a reflection on eleven years in Chestnut Grove School
by Philip Spires
about 34 years I have kept a commonplace book. It’s not a diary, not a place
to record mundane reactions to the prosaic, but a kind of mental scrapbook
where raw snippets of interest are jotted to be, perhaps, reworked later.
When I was asked to contribute to the school’s history, I thought I would
have a rich vein to mine.
11 years in the school, starting in 1976. I taught maths and computer
studies, as it was then called. I was the rogue who drilled through the
walls of the school one summer holiday to install a kilometre of coaxial
cable to network the whole building at a time when IT teachers coveted their
empires. Jack Cates, the school keeper, turned a blind eye or two as each
day I arrived brandishing an 18-inch drill bit. And so we had a computer
network based in the library, but linked to several other classrooms. My
efforts were undermined by a talented student who wrote a BASIC program that
mimicked the 480Z start-up screen and then issued witty but bogus error
messages when you tried to log on. It fooled all of us for weeks.
to my archive. What was amazing was to realise that over the 11 years I
worked there, the school appeared in my notes only half a dozen times. A
student asked what Ethiopia had to do with Hitler because he had heard
people say, “Heill Isolase!” I was reading Bertrand Russell one day when a
student asked me what it was. I read him a short passage and his answer was,
“Is that in English, sir?” The fire, which removed the roof of the old
building and sent the maths department into a wandering exile for a year,
happened during a half term holiday late in 1982. And then there was the
whole school re-discovery week-end with Rod Usher and Douglas Hamblin. I’m
sure it did some good.
not the events that count; it’s the people. I have not lived in Britain for
15 years and not worked in Balham for 20. And yet, on a recent visit, I met
one of my personal tutees in a building society queue. One of my A level
maths students was sitting in an Indian take-away when I went for my chana
aloo and chapati. And another tutee was on the tills in the supermarket. The
last of these was still as small and slight as she was at thirteen, but she
reminded me that she is in her forties now.
characters in particular stir memories, Richard Simmons and Kathleen
Collyer. The latter, always known as Mrs. Collyer, was the lady who did the
staff refreshments. She used to line up the rolls – soft or hard, ham or
cheese – on ranks of pale green plates on the staffroom bar. The hot water
urn had to be filled and turned on at precisely 9:30 each morning. Failure
to do so would receive Mrs. Collyer’s continued recrimination for about a
month after her arrival at 10. So important was this “switching on” task
that a member of the staff association committee was assigned each term with
the job of checking that it had been done. Woe betide a slacker! A levels to
invigilate? Half a mo, I have to dash and switch on the urn first.
Collyer’s hard rolls were inedible unless you flattened them, an act which
would cause most of the upper crust to disintegrate into a pale brown
snowstorm of flakes, with an associated, if dull crunch. Fred Morley’s dog,
which always accompanied him wherever he went, including into class, used to
lick them off the carpet whilst his master waited for his tea. And Mrs.
Collyer also greeted everyone by name, often wrongly, as they ordered, so we
had staff members called Tingly, Hildebrick, Car, Candy and one day, I swear
it, we had a Mr. Gonad.
came the frightful day of “the decision”. I can still remember the sense of
trepidation that suffused through the members of the staff association when
the words, “Action: Ask Mrs. Collyer if we can have salad in the rolls” were
written into the minutes. Who would undertake such a mission? And would they
survive? Well, we got the salad, but it took Mrs. Collyer years to get used
to the idea. Her words, “Oh, so they want salad in their rolls now” became a
catch phrase amongst the staff and was employed to refer to any obviously
impossible task, of which in our school there were always many, or so it
seemed. But she was always there and she always delivered.
And so to
Richard Simmons, the Media Resources Officer whose centrally-located den was
very much the hub of the school. He was a
“guaranteed-to-break-the-ice-at-parties” “can-do” scuba-diving jazz musician
who kept spirits up with his manner and wit. But one day his enthusiasm got
the better of him and he accepted a bet that he could and would jump off the
back of the Thames pleasure boat that the staff association had rented for
the end of term do. Yes, he did it. The police were called. The pleasure
boat did boring circles for an hour looking for him. The police launch ran
aground off Barnes Reach and had to be towed off the bank. Frank Thorn,
marooned on board, was embarrassed beyond recall and didn’t speak to any of
the staff association committee for months.
happened to Richard? Well, he swam ashore and, resplendent in only socks and
underpants, padded up the mud to a landfall in Hammersmith. It was a fair
way back to Balham, where he had left the car and where, if lucky, he might
be reunited with his clothes. In such a predicament, in socks and
underpants, wet though and covered in mud, what might one do in Hammersmith,
or Putney, for that matter, to avoid unwanted attention or even arrest?
Answer – jog. Naked, wet and dirty? Just jog and the world will ignore you.
Again Richard was ever present and gave his all to the school.
And I have hardly mentioned the students, the thousands of them that passed
by in those eleven years. But I remember many of them clearly and when I
meet them along Balham High Road I can still put a name to a face. I hope,
as I do so, that I have contributed just a little, as an educator, to their
well being, their memories, their jogging, their salad.