Of one who went before

“He was a man, take him all in all. I shall not see his like again.” – Hamlet

Mr Bremner was unusual for a teacher in a rural New Zealand school in the 1960s. He drove a French car, a ‘Pew-joe’, and regularly travelled to Europe with his wife in the summer holidays. He was locally born, and evidently came from a strict background. He told us that his mother told him off for using the word ‘darn’ even though he was only asking her to repair his socks. But I felt safe around him, even while the rest of my life was subject to unpredictability. He had a lean, suntanned face, and the kind of authoritative stillness that no one would dream of challenging, inside or outside the classroom.

At break times, Mr Bremner would walk around the playground with various children accompanying, holding or clutching him. In the classroom, there was constant variety. We made our own drums, so we could learn about percussion. We learned about Captain Cook’s journeys and his skill in mapping, to coincide with the bicentenary of his first visit. We listened in awe to the school intercom as the first man stepped on to the surface of the moon. We learned about the French-British wars in Canada, and drew pictures of famous battles in the New Zealand wars.

Mr Bremner had a good singing voice and he taught us folk songs and traditional hymns. He would stop and correct us if we were drifting from the melody, as children will, and insisted on faithful reproduction. Once we were sure of ourselves we would join in with gusto. He had a Swiss army knife which he used to divide up any food we might wish to consume in his classroom: the rule, he said, was that it was all right to eat, but everyone had to have some. He introduced us to Swiss cheese, and olives, in a setting where a hamburger was a culinary novelty.

I pitched up in Mr Bremner’s class because I was doing too well in the class below. The solution to this problem was to put me into a situation where I was more ‘challenged’. As a nervous eight-year-old, I joined a class of older children and fairly quickly felt out of my depth. Mr Bremner ran a much more orderly classroom than I was used to, and he was, if my memory is accurate, my first male teacher. Mr Bremner was ramrod straight, alert and not at all motherly. In his class I felt all over the pain of beginning again. He had a different set of standards.

There was a hinged blackboard which he opened out on that first morning to reveal a 12 x 12 grid which had been etched into its surface. Inside each square was a neatly chalked number between 1 and 12. Mr Bremner would choose a student. He would point to a row or column, and give them a number by which each item in that row or column had to be multiplied. I was alarmed; I had not experienced this kind of public assessment before. But then he held out a stopwatch. And timed us.

I don’t really remember how long my first attempt took, but I think I had to multiply by six and I think it took 36 seconds, by far the slowest in the class. It may have been longer and I have simply repressed the details. I do remember the sense of humiliation and embarrassment.

Lest, dear reader, you imagine that this is a tale of how authoritarian practices shamed me and destroyed my self-esteem, let me spare you misplaced indignation. As a result of this experience, I went home and practised. I practised a lot. I became much faster. I practised until I was the fastest in the class, well, at least first equal – Susannah and I both managed correct runs at nine seconds each, but much to my chagrin, I never managed to beat her. When I left high school years later, mathematics, though not my favourite, was my highest scoring subject, thanks to Mr Bremner.

I hated swimming, not because I don’t like swimming but because I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of breathing only when my mouth was out of the water. As soon as my face went in, a kind of panic came over me. It didn’t help that I was as skinny as a beanpole and would be shivering violently if it was a cool day. But Mr Bremner insisted that I get at least one sticker on my swimming certificate, and made me keep going. So I gasped and splashed my way around the pool, and won my sticker. Which was a lot more than any other teacher got out of me.

In a world before calculators, computers, the internet, Google and the horrors of twenty-first-century non-skills, Mr Bremner knew that we needed our times tables. He knew this not because he was a cruel authoritarian, a despot, or some kind of child-hater. He knew it because he was a well-informed, well-travelled man who cared about his students and was an expert in how to teach them well. No one ever taught me with quite the same impact on my confidence, and that came not from being told I was wonderful but being told to do it again, and better this time. He was kind, but he wasn’t there to let me fail.

Mr Bremner took us on nature walks which still live in my memory in the same way that Wordsworth felt about his daffodils – I return again in my mind to see him point out a lark over the fields, the birds’ nests, to roll back a log to reveal creatures from another world, all of whom he knew by name. I remember the hot sun beating down on the dusty gravel road, vanishing as it ran towards the blue-hazed hills on a December afternoon. I remember the freedom, and a deep satisfaction.

When the weather wasn’t so good, we would sit in the classroom, half-dreaming, as he read us another chapter of the Adventures of Grump, an old tramp true to his name who was always falling into scrapes and escaping again by quick thinking and not a little luck. Mr Bremner didn’t just read the story: he was Grump, in all his moods and movements. He was unafraid of the dramatic pause, for none of us would dare to disturb his storytelling. For many of us, this was restful; for me, it was sustenance. I grew inside.

The next year I was still in Mr Bremner’s class, and had found my feet. But my parents lost their business and left town abruptly. I don’t remember saying goodbye, and on reflection I don’t think I could have borne it.

But I have carried those days through the rest of my life, and draw upon them still when I think of beauty, of peace, of safety. They are part of why I teach: because I believe that education has that power, to gift us parts of a life we would otherwise never have known. And because, in my heart, I hope that I can be a little like Mr Bremner.

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2 Responses to Of one who went before

  1. jillberry102 says:

    Found this very powerful and moving – thanks for sharing it.

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