Kenneth Crook slipped his arms through the black robe of authority more commonly worn by school masters in the English public education system like Eaton, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. However, today – like every school day for the past three decades, he was preparing to teach Grammar School pupils in the heart of London’s Marylebone district at a school fighting for its very existence in the Conservative governments’ restructuring of the school class system. It was the 1970s. The era of working-class upheaval.
Kenneth had all the qualifications to teach at higher learning institutions and the experience to become a headmaster; however, in his thirty-seventh year at the school, he remained a dedicated career teacher. Approaching pensionable age, he felt fortunate to still be teaching the classics. To some pupils, Kenneth was witty, outgoing, and a practicing Christian. To his fellow teachers, he was committed, adventurous, and loyal to his headmaster. To me, he had the air of a strict authoritarian, bursting with sullen and stubborn traits of arrogance and impatience. By appearances, he was stuck in an era that my fifteen years of life could not comprehend. An era of old, stuffy, and sometimes cruel times that shaped the people that lived them.
The end of the 1960s and its introduction to free love, was heralded by Kenneth Crook as a turning of the corner. A time to move away from the imported American turn-on, tune-in, drop-out counterculture that had voluminously clouded young minds with soft and hard drugs, free love, and anti-establishment rhetoric. To Kenneth, the words of Bob Dylan had been as foreign to him as his camel rides in front of the pyramids in Cairo – prior to the push into Italy and after the victory at El Alamein. In the era of the decimalisation of the country’s monetary system, that must have seemed a world away because the times had indeed a-changed. For me, a fashionable London Skinhead – long before the style altered its political stance – the times were constantly changing. I was supposed to be part of the generation that was actuating the cultural shift toward a new society and its new beliefs, but in my hour of youthful enlightenment, I sadly disconnected in a way that even now still makes no sense to me. I imagine that Kenneth Crook felt as alienated as I did by the new world of want and must have questioned what he had fought for all those years ago. Possibly, he questioned why he still bothered to teach a growing number of disenchanted youths. However, for every one of me, there was fifty eager learners supportively justifying his admirable endeavours.
The Inner London Education Authority System of the 1970s governed the world of secondary school. Divided into two main bodies of education programmes, it offered pupils from the age of eleven, the chance to get a free education and provide a steppingstone to a higher one. The common set-up of secondary school institutions comprised of boys-only, girls-only, or the experimental comprehensive mixed programmes of boys and girls studying together. Perhaps, the Grammar school intention of keeping genders separate was to reduce instances of promiscuity - avoiding the risk of pubertal distraction. We may have been young, but as we entered our teens, we quickly realised promiscuity could not be reined in - nor distracted from.
Grammar School was initially supposed to be an opportunity for those that excelled in Primary school to be taught the classics and European languages, history, geography, mathematics, science, art etc. The latter and French being the two classes that I very much looked forward to attending. I personally found the other lessons to be uninspiring, dull, and not at all interesting.
Perhaps I suffered from undiagnosed attention deficit disorder, or maybe I was not ready for the strict environment that moving up an educational level required. Whatever the reason, I began my tenure in Form 1-S failing miserably and not comprehending the comprehension. It was often repeated by the teachers that I needed to apply myself more. It took me a long time to realise that applying myself reaped rewards, but at the time, I lacked guidance. I had no father to sit me down and help me with my homework. I just had father figures who were too wrapped up in their own family feuding to recognise that I might have needed some help. Their constant fighting and unrest created an unhealthy environment for young innocent eyes and ears, so I would just escape to the local park where I could hang out with friends, playing football late into the night. Then, in the daytime, I’d hide in the local cemetery with other like-minded malingerers until school was over. The irony was lost on me at the time. Wasting my days amongst crumbling headstones was no more stimulating than listening to a lecture on Latin; however, it was my life, and I could waste it on anything I wanted to, so schoolwork sadly took a back seat in the getaway car of my great escape.
Perhaps I just wasn’t ready to learn back then or perhaps I was just an uncontrollable truant following my own personal agenda – ignorantly going against traditional norms of educational servitude. Whatever it was, the immature behaviour of a teenage rebel temporarily stunted my intellectual growth. Fortunately, that is - as they say, “All in the past.” At some stage of my maturing adult life, I finally grew up and realised that learning is a surprisingly fun pastime, and not a punishment whose duties are forced upon me. In the era of approaching silver years, Roman history is now one of my favourite topics, regardless of the amount of Latin involved.
“A report card is to be signed by each master at the end of class, Campbell.” Mr. Crook pointed out, as he adjusted his judges robe.
“There are no excuses.”
“But, sir…” I tried to argue. “I went to all my classes. I just forgot to get my card signed in one of them.”
“No excuses,” Mr. Crook repeated in a more serious tone. “You leave me with no other option but to administer further punishment similar to the reprimand inflicted upon you by the headmaster.”
I was fourteen going on fifteen years of age and had spent most of the semester skipping school - for which I received Six of the best from the headmaster after the truant officer caught up with me. Six lashes of a cane to my backside was a stinging punishment; however, I defiantly refused to display any ounce of emotion – even though it hurt like hell. The headmaster thought that I had taken it like a man and after energetically caning me, he shook my hand as educated gentlemen were expected to, then added insult to injury by placing me on report card, meaning I had to attend all my classes each day and have the report card signed by the master (teacher) at the end of each class. At final school bell, I would then have to report to Kenneth Crook, the deputy head to have him sign my day off. It was a daunting task for a teenager to carry out, because school was tediously low on his daily agenda.
“Assume the position and place both your hands on my desk,” Mr. Crook ordered.
“It’s not fair,” I protested. My plea was violently drowned out by the first lash striking my recently healed rear end. Not wanting to give him the satisfaction of a punishment rightly administered, I silently grimaced with each of the subsequent three strokes. There was no handshake after that beating. Just a stern lecture on maintaining discipline and the benefits of an education. Dismissing me from his room, I stormed back to my class to pick up my things, angrily kicked open the thick gothic door that had remained operating seamlessly for over one hundred and eighty years, then sat quietly at my desk, plotting my escape from Colditz Castle. It was the 70s. Colditz was a TV series depicting the daring escape attempts of Allied soldiers and British officers from the infamous WW2 Nazi prison. Somehow, my ardent imagination compared the oldest part of my school to the German Renaissance POW establishment, so an escape plan had to be hatched. I had no idea of the working world outside of school, but I knew that I wanted to start earning a wage – even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but that mattered not. No-one told me that education was the key to higher financial reward. The careers counselling ship sailed right past me during my arrogant, junior ignorance phase. I knew everything then. No-one could teach me anything. But in the scheme of life, what I really knew was absolutely nothing but the silent pain of watching my uncles constantly fighting, my grandmother stoking the fire of resentment toward her daughter-in-law, and an idolised grandfather that was gravely ill in hospital. School was just another unwanted chore to weigh me down with conflict, and I didn’t want permanent streaks of black and blue cane marks constantly tattooing my young pale skin, so I opted out rather than be forced into the regimentation of reporting for duty.
Fear and loathing are two emotions that can only co-exist together. They both feed off each other, goading their counterpart into going one better. However, they are a combined mindset of unhealthy attitudes when provoked. By not allowing me the benefit of the doubt, Kenneth Crook had managed to do just that. He created a fear and loathing that propelled me in the opposite direction from him like two opposing poles of a magnet. For the rest of the week, I avoided him and his fluttering robe that gave him the appearance of a British QC rushing down a corridor to a court case. He was the enemy captor, and I was the covert, rebellious teenager biding my time in captivity. Fortunately for me, the time for school camp was approaching, signifying the upcoming summer break. That was always a welcome escape from the dreary days of school incarceration. I had recently turned the legal school leaving age, so I decided that a week at camp would be my last hurrah at Grammar school.
Had I known then about Mr. Crook what I know now, I most certainly would have respected his authority, or at least tried to. He had every right to reprimand me. Maybe not the caning part, but most definitely the regimentation that he tried to instil in my obstinate brain. I hadn’t known that he fought in WW2, nor did I realise as part of the signal corps, he helped set up Winston Churchill’s War Room, nor did I realise he had been evacuated from Northern France, just before the Dunkirk extraction. He was then promoted to the rank of Major, commanding over five hundred men of the Home Forces signal Corps in South-East England at a secret Hertfordshire location, training for an expected German invasion on home soil. More solemnly, I did not know that during my lengthy disappearance from school duties, his wife of thirty-six years had died. I also had no idea of his dedication to teaching - and in particular - teaching at my school. In his early days of Grammar school employment, he would spend up to six hours commuting back and forth from home, denying him the quality family life he deserved with his wife and son. Part of that travel would be to flag down a freight train to take him to a junction that could see him onto other transport headed in the direction of St. Marylebone Station, just around the corner from the historical school. He would often stay late for extra-curricular duties at the school, so family life became second to the betterment of young boys and their education. He was a master of the classics and taught both Latin and Greek.
Had I the interest in history and Latin then, perhaps I might have seen Kenneth Crook in a different light, and it may have been possible for us to communicate on a level that normal people do. We, as pupils, knew little about those that tried to widen our horizons. That may have been more by design than a strategy to create distance between us. A choice to leave the most painful, unspoken of memories in the dark where they could do no damage to their health was probably their way of moving forward in life. Kenneth Crook wasn’t the only war hero at our school. The headmaster also had a story to tell, but these past lives were never relayed to us. They were memories too painful to remember and best hidden away. I wish their histories had been a required part of the curriculum. Knowing the hunger that I now possess for learning about history, I would have ate all of that up. Mr. Crook retired in my last year at Grammar school. A letter sent to my mother advised her to not enrol me for another term, so I sought out employment. A few years later – after a failed apprenticeship as a mechanic, and a successful role as a technical photographer, my mother moved us to the USA. Because of my soccer playing abilities, I was offered a scholarship to a university in the Midwest; however, to secure my place there, I needed to produce my Grammar school records. My hopes hung in the balance until a letter personally written by my old headmaster provided a glowing recommendation, resulting in my admission to university. Whether or not he had consulted Mr. Crook on my predicament, I will never know; however, he did mention in a separate note that he believed in the further education of young people, so for a wayward schoolboy to end up with a BSc in Computer Science, I can only thank those old war heroes with the sincerest of gratitude and a pledge to their memory that even in my older years, I will enthusiastically continue to learn something new each day.
To Mr. Crook, I offer my sincerest apologies for detaching from his world. You may not be with us any longer; however, for someone that I tried my best to avoid, you managed to remain in memory as a reminder that a little regimentation in our lives, helps us focus on what matters.