“Let down your buckets!” Mr Wilkes shouts at window-shaking volume. It’s 1993 or 1994 and I am in my Earth Science class, a subject I think would be called geography today.
Mr Wilkes paces the front of the room red faced and miming semaphore. “The becalmed ship flagged back its reply. We need fresh water! We need to drink!”
We all lean forward, the front row not caring in the least about the spray of saliva as Mr Wilkes barks back the reply. “Let down your buckets!” He pauses, his chest heaving as he catches his breath, and then rounds on me “You, Newmark! Why did they say that?”
“Don’t know, sir!”
“Think, Newmark! Where did I say the ships were?”
“Off South America, Sir.”
“Yes! That’s right!” He turns to another boy. “Samra! Which river empties out in the Atlantic from South America?”
“Right! So the ship does as it’s told and let down their buckets and when they pull them up the water is sweet. This sailors are saved! They’re in the ocean! Why was it sweet?” This time his tone makes it clear his question is rhetorical and he pauses only a moment before plunging on. “It was sweet because the Amazon was pumping out fresh water miles into the Atlantic. How could it not? A fifth of all the world’s fresh water is in that river. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Amazon is worth learning about.”
To this day I don’t know if he’d made up that story or even if it could ever happen. But I do remember that a fifth of all the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon.
Mr Wilkes was great teacher. Great for different reasons than what we, those fortunate enough to attend the first Dixons CTC in Bradford, were used to. We were, of course, used to excellent. It is only quite recently that I’ve really begun to appreciate how remarkable my experience of school was.
Excellent at Dixons CTC usually meant ordered, calm and purposeful. It means strict discipline. It meant high expectations of both personal behaviour and quality of work. It meant well organised, clear lessons in which the learning was clearly ordered and made both explicit and tangible. Lessons were consistent. The teachers all rowed together. The biggest compliment I can pay my old school is that until I left it I did not know that not all children in all schools learned almost all the time, or that at other schools it was unusual for students to go to university.
Mr Wilkes was different. Mr Wilkes once gave a boy, who bragged about losing his equipment and so not being able to write, a five pound note. He made him go WH Smith at lunchtime and buy a pencil case. He wrote ‘Mr Wilkes’ on it and told the boy that he was loaning it to him and if he lost it, he’d be contacting parents to get his money back. He checked on ‘his property’ every lesson.
He taught us plate tectonics by telling us all he didn’t believe in it. “Load of rubbish this is,” he said, “scientists will have changed their minds next week. Giant plates of rock floating on melted rock. Rubbish. But I better teach you what everyone is saying.”
As a ‘student manager’ (our term for a prefect I suppose), I learned a bit more about him from our Principle Mr Lewis. Apparently Mr Wilkes had been hired after he’d returned from living abroad for years. He wrote a letter to the school, got an interview and was hired after giving Mr Lewis (later Sir John Lewis), the impression that he was worth taking a risk on.
And he was. In addition to our memorable Earth Science lessons he organised two musicals which people still talk about. “If you can tell it was made in a school, I’m not putting it on,” was how high he set expectations. And we rose to them. How we loved him. How we hung on every word. How shamed we were when we didn’t learn our lines, or if we dared laugh at someone who fluffed theirs.
Mr Wilkes was no avuncular Mr Chips figure. He could rage. When things went wrong, the man could shout. “Oh laughing are you!” I remember him screaming at a sniggering classmate. “I suppose there’s lots to laugh at. I’m old! I’m fat! I’ve got white hair. Anything else you want to say?”
Like Father Christmas in the Narnia books, Mr Wilkes was both frightening and kind.
Mr Wilkes seemed ancient to me when I was at school, but then again so did most teachers. But, even for a teacher, he was unusually old. Looking back, it probably wasn’t much of a surprise that he wouldn’t teach us for very long. When the end came it was sad.
Mr Wilkes became very ill and left. We only saw him one more time.
Just before I left school he came back to visit. I don’t know why but perhaps it was to say goodbye. He arrived at reception. Thinner. Older looking. Tired. And the whispers began. Word got out. From class to class the news spread. “Mr Wilkes is here. Mr Wilkes is here.”
Our well-ordered school, for just fifteen minutes or so, broke down. Children streamed from classrooms. To begin with our teachers tried to stop us but, wisely and kindly, when they saw what was happening, stepped aside. Our school was built around a huge central hall, with an amphitheatre at one end, with classrooms opening off it. In the middle of the hall stood Mr Wilkes, leaning on a cane, looking around. Looking at all of us. And hearing us as we shouted and cheered. Someone began a chant and it caught on. Nothing clever. Nothing fancy. Just his name. “Mr Wilkes! Mr Wilkes! Mr Wilkes!” And he looked at us and turned round and smiled.
That was the last time any of us saw him.
I suppose this somewhat rambling post is a tribute to our brilliant eccentrics. Those that do things differently. But it’s also a celebration of a well-run school. A school with rules and order and tests and high expectations and tough love. A school wise enough to know that, on rare occasions, it’s not a weakness to make an exception for the exceptional. A school that knew even rebels thrive best in orderly environments.
Thank you Dixons CTC. Thank you Mr Wilkes.
And, you know, for years it bothered me that such an intelligent, erudite and well-educated man didn’t believe in plate tectonics. How could he really not accept convection currents? Couldn’t he see how America and Africa once fitted together?
But he believed in it all along didn’t he?
(Salutes to heaven)
Oh, Sir. I hope you’re laughing. You clever, clever man. You got me. You got me good. You got us all.
Oh and wow. Just found him. Here he is. One hour and twenty minutes in.