A Tribute to Two of My High School Teachers
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Mr. Arthur Westall and Headmaster Mr. Ballance
Memories and Thoughts About their Lives
It’s a strange thing, but there I was one day just thinking out of the blue about a man I hadn’t really thought much about for the past forty years, Arthur Westall my English teacher at Reigate Grammar school in the UK. Only a few days later I received an e mail from the Reigate Grammar office that he had passed away.
To be honest there were a few isolated times when I thought, or rather thoughts crossed my mind, about the various teachers who had educated me both in my primary and secondary schools.
There were quite a few who made a strong impression upon me. Since I am talking primarily now to the Reigation community let me explain a few things: I was a very naughty child. I was expelled from junior school when I was eight (later reinstated). I ‘passed’ those awful 11+ exams and went to RGS. Even here I cannot say my behaviour improved. I was often ‘in detention’ to the sore detriment of my muscles the next day, and also planned a (somewhat meant-to-be light hearted) attack on dear Mr. Noble who was our French and Latin and tennis teacher also. Balancing that metal bucket full of water on the door as he was about to enter was a bad idea, no doubt about it! Somebody put me up to it, honest, sir!
My sin was quickly discovered. All this to say that it is a wonder RGS didn’t drop me out themselves.
Yet through these 7-8 years of that crucial second decade of my life, I came to realise that structure, repetition and the professionalism among the teachers was a solid rock for me, even though I didn’t realise it at the time. So big congrats to Reigate Grammar. It will always be a part of me and live inside me.
Arthur Westall, a genial elderly man even then in my young mind was one of those teachers who I just used to look at and think, this is all very boring --all this English you are teaching us, all these prepositions and adverbs and vocabulary, not to mention conjunctions and punctuation. All this subjunctive stuff and passive and so on. What a total bore, especially in sunny weather! How do you know when to start a new paragraph in 70 degree heat in Reigate? It seemed to me Arthur Westall was brilliant at being boring, or so it seemed. Little did I know he was a contemporary of the great C.S.Lewis.
Fast forward 30 years, there I was teaching advanced English to University students in China, teaching Business English to management of Chinese companies, making friends with top local government officials in China who visited our home frequently. Life had changed. All that boring stuff I had picked up from dear old Westall and his ilk was finally coming in to use. My fame spread! I was allowed by their government to be the only foreign teacher to visit China’s offshore oil facilities and teach their management in the language of international business and oil technology vocabulary.
I was thankful then friends, for dear Mr. Westall’s glimmering smile; looking back he was like a glowing jewel, (if jewels can be glowing), he just had ‘Presence’ and that wonderful and very rare thing called ‘Gravitas’. Somehow despite the boredom or seeming boredom, he was actually imparting to us something very special which we didn’t ‘get’ until later in life—professionalism, wisdom, rules, authority, buckling down to learn boring stuff, this was education at its peak. He did his job.
Like most teachers everywhere, he probably never saw much results of his efforts. He taught by faith, believing in what he was doing. He is a tribute and a representative of all sincere and true teachers, male and female.
This is not a bunch of waffle, such teachers were common when my brother and I were at RGS and I hope and pray they still are.
The lesson is, if you don’t need it today, you probably will tomorrow and it may be in a tomorrow you cannot imagine or see or think of, when one day, you too will have a family, be important to somebody(ies) and influence the next generations.
Don’t despise the seeming boredom of some things and people today; they may save your life tomorrow. God bless you, sir.
I have to be honest and confess that my interactions with Headmaster Mr. Ballance were few and far between. During my time or most of it at RGS, Mr. Ballance was the headmaster. He was a slick combed-back haired man with a serious (to me) disposition. Perhaps he had read my report cards. Whatever it was we didn’t meet too often. I was thankful.
I had another teacher at RGS who delighted in calling me ‘Vermin’ which is actually a mispronunciation of my time-honoured Norman ancestry name of ‘Vernon’, as well as a name at the time of a company famous in England for betting on football results!
The other thing I noticed about dear Mr. Ballance was that he always called us students, and everyone else I think, ‘chaps’. Chaps, I gradually got used to it. Chaps meant us, people, possibly even friends, maybe. But most of all ‘chaps’ I began to realise as I grew older at RGS, well chaps meant that if you used the word chaps you, the purveyor of the word, showed you had had an education par excellence. Only the posh used the word ‘chaps’. Only the educated and erudite and civilised referred to each other as chaps. ‘He’s a good chap really’ and ‘I really wonder if you can help on this, chaps’? Obviously this word chaps instilled and inspired us to cooperate no end. It just had a certain sound to it; doesn’t it to you, old chap? Chaps showed both he and we had arrived!
One time on a Friday I met Mr. Ballance in the corridors of power. He said, ‘Oh Vermin’, I mean ‘Vernon’ please come to my office next Monday morning I have something to show you’. I feared it was because of the building number of detentions I had wrongly been made to do during the past week or so. I was right. The line of students queuing to the headmaster’s office up those stairs with the door on your left was a traditional time on Monday morning. It could only mean one thing--the cane! I waited nervously outside as I heard the cane being unleashed on poor yet guilty bottoms. Six times was the rule, I believe. My turn came. It was all over quickly. The only thing I remember now in 2017 was it hurt. The stripes have passed from the young flesh but the memory is still alive somewhere in the caverns of the mind. Whatever it was it never happened again, and I became a model student passing many of my exams with top marks in the arts and languages. I can’t say it was ‘corporal punishment’ that did the job, and anyway we are too politically correct to hardly mention this today, but whatever happened I thankfully never went there again.
Mr. Ballance operated a red light, green light system outside his door. No not the game, stupid, the actual flashing lights. Red light meant don’t come in under any circumstances, and green light meant you could knock and wait for the thunderous voice crying ‘enter’ and proceed with caution. There was no amber.
It was with sadness and yet a new understanding of his life when I learned of his passing several years ago. I became a Christian Pastor in South America, then India and later operated an underground mission work inside China for ten years, a dangerous place to do it. I only learned at his passing that dear Mr. Ballance was a dedicated Christian heavily involved in bringing the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ to Nepal and its people. Having come to grow in my own faith and understand the good work he had done, another light dawned on me about Mr. ‘Chaps’ Ballance, something I was never aware of while at RGS and it wouldn’t have made any impression on me, (as perhaps what I am saying isn’t on you).
He didn’t shout things from the housetops; he just did his job for God and RGS, or RGS and God whichever way you look at it. I look forward to meeting him in that Great Heavenly Headmasters Convention of Tomorrow. Thank you.
Text on Westall and Ballance copyrighted Jeremy Vernon January 2017