I didn’t know Chris Todd had died until I saw his photo in the newspaper. I hadn’t seen his face for nearly 40 years but he still looked much the same. It was a kind face, decent and dutiful — everything you want from a teacher. I wish I’d known as a schoolboy what I know now — that the Chris Todds of this world are the teachers we recall with real affection, while the teachers we thought were so much cooler we merely remember with contempt.
Chris Todd was my form master for several years at my state grammar school. He wasn’t all that strict but he had no trouble keeping order. We all liked him but none of us revered him. We thought he was rather square. He taught chemistry (a subject I hated) and hockey (a sport I loathed). He was an officer in the CCF, which the cooler kids dismissed as playing soldiers. He conducted the school orchestra. He came to visit me when I was in hospital. Yet in all these years I never thought about him until I saw his obituary in the paper. And the reason I never thought about him is because he left his ego at the school gate, unlike the cooler teachers, who treated their pupils like a captive audience. As a teenager, I thought those teachers were wonderful — but they were taking their pupils for a ride.
Whatever sort of school you went to, you’ll have encountered a few cool teachers. You know the type I mean. They’re usually younger than most of the other teachers. They’re usually unmarried. Whatever you and your classmates are into — music, films, football — they know all about it, and they never miss a chance to demonstrate their expertise. If you’ve bought the album, they’ve seen the band. If you follow a football team, they know the players. If you’ve seen the latest movies, they’ve met the stars.
At the time I was impressed, and so were my classmates. But let’s be honest — how hard is it to impress a bunch of teenagers? More to the point, what sort of teacher feels the need to impress their teenage pupils — not about academia, but about their detailed knowledge of the sort of stuff that teenagers get up to out of school? Back then I felt flattered that these grown-ups were sufficiently interested in me to enquire about my teenage interests. Now I realise they were demanding I take an interest in them.
At my state grammar school, cool teachers were fairly few and far between, but when I transferred to a liberal boarding school the place was crawling with them. At first I thought they were fabulous, but I soon began to have my doubts. Sure, it was fun spending lessons putting the world to rights, but what would happen when I flunked my A-levels? Next year, those trendy teachers would be back at school, lording it over another bunch of wide-eyed teenagers, while I’d be home alone, cramming for my retakes. The summer after I left school, one of my friends — a girl I’d long been smitten with, but had never been brave enough to ask out — started dating one of those trendy teachers. She was 18 and had already left school by the time it started, so I guess that technically there was nothing untoward — though I believe they’ve changed the rules since then.
Yet for me it confirmed what I’d always felt but had never been able to articulate: cool teachers make you feel mature by talking to you about grown-up stuff, like druggy bands and violent movies, but it’s actually their immaturity that makes them want to wow you with their youthful prowess. The reason they’re so keen to intrude upon your teenage world is that they haven’t grown up yet.
Sure enough, I flunked my A-levels — but I did get an A in English, and this gave me some hope. I’d dismissed my English teacher as one of those trendy sorts, but belatedly I realised there was a bit more to him than that. He was an old hippy, full of boring stories about his time in India, but he loved his subject and his passion was infectious. He wanted us to fall in love with poets such as John Donne and W.H. Auden, not with him. He’d probably been cool once upon a time, long ago, back when kaftans were still fashionable, but now he was hopelessly uncool and that was his saving grace. When I left school he gave me a slim volume of his poems, printed by an obscure publisher. Most of his poems were pretty bad, but a few were very good. I left school determined to become a writer — some sort of writer. I didn’t know what sort and I still don’t, but thanks to him, and other uncool teachers like him, I’ve managed to scratch a living at it ever since. As for the cooler teachers? Now I realise they taught me nothing at all.
My abiding memory of Chris Todd is the time he gave me a lift somewhere — the sort of harmless favour a teacher would never dare perform today. He had to dash back into school to run some errand, and left me alone for a few minutes in his car. Like any nosy schoolboy, I used those few minutes to rifle through his cassette collection, and I remember cringing when I discovered a Carpenters album among his easy listening cassettes. Chris Todd had the most uncool record collection I’d ever seen, and this was the most uncool record of all of them. At that time, at my school, the Carpenters were considered the most uncool band in the history of the universe. To be seen with a Carpenters album would be like walking down the street without your trousers on. I felt embarrassed by my discovery. I even felt a twinge of pity. And here’s the funny thing: I love the Carpenters now.