That one teacher you never forget. For all the right reasons.
Smetana’s syphilis drove him mad y’know. Miss Stanway taught me that. Too many prostitutes apparently. I wonder how many prostitutes is too many prostitutes?
Lorna Stanway was the best teacher in the world. Ever. She was vivacious, funny, quirky, immensely talented, and taught music to some talented (but for the most part, completely untalented – like me) kids. She was passionate about her subject. There was nothing she didn’t know. She’d tell us about the STD’s that led to composers’ deaths, their torrid affairs, descents into madness, and sometimes, when the whole GCSE coursework thing became too overbearing and dull, she’d just sit at the piano and bang out a few Beatles tunes that we’d all have a sing song session to for that lesson.
We listened to, talked about, and sang along to them all: Smetana, Queen, Saint-Saens, John Lennon, Mozart…goddam it, even Christopher Cross. She loved music and was passionate about making the children in her care love it too. Her weekends were spent at school rehearsing productions and putting together concerts. She accompanied some dreadful musicians (me again), and encouraged them with all her heart. She spent her break and lunch times in her classroom listening to angst-ridden teens pour out their woes, and could made us all roar with laughter. She was the reason I wanted to become a teacher and the reason I love music passionately. I now teach English at the school where she taught me, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. One of my oldest school friends will sometimes tease me, “You the school’s new Lorna, yet?”
She left the year I was due to take my music GCSE. I remember sobbing. It was like a physical pain having this person leave my life. She stayed in touch for a few years with many of her pupils, and a few years ago we met for a reunion of kids and staff who’d taken part in productions at school. It was a shock to see her in a wheelchair and coping with MS, but she was still Miss Stanway. Still brilliant, funny, talented and beautiful. I will never ever forget her and the love of life, music and learning she inspired in me.
Her replacement arrived at the beginning of that GCSE year. She knew how to teach us to pass the exam. And that is what we learnt to do. We learnt how to pass an exam to the best of our ability. I achieved a B. I can hold a tune and analyse a few bars, and she taught me to develop those skills in such a way that would ensure I achieved that B. For that I am thankful. I have my ten A-C GCSE’s (A* didn’t exist then – kids must all be cleverer now than back in the day).
Christ it was dull. Oh we did all the things we were supposed to do: the then gimmicky teaching stuff with which I’m now being encouraged to experiment on a daily basis. By the time May of the fifth year came around we were ready for that exam. God knows I could probably pass it again now if I had to. The set pieces for our exam were the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and side A of Queen’s The Works. Here’s the link to Bedrich’s best if you fancy a listen. I’ve listened to it a million gazillion times.
I digress. I wouldn’t have achieved a B with Miss Stanway. I’d have probably scraped a C. We didn’t do much in the way of exam work. And thank god for that. If the exam lady had been the music teacher at my school from the start of my secondary school life, my school memories would be dramatically different: I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
I try every day to emulate Miss Stanway. I teach children that Shakespeare is as much for them as it is for anyone. We pull the sex and murder out of it until they’re shocked and telling me I’m disgusting…”I didn’t write it – Shakespeare did, five hundred years ago!” We rap Browning’s My Last Duchess to Jay Z’s 99 Problems (they’re both full of inappropriate attitudes towards women and the iambic pentameter goes a treat with the karaoke version!) We work twerking in to think about language development over the centuries, we read Mr Men stories then write exaggerated tabloid newspaper articles about them to explore how the media twists facts to entertain its audience, we role play mothers being informed of their son’s death to empathise with Sassoon’s poetry …the list goes on.
Some of the kids I teach are meant to be hitting A’s in their exams this year and next. Some of them aren’t going to do it. Not because they’re thick, but because it’d be like asking me to play keepy-uppy for five minutes. I’ve got arms, legs and a head, so in theory, if I keep practising, I’d eventually be able to do it – right? Never gonna happen. But I’d have a laugh trying. It would be fun putting on the kit and holding the ball. I’d probably learn a few things about football that I didn’t know before. I’d go away with a smile on my face and the feeling I hadn’t been completely excluded from football forever.
That’s what my music teacher did. She knew I wasn’t going to be a great musician. She decided to teach me about music. To inspire me with a knowledge and love of a subject for which her passion and talent was almost tangible.
If I can be even half of the teacher that she was, if – in 25 years – kids look back at my English lessons and smile, if they pick up books for pleasure, remember something about Lady Macbeth’s manipulative spirit, still imagine Carol Ann Duffy’s Havisham when they hear reference to Great Expectations…well, that’ll do me just fine.
Thank you Miss Stanway. You will always be the best.
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