The story of the teacher who turned out to be the most influential man I ever had the privilege of knowing, and the profound effect he had in my life.
There I was, eleven years old and already an avid reader of horror and science fiction. I would loved to have been able to translate the fevered imaginings of my young brain into words on paper that made sense, but I had never found the time. It was my first day at secondary school and the next lesson was boring old English. I was yawning, but not for long.
The classroom door suddenly burst open and in he walked. At only five feet two he was barely taller than I was, yet he radiated energy like a miniature sun, bounding along as if on springs. Mr Gough – piercing blue eyes, half hidden behind glasses that always perched perilously close to the end of his snub nose – and filled with an infectious enthusiasm for language that had me spellbound from day one.
To my surprise and delight, he held up a book – The collected works of Edgar Allen Poe – and asked if anyone had read it. I put my hand up, because Poe was a favourite of mine, and Mr Gough looked me directly in the eye and asked if I felt I really understood what the author had tried to say. My reply in the affirmative made him smile, and he asked me to write him an essay detailing my thoughts on that subject.
English classes had already acquired a sudden new interest for me, and I was paying attention in a way I would never before have thought possible. This little man brought pages of what at first seemed boring text to life, just by getting his listeners to involve themselves in whatever the story was. “Don’t just read it.” He would say. “Live it. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine how you would react to the things they have to face.”
It didn’t matter what the subject for the day was – be it the poetry of Wordsworth or the plays of Shakespeare – Mr Gough was lost in awe of the literary genius that had enabled the authors to leave such a rich legacy behind them. His sense of wonder gave an energetic vitality to his teaching that made every lesson a joy, every exercise in writing an irresistible challenge.
English classes became sessions of amateur dramatics, because he felt that you had to act out Shakespeare to truly understand it, and of course he was right. I was, though I hate to say it, his star pupil, simply because his inimitable teaching style brought out the very best in me, pushing me to give my fertile brain free rein. Not that I was his favourite, because in one respect, I let him down badly.
His other passion, and one I could never get to grips with, for was for the game of cricket. Often, after English class we would get changed and troop out on the sports field, where our dynamo of a little teacher wanted us to put as much effort into our cricket practice as we did unto our written work. I simply never could or did, and to this day I feel that he was disappointed.
One day I asked him if he would be good enough to read a science fiction story that I had sweated over. He agreed, and when he later came to give me his verdict – which I was dreading – he was full of enthusiasm for my zeal and critical only in the most helpful way. As the years in school passed, the two of us developed a real bond, and he was convinced that my future would be that of a writer.
Of course, at sixteen there were far weightier issues on my mind than the precarious living to be gleaned from writing. I wanted girls, football and fun. A job that would give me money to enjoy these things was more important than the ravings of an eccentric teacher, so the writing had to take a back seat for a while. The day I left school, I could swear there was a tear in Mr Gough’s eye – for what he thought might have been – but I hadn’t time to dwell on it.
His parting words to me made little sense to me then, though today I think I understand them.
“ You have a gift, Tony, and one day you’ll come to realise how valuable it is. Make use of it if you want your life to be complete.”
Years passed. I would still dabble at writing now and again, producing love poems to order for friends trying to impress girls, in exchange for drinks, but no serious writing efforts. It wasn’t until I reached my forties that I finally listened to that inner voice and began to write for the real love of it, and the adventure that this pastime brought back into my life.
Language is such a beautiful thing and words so very expressive, but would I ever truly have understood that if I had not been fortunate enough to be blessed with a teacher whose own light shone so brightly? Somehow I doubt it, because Mr Gough left me, and others I am sure, with the most precious legacy of all – a passion for the written word, and a burning desire to put pen to paper.
Every time I sit down now to produce something new, I see those piercing eyes and that dynamic smile. Mr Gough was more than just a teacher of English, because he gave me invaluable lessons in life, too. Strange as it may seem, my only hope is that I won’t disappoint him, should he ever read the words I write today. His favourite cry was “How’zat?” and somehow I think he’d approve, even though it isn’t cricket.