My headmaster was Mr Penn, a very colourful character. He wore his whiskers sharp-pointed, waxed and military. His hair, which had been auburn, was now pale straw. His hands were clean, with well kept nails. No speck of dust would have had the impudence to fall on his clothes. He gave the impression of the very best type of non-commissioned officer, efficient, vital and capable of getting on with the job. Everything he did was vigorous, but dignified. As he walked up Tetherdown each morning, he would help push the milkman's float up the slope. His bowler hat stayed on straight and nobody would have thought of smiling at his behaviour. This is what decent people did. Teach by example.
His two great loves were arithmetic and music. He taught simple mathematics and algebra so well that my sister Phyllis, for one, came across nothing new to her in mathematics in her grammar school until the third year. Some days Mr Plant would walk into a maths lesson and take over, allowing the teacher to go off to do some other work. We children never knew when this would happen: perhaps the teacher did not know either.
Instantly there was a change of speed. Arithmetic became more urgent, more insistent. There would be quick questions and answers, rapid ways of doing things, short cuts for this and tricks for that. It suited some pupils and bewildered others. Mr Plant did a lot of good to some, making them quick and facile. Able to answer simple questions too easily. He got a lot of them through the Scholarship Examination at eleven, but he was caviar to the general. He did not teach them why they were doing anything, or what they were doing, just tricks for doing puzzles quickly. He was a conjuror, bewildering his audience. Kind, willing, hard-working man that he was, he spent his life teaching people to do the three-card trick and failed. While some gained from his teaching, he convinced three quarters of the class that they could not do mathematics and that idea stayed with them for the rest of their lives.
His other great love was singing. There was a special anticipation in his back as he rolled down the tonic sol fah chart and took up his pointer. Mr Penn would walk between the rows of children, listening and conducting. He taught folksongs and sometimes sent messages home asking if my father knew of part arrangements of particular songs, Sometimes I would bring to school a piece of music specially obtained from Boosie and Hawkes and once or twice, almost under protest, my father set and wrote out the parts for a particular song. I took them in the next morning feeling that my father had been imposed upon. I was quite glad to leave that school before someone was rude.