taught me to spell necessary by informing me that I should never eat chips eat salad sandwiches and remain young and that accommodation is made up of cosy cottages and massive mansions. These things stuck and I have passed on the distilled wisdom of Mr Birch to many of children I’ve taught.
Finally, I have to thank him for believing in me. I had been banned from attending school trips because of my dreadful behaviour on a trip to Normandy. When Mr Birch organised a trip to see Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican, he personally negotiated with the headmaster for me to be allowed to come along. He warned me that his reputation was on the line and that if I put a foot wrong he’d make me pay. I have rarely behaved with greater maturity. Through the long drive, the performance itself and even some unsupervised time in London, my behaviour was immaculate. On the drive back we stopped at a motorway service station and a group of us let off some steam by aiming karate kicks at a fence. It was a solidly built thing, much taller than we were and it had been kicked a good few turns before I had a go. With stomach lurching inevitability, as soon as I’d kicked it the whole thing shuddered alarmingly. I watched aghast as it slowly toppled over and crashed to the ground. Grey-faced, I made my way back to the coach and waited for the hammer to fall. Mr Birch bounded on and roared, “What idiot kicked the fence over?” Feeling sick, I admitted it was me. I can’t really remember what happened but I do recall Mr Birch saying, “I’m glad you admitted that David because I’d been given a clear description of the culprit and I knew it was you.”
A year or so after I’d left school I met another of my English teachers – Peter Hayden – who told me that Mr Birch had taken his own life. Apparently he’d struggled with mental illness for many years and, after a protracted absence, had given in to his demons. Of course I was shocked and appalled, but I was also too feckless and callow to really appreciate all he’d done for me.
Last week, I visited Droitwich Spa High School and one of the teachers there is married to a woman who also attended my old school, Hagley RC High School. She read a post on the blog where I’d mentioned Mr Birch and it turned out that he had also taught at Droitwich Spa. I was given a photocopied extracted from the 1971 school bulletin. The Theatre Report had been written by Roy Birch. To say I was a bit choked up would be something of an understatement. Here it is:
The rise in the national cost of living has to some extent affected our theatre-going this year. If we maintain a policy of trying to sit in decent seats where we can both see and hear, then I think we may have to pay even more next year. Again we thank those parents who help us to extend education beyond the walls of the school. It is vitally important to see plays in the theatre and not just to read them. Towards the end of last year a large party of staff and senior students went to Ludlow to see ‘Henry IV’. This visit has now become a very pleasant annual event and helps us to mark the end of the academic year. This year we plan to see ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’. As this year’s ‘A level’ play is ‘Hamlet’, this most difficult of play has loomed large in our programme. The VIth Form and staff visited Stratford to see Alan Howard’s ‘Hamlet’ and if we count last year’s visit to the Birmingham Reparatory Theatre to see Alec McCowan’s production this would seem a surfeit of riches. But not so! Some eagle-eyed member of staff saw that Canon Hill Arts Centre was presenting two film versions of the play, the 1962 Russian version and the 1944 Olivier – both on the same day! There were some survivors. Just for fun we saw a very ‘mod’ production of ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ at Stratford and the 3rd Form saw an equally ‘mod’ ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Birmingham Rep. We also went to see the Royal Ballet when it came to Stratford and to Worcester’s Swan Theatre for Osbourne’s ‘Inadmissible Evidence’. Films seen include Peter Brooks’ ‘Lord of the Flies’ and the very memorable ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’