Sunday, 21 June 2015

School to desired temperature: Mr Lanaway

Welcome ye to my third and final post about the three teachers who have most influenced/damaged me. I've sort of made it a series of episodic posts so that a) after the first one you know that they're related, and kind of what to expect; and b) after the first one, you can just look at the title and know to avoid the other two without the hassle of clicking through to read the whole thing.
I've just realised that I have, unintentionally, written about these three in ascending order of age. Mr Moody was in his mid to late twenties; Mrs Bradley was in her late thirties; and Mr Lanaway was in his sixties. I know this for certain because he retired months before we were finished with him, and we all missed him dearly.
Dear Mr Lanaway. He wasn't young by anybody's standards, and so to a bunch of teenagers obsessed with sex, drugs and alcohol (or, in my case, manga and Stephen King) he should have seemed positively ancient. He should have; but he never did. I remember Mr Lanaway as having a permanent smile lighting up his face, and I would like to believe that my former classmates remember him in the same way. We were so, so lucky to have him. He was clearly a lovely human being, but he also had a genuine and powerful passion for what he was teaching that we all subconsciously absorbed by osmosis. He was born to teach, and the subject he was born to teach was English.
I'm not sure if this was built into the curriculum or something, but Mr Lanaway – the oldest English teacher – tended to teach the oldest books. This included Chaucer. Have you ever read Chaucer? Or, more accurately for most normal human beings, have you ever tried to read Chaucer? For those unfamiliar with the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, I shall quote from The Wife of Bath's Tale (from The Canterbury Tales):
And happed that, allone as he was born,
He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,
Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed,
By verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed;

The first two lines I can sort of understand; it just looks like somebody got hit round the head with something heavy immediately before writing them. The following two lines, though, seem to have been transcribed phonetically from somebody in the throes of demonic possession. Mr Lanaway could read Chaucer aloud fluidly, with full understanding of every syllable. I essentially spent these lessons living in mortal fear of being asked to demonstrate that I had some vague sense of what was going on.
Actually, that's just a weak attempt at a cheap laugh that's greatly unfair to Mr Lanaway's teaching. I never did get my head all the way around Chaucer, but Mr Lanaway made every effort possible to gently but firmly guide us around the unfamiliar writing. He asked questions, answered questions, and made slow but clear progress with us through the stories. I suppose it helped that Chaucer was a filthy old man. It's amazing the effort some teenagers will put in if they think there's something vaguely resembling pornography to be had at the end of it.
The smile most certainly characterised Mr Lanaway (and as I said, it was always there, not just while he was watching a class full of kids discover dirty jokes from the 14th century). His occasional stammer came in third. What came in at a close second was the way in which he seemed physically unable to stand still. If he wasn't walking slowly around the class as he was sharing his wealth of knowledge with us, he was doing it standing in several places at once. That is to say, he would gently rock back and forth or side to side in a subtle – but entirely impossible to miss – manner. It gave him the appearance of a hugely intelligent metronome.
Here's my dirty little secret: I've never been a huge fan of Shakespeare. I have a collection of his complete works of course, as this is required by law in the United Kingdom. I find his sonnets to be true works of art, beautiful and valuable pieces of history. His plays, I can take 'em or leave 'em. Okay, so The Tempest and Macbeth are kind of cool, the latter carrying what is easily my favourite Shakespeare quote (“I am in blood steeped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er”). A Midsummer Night's Dream wins points for having a character named Bottom. Richard III gave me some context for the relevant cockney rhyming slang, if nothing else. Even though I didn't really enjoy it, it's actually Hamlet – or more specifically, Mr Lanaway's teaching of it – that provided my most important Shakespearian experience.
Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play and I tell you what, it bloody felt like it at the time, too. It has a ghost but, sadly, no proton streams. There are 32,241 words in Hamlet (I Googled it), but it only took six of them to really leave an impression on me. They only left an impression on me because they left an impression on Mr Lanaway; but not in the way I imagine Billy Shakespeare was hoping.
It's one of the most famous quotes to be repeatedly regurgitated from any of the plays. It is spoken by Polonius, an old man flawed in a deeply human way. When giving advice to his son, Polonius at one point says “To thine own self be true”. I remember, vividly, the day we came across this line in class. We regularly played the parts ourselves but on this occasion Mr Lanaway was reading to us, walking or wobbling about the room as he did so. I was sat at my desk, one of the small but solid wooden ones barely four feet square our school still had a handful of that you probably don't get anymore. He was walking past me, to my left, with me on his left hand side, when he reached that line and stopped.
To thine own self be true. 'To thine own self be true'. What a load of rubbish.”
He turned so that he was facing me, but still looking down into the book in his hands as though willing the offending words away. He repeated the line a few more times in disgust, then continued reading and walking.
Mr Lanaway had immeasurable respect for language, and books, and education, and – yes – for Shakespeare. Never before or since that moment had he shown us anything but an interest in and passion for the works of Shakespeare. But that moment is the one I remember above all others. It was a revelation to me. A teacher hinting that a Shakespeare play was less than perfect? Did I dream it? Surely that didn't actually happen? No, it did – because I was in Mr Lanaway's class.
I already had a little seedling of rebellion against authority then but, looking back, I think that simple moment of humanity gave it a healthy dose of gro-fast. I respect Mr Lanaway for many things, but what I can clearly and immediately name as one of those things is the way in which he very consciously let us know his opinion. He didn't make much of a fuss over it – he never mentioned it again, didn't ask us to critique the line or anything – but it wasn't a momentary slip of the Teacher mask, either. It was just Mr Lanaway being Mr Lanaway. Whether he meant to or not, he helped teach me that it's okay to have an unpopular opinion.

I shan't be writing about my school memories anymore (is that a sigh of relief I hear?), and it may seem like I've been writing more about memories around my teachers rather than my memories of them. It is however what they taught me and how they taught it that helped shape what I remember from that time, how, and why. Writing these three posts, I have discovered that these memories were even more significant in shaping me than I first thought. I am loathe to pry still further into their meanings, in fact, lest their influence wanes and a little piece of me slips away.



  1. Mr Lanaway taught m English in the 1970s at St Columba's in St Albans. He was a wonderful teacher. I remember how he read Animal Farm to us, explaining how it was a metaphor for the Russian revolution. I was so caught up in it that I bought the book so that I could read it to the end and find out what happened.

  2. Nicely written, Luke. Mr Lanaway taught me during the 1990s and he was a terrific teacher, enthused by his subject and with a mischievous sense of humour - I remember his gleeful translation of Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, which has a similarly bawdy storyline to the tale mentioned above! He also introduced me to the plays of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, for which I am eternally grateful. A good bloke and a brilliant tutor.