Brien McMahon High School, Norwalk, Connecticut
Dear Ms Papastathis,
I would like to apologise for my behaviour in 10th-grade Language Arts, fifth period, specifically on that afternoon when I point-blank refused to offer a view about the use of symbolism in The House of the Seven Gables. It must have seemed strange the way I just stared at my folded hands, allowing an uncomfortable silence to ripen, especially after my friend Pete, who was sitting two rows in front of me, had raised his hand to suggest that I might have some particular insight to bring to bear on the use of symbolism in The House of the Seven Gables.
Looking back I can imagine that this sort of refusal to engage is one of the things that makes teaching young people so dispiriting. You may have quite reasonably concluded that I hadn't done the assigned reading, but I had, or most of it. You may have suspected that I was indulging in some juvenile form of rebellion, perhaps at the instigation of my classmates. Or that I was making a pathetic, private point of my own – maybe I objected to the way the term "symbolism" was bandied about so uncritically in the 10th grade. You might have chosen to class the episode as a sudden bout of extreme awkwardness characteristic of late-onset male puberty. Or the boorish sullenness of a shy, self-absorbed young man.
I was, in fact, incredibly high. So was Pete. Now I can't even remember what happens in The House of Seven Gables, but I learned a lesson that day, just the same.
Federal Government Girls' College, Sagamu, Nigeria
Dear Mrs Nwokebelu,
Where to begin? I've given it much thought, and all evidence points to Malory Towers, that blatant propaganda fed to us since we could read. Our boarding school in Sagamu, Nigeria, was a world away from Cornwall; where Malory Towers had rock pools and riding stables, we had elephant grass and soldier ants. But the one thing we had in common with Darrell and Sally and the rest of the gang was midnight feasts. And you, Nwonky – that's what we called you, you see – were charged with bringing these clandestine gatherings down. This meant you had to trudge through the bush from your house in staff quarters, in the middle of the night and armed with only a torch, to sniff out the contraband – tinned sadines, Indomie noodles, boiling rings, cream cakes – that we had snuck in past prefects and mistresses. It meant you had to hoist your not inconsiderable bulk into the roof cavities we'd stored them in. You conducted your on-the-spot inspections, knowing from our smirks and whispers that you were unlikely to find anything. The frustration must have driven you up the wall.
I'm so sorry. I hope your hip recovered. It certainly felt that way when you caned us.
Northgate School for Girls, Ipswich
Dear Miss Paxman,
You were my favourite teacher and you taught my favourite subject: biology. I loved dissection. I loved the smell of chloroform in the morning … No, really. I used to regularly pass out in your lessons from sniffing it in the lab. You used to have to slap me awake. But I loved that you pointed out on your own body where your ovaries were. Underneath your white coat! For in sex education, it was just rabbits and syphilis. I loved that you were very scary and decided what it was we should know. The school could stuff itself.
I was terrified when you shouted at me for killing a worm even though we were dissecting worms. I must respect the worm for it would teach me in the end, you screamed. I loved the fact that you knew I was "bad" but told my mum I could do more than work in a shop. My mum said you were probably a lesbian. What normal woman would want to do biology; or "cutting up rats", as she called it?
But unlike most of the teachers I knew, you would not refuse to answer my questions. Instead you hinted at what could be known from working hard. Somehow, you made me understand that looking inside things makes people able to look outside them too. You embodied the confidence that comes from knowing an awful lot but you made us see that trying to know anything would take up the rest of our lives.
While we were taking apart dead frogs or drawing flowers we wanted to see the daft smile that sometimes broke through your "scientific" composure. I remember that: your pleasure at us seeing things for the first time. You encouraged my mind to whirr while most of my experience of school was "them" trying to shut it down.
I have no idea how you would fit into the lockdown that "education" has since become. You were your own woman. That was, to me, an actual amazing fact. I am sorry that I never became a biologist, but when I left school at 16 you simply said: "You are making a mistake, but go. And keep your eyes open. It's all there to see." So that's life. Biology, even? And sorry, miss, about the worm murder. I was just overexcited.
Yours always, Suzanne
Latham House School, Manchester
Dear Mr Roberg,
Even five-year-olds have feelings. Just because I told the dinner lady to fuck off for stealing my balloon is no reason for hauling me out in front of the school by my ear and threatening ne with "double punishment". Also, why did you have to call out Sharon and humiliate her just for being my sister? She didn't do anything wrong.
Kersal High School, Manchester
Dear Mrs Tierney,
I was actually a brilliant cook before I came to your domestic science lessons. How was I to know that "elbow grease" didn't actually exist? No, I wasn't taking the piss when I asked where it was.
Simon J Hattenstone
Dear Mr Todd,
Thank you for thanking me for coming to detention. I found it very touching when you said I was the first boy who had ever turned up and promised that you would never give me detention again.
Cheers, Simon Hattenstone
Dear Mrs Milme,
I know Steve is a bit on the dull side, but I really felt for him when you said: "Steve you are soooooh boring," just because he asked you, again, whether time really existed.
Love Simon (Hattenstone)
Dear Mrs French Teacher,
Sorry for sticking pins on your seat. It must have been painful.
Yours sincerely, Simon Hattenstone
Dear Mr Pexton,
I wish you hadn't put in my report: "Simon has adapted so quickly to school he has rapidly become the class fool." My mum was very upset. She started crying and went straight to bed.
Yours curiously, Simon Hattenstone
Dear Mr Butcher,
I remember so clearly the day you introduced yourself to us in the gym. "My name is Butcher. That is spelt B.A.S.T.A.R.D. Got it." PS I thought you'd take redundancy the day they banned corporal punishment.
Dear Mr Davies,
You know when you used to say: "Give the boy a biscuit!" and: "Give the girl a banana!" when we answered questions correctly? Why didn't you?
Yours curiously, Simon Hattenstone
Dear Mr Gadja,
Sorry for saying: "Oy, Nobby, over here," in class. It was disrespectful. I know your real name is Norbert, and I know that even though I know it's Norbert really I should call you Mr Gadja. I understand now that only your best friends call you Nobby, and I'm not one of them.
Eccles Sixth Form College
Dear Mr Computer Studies teacher,
Sorry for climbing out of the window when I saw you coming into class. At least it was the ground floor. (I'd had a drink.)
Yours faithfully, Simon Hattenstone
(former part-time student)
Dear Mr so-called Roger Noel-Smith,
With reference to our conversation yesterday, I still disagree with you. Just because you say The Wasteland is an optimistic poem doesn't mean I have to think that too. I think the Wasteland is brilliant, but really depressing. When you explained to me a second time, and asked if I'd changed my mind … well that was bullying. And the third time was unforgivable. Especially when you called me an "obstreperous bastard". Anyway, I thought you might like to know I went straight to the head, told him what had happened, ripped off my school tie and shirt told him I wanted to leave his crappy grammar school. Anyway I have left … yes, I know six weeks isn't much of a stay. PS apparently, I've been expelled.
Hattenstone (as you called me)
Dear Mrs Beattie,
I was so terrified when I met you the first time. It's not just that you were really fat and shouted so loud. Everything about you was scary. All the teachers were frightened of you, too. But you were brilliant; the best-ever form teacher. The way that you screamed at us if we'd done something wrong in someone else's lesson, and then went to defend us to that teacher. The way you made us believe we were capable of anything if we put our mind to it. I hated art, and was ashamed at my inability to draw anything that resembled anything. So of course I mucked about. The way you took me aside and said I could do it, and I just had to concentrate on the lines, and if it was no good start again.
Do you remember how you made me draw, then paint, that photograph of the tennis player Nastase, and it was a bit crap at first but by the end I was so unbelievably proud of it? You could even see the veins in his legs. Mind over matter, you said, or something like that – and you were right. We thought you were an ogre, but you turned out to be the fairest person on earth.
There was the time I did really well in my mocks in everything but geography, and you said: "Simon has done brilliantly this year, and was only let down by his geography where he didn't work hard enough." I said I had worked hard but was rubbish at it, and asked if you'd changed my report, and you rewrote it saying, "Simon has done brilliantly except for geography, which he's not very good at." Thanks Mrs B. Hope you're still teaching up there.
Lots of love,
Haberdasher's Aske's School, Acton
Dear Miss Denton,
I'd like to apologise, for myself and my whole class, for being generally horrid and playing such a nasty trick on you, 56 years ago in maths lessons. Because you were one of our least horrid teachers. You were young, rather shy, pleasant, blushed easily, and so we attacked. Because it was easy. We couldn't do much about the really horrid old witch teachers who made our lives hell, like Miss Titmuss, the RE teacher, who shook us whenever possible, or Miss Ashley, with her grey sausage curls and outrageous punishments – Latin detention for me, for jumping down three steps into the playground. No, Miss Denton, you were sweet and kind. So you got it in the neck.
One day, you had just got to the end of a gigantic sum, which had taken us half the lesson to do, and which you'd written up on the board. You wrote in the answer, and then were suddenly called away to the telephone. One of us, I'm not telling who, because we all egged her on, rubbed out the answer and changed it.
Back you came. "Please Miss," we said. "You've got the answer wrong.'"And you had to go through the whole gigantic sum again, until you got the right answer, and then apologised meekly for your silly mistake. We all looked very serious. You probably never knew that it was all a nasty joke. How we laughed when we got out of class. But why? You were never nasty to any of us. So, sorry Miss Denton. We liked you really.
Queen Margaret Academy, Ayr
Dear wood- and metalwork teacher,
I am sorry that we didn't pay attention and ignored the safety briefing in favour of re-enacting the previous night's The Young Ones (the mouse episode).
I'm sorry that when you said to me: "You're good at maths, you should be a civil engineer, it's starting to be a fascinating industry for women," I blew out my fringe (grown to cover spots) and tutted and didn't bother to look into it even a tiny little bit, or do my technical drawing homework, and as a consequence got a dreadful report.
If the books hadn't worked out, creating roads and bridges and airports would have been vastly more fulfilling and rewarding than the junior public-sector admin role that was my only alternative. And now I've married an engineer, and have a son looking that way and he says: "I'm going to be an engineer like daddy," and I hiss "civil engineer" at him. Then I tell him to go talk to his grandpa. Because as every teacher's child knows, it's bloody awful being taught by your own dad, however much you love them. And when we walk down the streets of my home town, the number of gainfully employed, useful, successful, handy boys who come up and say: "Hello, Mr Colgan" (you never recognise them. Being a retired teacher in a small town is a bit like being a retired rock star), and thank you copiously for everything you did for them makes me feel even more foolish than I undoubtedly was back then.
With love, Jennifer xxxx
All said and done, I had a great school life. However, as I grow older I find myself thinking more and more about why I have found it so hard to forget the time you called my mother to the school to tell her that you saw me holding hands with a white girl whose parents were "middle class" and that they would be very upset about it as the races really shouldn't be mixing in this way.
I have found it harder to forget the time you called me into your office and told me that because of the "structure of the black mouth" I would never really be able to speak English properly. What I find hardest of all, however, is that after all these years I have not forgiven you for these comments. I find it rather distasteful that I haven't, truth be told, because I have often preached to myself that I have long learned to hate the crime but not the criminal – or, more pertinently, hate the sin of racism and not the sinner. This was evidently not the truth in your case.
I am writing to you now to say I am sorry that I have only remembered you through that narrow and bitter lens. That the memory of those and similar events have clouded over the many good things you must have done for me while at your school. Many things that I'm sure sit positively at the heart of who I am today. You hired a brilliant teacher who made a huge and wonderful impact on my life! So there, this letter writing forgiveness stuff is working already. We are all bigger than our wrongs, right? I shall endeavour to remember that when I next think of you and my childhood.
Yours kinda sincerely (I'm working on it),
Lister Comprehensive, Plaistow
Dear Preston Thomas,
You were head of the lower school, deputy head, head, and my A-level tutor for economics, and there are a few things I might usefully get off my chest. The boy who surreptitiously gave a Refresher-shaped laxative to the greedy classmate who was stealing everyone's sweets, occasioning a hygiene crisis in Humanities? That was me. The waste of space whose spat with another pupil spilled from the classroom on to the gravel pitch and ended up with us chasing each other in circles around the playground, pursued by the supply teacher who never came again? Yep, guilty. I was one of the shadowy figures who were able to let themselves back into the school in the early evening by dint of a purloined skeleton key.
It all seems quite silly now but I am sure that had you been able to pull together the various strands and establish a pattern, you would have dealt with it in that calm, authoritative, sensible and humorous way that you dealt with everything. It was the funniest thing. We weren't scared of you; but at the same time, we thought we shouldn't mess with you. You said that I should opt for A-level economics, ignoring my protests about deficiencies in maths. You were right.
And then there's the occasion I carry with me. It occurred in the sixth form when I commandeered an empty classroom as a changing room and was locked in by schoolmates who, for good measure, had stolen my shorts and trousers. That took some explaining when the melee caught your attention, but you didn't ask for an explanation. "You don't stop making mistakes as you get older," you said with a wry smile. "You just hope to make fewer."
Witney Grammar School
Dear Miss Mitchell,
I'm glad to have this opportunity to apologise for having been such an absolute little cow during the years you taught me German, French and Russian. Although you are now at rest in the great staffroom in the sky, I still feel a pang of shame when I recall how badly I behaved during your lessons.
I remember your patient sigh when you caught me inking in little black spots on my legs below the holes in my black tights, or painting on pearlised orange nail-polish under the desk. You pretended not to notice my CND badge, banned on school premises, or the whiffs of cigarette smoke that lingered in the girls' toilets. I hope you never read any of the cruel notes my friends and I passed around in class, commenting on your appearance, and speculating on your love life. I felt ashamed when I learned, afterwards, that you'd lost your fiance during the second world war, and teaching us became your life instead. I would like to thank you for your perseverance.
As you must have guessed, at heart I was always a little swot, and at home in private I practised those strange gargling sounds you taught us, and memorised the Lorelei song, and long passages of Phèdre and Evgeny Onegin.
And thanks to you, even after all these years, I can still pull off a cool subjunctive, which impresses the Frenchies no end.
Do svidanya, auf wiedersehen, adieu,
Which former teacher would you write to, and what would you apologise for? Post your letter below
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