I’ve been listening to my granddaughter talk excitedly about her new teacher; he announces the end of lessons by playing a trumpet! She will remember this wonderful teacher all her life. When I was about her age I had a memorable teacher. A music teacher from America who arrived at my school, Lasswade Primary, on a temporary posting and stayed for all too brief a time. But for a short spell we were suddenly exposed to vivid exciting songs and melodies from another continent. Another world.
Our usual music lessons involved vocally stumbling through Gaelic songs about men cutting peat in drizzle drenched glens or herring gulls soaring across drizzle drenched slate grey seas. Of course we had no idea what the gaelic words meant; no more than medieval serfs understood Latin chants. This dreary fare was occasionally lightened with jolly English ditties such as “d’ye ken John Peel” and at Christmas, carols.
This American teacher, with rugged film star looks, brought to us hobo songs with lyrics that painted vivid pictures in our young minds; of box cars crossing vast foreign landscapes, sleeping under canopies of stars and roaming in places where the sun always shone. Songs with memorable titles; ‘Hallelujah, I’m a Bum’, which of course produced sniggers and ‘Big Rock Candy Mountains’.
Accompanied by Our American teacher on the school’s ancient upright piano we sang of buzzin’ bees in peppermint trees, of the place where lemonade springs and the bluebird sings. And the hauntingly evocative ‘Moon River’ from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Unfortunately my persistent hearing problems made me a less than enthusiastic participant; I had a tendency to cause trouble. After one episode of misbehaviour I was banished me from the room to stand in the corridor.
The corridor was a terrifying place to be. Mr Clelland, the headmaster, randomly roamed the corridor and meted out punishment to any miscreant pupil he came across. In Scottish schools the tawes, a thick leather belt, was the traditional implement used to administer punishment by smacking the outstretched hand. The work smack doesn’t really convey the effect of being struck by the belt; the hand could sting for hours and worse if a myopic teacher caught the wrist. However on this occasion my ordeal didn’t last long.
As I stood in terror looking up and down the corridor I was taken by surprised when the classroom door opened and our American teacher appeared in front of me.
He seemed a gentle and kind man so I was taken by surprise when he suddenly morphed into a Chicago gangster, grabbing me by my lapels and hoisting me up against the corridor wall with my feet dangling in space. In his slow American drawl he advised me to stop being “a stoopid kid” and that next time he would give me “a mighty good whipping” followed by various other equally dire promises. But the kind, gentle eyes that looked into mine belied the threats spilling out of his mouth.
I have often thought that this episode in my childhood was not so long after the Second World War. Perhaps our kind and gentle American teacher had seen or experienced enough violence and cruelty on some drizzle drenched battlefield to willingly collude in the cruel and unusual punishments of our school system.
We returned to the class room to continue our music lesson. Chastened and relieved I joined in with a rediscovered passion:
Oh, the buzzin’ of the bees in the peppermint trees
‘Round the soda water fountains
Where the lemonade springs and the blue birds sing
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains………………….