In which I remember an inspirational teacher

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I had an email from the alumni office at my school earlier this week, saying that one of my favourite teachers was seriously ill and not expected to recover. Yesterday morning I got another email informing everyone that he’d passed away earlier that day. He was not yet fifty.

You don’t expect your teachers to die. When you leave school, it’s as if they’re frozen at the point you last saw them, and it’s easy to forget that time is passing for them as much as it is for us. I went back for my ten year reunion in 2010 and aside from the shock of seeing that half my male classmates are now balding, it was the aging of the teachers that really hit me.

Mr P (he had a very distinctive surname so I won’t write it in full) was one of those teachers who always stood out. Larger than life, life and soul of the party, all those clichés. He taught theology and philosophy, which I took for both GCSE and A Level, and it’s proof of his great teaching that I not only got my best grade in this subject but also even thoroughly enjoyed the two A Level modules we had to do on the Old Testament. (Even now I can talk about the split between the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, the E, J, P and D strands in the Bible, and the fact that there are two creation stories in Genesis that are spliced messily together.)

He was also my personal tutor for Sixth Form so we’d meet up twice a term, he and the four of his tutees (which included best friend Z), and we’d head out for tea and cake in town, ostensibly to chat about how things were going for us with essays and UCAS and work, but also to share gossip about the rest of the Sixth Form and the teachers.

Mr P accompanied six of us on a memorable trip to Durham University for a Sixth Form debating competition. Durham was his alma mater and also full of former students from our school. In the evening he took us out nightclubbing, despite all of us being underage and despite the uneasiness of the other teacher who was trying to curb Mr P’s exuberance at being back in his university city. He ended up four sheets to the wind and at the end of the night, started throwing stones at a former student’s window, before running off and leaving three of us – all girls – to find our way back to our bed and breakfast in an unfamiliar city. It’s a testament to Mr P’s charm that when I recounted this story to my parents, they just laughed.

After our final Sixth Form ball, about five of us went back to his house and watched Ally McBeal – Mr P was a big Calista Flockhart fan and the new series had started that night. I was supposed to stay with Z that night but it was about 6am when we finally walked in her door, only to be greeted by her mother standing in the kitchen, ironing silently and furiously, demanding (in fierce whispers so as not to wake everyone else) to know where the hell we’d been and did we know what time it was and how worried she’d been? Again, it’s testament to Mr P’s character that she relaxed completely when we told her what had happened. When I tell this story to some people they raise their eyebrows but it was all very innocent. He was just a people person who enjoyed being the host.

The man had no sense of time – he refused to wear a watch, claiming “my time is my own”. Fair enough, but it meant he often turned up ten or fifteen minutes late for lessons. He came down for our reunion – but turned up three hours after it started and missed lunch! He was also incredibly disorganised and essays would come back weeks or months late. The fact the school made him Director of Studies and in charge of timetabling always seemed an odd appointment. When he got this role he moved into a new office which he painted completely pink – the school knew it as “Mr P’s pink parlour”. He even had some decanters in there. But all this was just part of his character and what made him so memorable.

The people reading this won’t know Mr P, and outside of the schools he taught in, his name won’t be widely known. But the effect he had on people was evident yesterday when everyone from my old school who’s on Facebook made a comment about how inspirational he was. To be remembered with such warmth and love is surely one of the best memorials anyone can hope for.  He made my school days, and clearly many other people’s, a lot richer and a lot more fun. He will be sorely missed.

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