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Teach your children well

April 1, 2014


I was sad to hear today of the passing of one of my former teachers, Vic McLellan. He had the unenviable task of trying to improve both my Latin and my cricket whilst I was at school, and managed to attempt both with a fair amount of humour, sharp though it usually was.

I am currently writing a book on education, based on my own experiences, both at school and as a teacher for 37 years, ending up as a Deputy Head. Inevitably, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on bygone days and the impact that teachers have on their pupils. I’ve discovered that what we remember, what remains important to us, and the effect of teachers on pupils, is not as straightforward as one might think.

Vic was not the most influential of my teachers. Latin was a chore to me and, for all his efforts, I was never going to reward his cricket coaching with anything but middle of the road ability. However, he had a habit of turning up wherever I was, and, I have to admit, I found that quite comforting.

I actually knew of him before he ever taught me.

At my school, St Mary’s Crosby, on Merseyside, there was a long corridor in the science department; along its walls were placed photographs of distinguished former pupils. This being the early sixties, and a boys school, the black frames housed pictures of earnest 18 year olds, in university blazers and ties, staring boldly at the camera – equally embarrassed and proud of their academic success. To our 60s eyes, they all looked as if they were in their forties! Amongst them was Victor McLellan, proud winner of a scholarship to London University in 1954 looking practically identical to the Latin and cricket teacher who now walked these very corridors. It’s not cool now to admit it and it would have been peer suicide to have mentioned it then, but reviewing the corridor of success, this pupil, at least, used to wonder if he would ever emulate them one day.

Eventually, he became my Latin teacher. Those were very different times for teaching and education. Formality ruled the classroom, surnames rather than Christian names were the norm and most teachers employed a kind of sarcastic wit to ‘engage’ with their pupils – at least in our school. Vic was a master of this – indeed, all my life when struggling to define the term ‘acerbic’, Vic’s comments and ripostes have come to mind.

However, whilst some staff gave the impression they employed such an approach to belittle pupils and bully them, with Vic, I always had the impression that it was a disguise for a kind of robust affection. Later when I came to know him as an adult, I suspected I had been right. For all that, you wouldn’t want to forget your homework or become distracted in his classes and while he could be hugely humorous, he also had the ability to be cutting, especially when he felt we were not adhering to his high standards.

By the time I was in my later teens, I would bump into him at my local cricket club, Southport and Birkdale, and he would be relaxed enough to use my school nickname, ‘Jock’ when chatting to me; it felt a bit like praise.

When I returned to my hometown of Edinburgh to attend university, Vic had made a similar move and was assistant head at St Augustine’s High School in the west of the city. Despite being a long held ambition, returning to my birthplace at 18, twelve years after I had left, was not as easy as I had hoped. There were two of us from St Mary’s starting at Edinburgh. The other guy was not a particular friend of mine and was socially rather awkward. However, Vic made a point of inviting us out to his house for a meal shortly after we had arrived in Edinburgh.

It must have been a strange evening. In those days, pupils had no inkling of their teacher’s private lives outside of school, and given the formality of the classroom, relationships were quite minimal. Vic and his wife, Annette, were lovely hosts – she was quite stunning, as well as friendly, and Vic in relaxed mode was hugely amusing.

I chattered away non-stop and my fellow pupil sat quietly saying very little. Eventually, I made noises about leaving and Vic said he would give us a run back to Halls of Residence. I demurred, saying we would be happy to get a bus. This received a classic Vic response:
“No you won’t. It’s half past one in the morning, the last bus went two hours ago!” This was delivered with a twinkle in the eye and a rattling of car keys.

It was typical that Vic would think to invite us out to his house for a meal and then be a charming host till that hour in the morning – especially in times so different to these.

When I finished at university, four years later, I immediately joined a local cricket club: Holy Cross Academicals. I remember turning up for my first net practice, only to find a familiar figure bowling at speed with his familiar slingy action.

“Hallo, Jock – hope you’ve improved since your school days!”

Again, his presence helped me settle, and it was good to start forging a friendship based on a shared pastime.

I then went to Moray House College, and, as it happened, my first school for teaching practice placement a year later was St Augustine’s High – and I wondered if I might see Vic again. Having to negotiate buses from the far side of the city, I was a few minutes late. Flustered, I ran in to the secretary’s office and she indicated the door through which I should go for the welcome meeting.

I burst into the room to find half a dozen students gathered round a desk at which Vic was sitting. Hardly breaking his flow he looked up, raised an eyebrow, said “Good morning, Jock. Glad you could make it.” He turned back to the puzzled students and said: “I already know this one,” and carried on his welcome.

In a strange way it was very settling!

Thereafter, my connections with Vic lessened as he eventually moved back to the Liverpool area where he had a successful career in education – including being headteacher in a number of schools. He continued to be a forceful character – one of the last mentions I saw of him in the press was a fairly spirited defence of corporal punishment, – but I would occasionally see him at Southport and Birkdale when Lancashire played there regularly. It was always pleasant to bump into him on the boundary and chat. Inevitably there would be laughter and reminiscence – and the odd dig or two, and then a pat on the arm: “Good to see you, Jock – take care!”

I contacted him some time ago through one of those ‘old school sites’. He had retired and been through a serious operation. With a classic McLellanism, he described it thus: “Now all my plumbing is on the outside – like the Pompideau Building!”

It’s a strange thing to say, but I found the power of the human spirit over adversity contained in that remark to be quite inspiring – and a sign that the original Vic was still very much alive and kicking. How wonderful for a teacher to be still inspiring his pupils in such circumstances and after so many years.

Vic was a great Quiz man, and I have pals in Southport who, over the years, have confirmed when meeting him, the humour was the same, the gruff affection and the sharpness. It’s fitting that the only picture I found of him on the internet, used at the head of this blog, was from last year, with a Quiz Trophy – I find that very comforting.

So, while I am sad to hear of his passing, I can’t help but feel proud to have known him, and grateful for his impact on my life. He was an intelligent, thoughtful and committed teacher, a man who was never afraid to show his Faith, and an individual who never did things by halves. Despite the differences in our approaches to the profession and the times in which we taught, he was a role model and I hope I lived up to his standards.

Coincidentally, in the Blog I write for Cricket Scotland, I make reference to a ‘Vic moment’ at the end of its current edition. I had been writing tongue in cheek last week about coaching, and finished the piece with something which happened when Holy Cross were on tour and played against Southport and Birkdale in the 1980s. I was bowling badly and being carted all over the ground. At the end of a particularly horrendous over, Vic, who was umpiring, gave me my cap with a ‘Dear me!’ and a shake of his head. I should really have known better – but I replied with a bit of a pout:
“Well – it was you who taught me how to bowl!”
“Yes, ” he said with a world weary sigh. “But I didn’t tell you to do it with your eyes closed!”

All teachers want to make a difference. Vic McLellan certainly did.

I will miss him, and his humour, his energy, and his commitment. I’ve always expected him to turn up somewhere with that crooked smile and witty comment.

A bit of a hero, really. God bless him.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Kerr permalink
    April 1, 2014 12:54 pm

    Sad to hear of his passing. Well remember playing with him for HXCC late ’60s/early 70s. Mind a Sunday game at Peebles. Some kids larking about with a chair on the boundaty. Vic bellowed “put that down”. They did so at once as the rest of the Cross players jumped to attention. Lovely tribute McP.

  2. Brian Cummins permalink
    April 1, 2014 1:22 pm

    I came across Vic quite often in recent years as we were frequent quiz opponents. The first time I went to play at S and B, I walked in to the bar, and a familiar voice said “Hello Cube”. I don’t think I’d seen him for 15 years or more, but there was no mistaking Vic, one of the few St Mary’s teachers to give me the strap.

    I knew he was ill, but I didn’t realise he had died.He’ll be missed.

  3. Nicky Whiles (McLellan) permalink
    April 7, 2014 11:17 pm

    We are all devasted by the loss of an amazing husband and father. Thank you so much for this tribute.

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