If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
My third grade English language teacher was a curiously rotund Yorkshireman called Ted Armitage who was addicted to powerful peppermints, drove a vintage Dormobile and chain-smoked Silk Cut cigarettes whenever he stepped outdoors.
He was also our school choir, orchestra and band director, and he coached soccer and cricket quite atrociously.
By the time he burst pungently into our classroom bedecked in his wrinkled and ash-dusted black gown one golden late-summer day in the early 1970s, he had already been teaching for thirty-five years, a fact of which he was wont to remind us as frequently as he popped another mint into his mouth.
He’s dead now, more’s the pity, because I think I’d like to have heard what he’d have to say about the gradual devolution of fine English in an age of rapid communications, email and text messaging.
You see, despite his many idiosyncrasies and his dreadful habit of humming between sentences with a mouthful of sweets, Ted Armitage was a stickler for proper use of English.
It was Armitage who taught us how to use dictionaries for more than just spell-checking, how to identify the vital components of sentences, how to analyze texts and discern their authors’ intentions, how to summarize and, most importantly, how to use punctuation.
Quite apart from his absurdly duck-like flouncing on the pitch, shouting “ah-joo-joo-joo!” when going in for a tackle and belting a vicious goal kick, and far removed from his frankly awful music instruction made all the worse by conducting as though putting out a curtain fire, that funny chap was quite possibly the best English teacher I ever had.
He clearly hadn’t earned a degree in English, as he appeared never to follow any rational curriculum and the letters after his name were related exclusively to music education. He also seemed unusually knowledgeable in coal mining, which told us a lot about his Yorkshire background, and we surmised that his father and grandfather had probably worked down the mines most of their lives. As a young man, then, Ted must have decided that music was his forte rather than pick and shovel, packed his bags and gone to London to pursue his dream.
By the dawn of the Second World War, Ted Armitage was comfortably nestled in a very cozy position indeed as music director in a boarding school that would shortly have to be evacuated, as the Luftwaffe seemed keen on bombing to bits anything taller than a poodle anywhere in the south and east of England – plus Liverpool because it apparently deserved it. All the students, the books, the trumpets and soccer balls were packed into trains for the Cornwall village of St. Austell, where the boys would wait out the war but still watch dogfights between Spitfires and Messerschmitts in the blue southern skies.
Through it all, and probably while plonking out a crashing tune on a deeply wounded church piano, Ted did more than just teach his charges how to listen and how to play in jumbled cacophony; he taught those boys how to write, how to relish good English and how to promote it in others; how to flex one’s linguistic muscles with ink on the page; and above all how to uphold the standards of communication that must in those dark years have seemed so very threatened.
So, before you text the next garbled vitriol at someone you barely know, before you reply in nothing but abbreviations or emojis, and before you send something without checking to see whether it makes sense to anyone else, think not just of old Ted but also of what it is that defines you as a communicator and a person of wit and wisdom.
Being able to deploy a gerund might not be something to which you give much thought, but at the very least I hope you will encourage your children to exercise their language, to expand their vocabulary and to live to the higher principles that may one day – when all is said and done – be all that we can pass on to those who rifle through the shards.