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1998 John Coates 30 Years at Peterhouse

I had been looking after a bit of the British Empire for about eight years in what was then called Nyasaland and was engaged to be married to Bridget Cartwright. We had known each other for years in England. While she was waiting in Salisbury to come to Nyasaland, she met the wife of a Nyasaland District Commissioner and was able to find out something of what she could expect in that part of the world. Through her she met the Snells, Fred being the then Rector of Peterhouse. He told her that he would soon be looking for someone to teach Latin and Greek.

About eighteen months later, Nyasaland having by that time become no place to bring up a family, I decided that the Empire could look after itself and wrote to Fred. I flew down for an interview and was offered the job.
So in 1961, after six months leave in Britain, Bridget and I arrived in Marandellas.

Latin and Greek
Fred told me I would be teaching Latin up to 'A' level, Greek up to 'O' level and some English. Latin and Greek were fine by me, but I had not the faintest idea how to teach English. In those days every boy took Latin. Boys from the prep schools went into the 'D' block; they had three years Latin already. Boys from the government schools, a year younger and with no Latin, went into the 'E' block. One of our jobs was to bring these E block boys up to the prep school standard in one year. Norman Davis, head of the classics department, told me how to deal with this and I was delighted to find that one of the books we used, 'Latin for Today' was written by the man who had taught me when I was at school, Frederick Dale. The other book was 'First Steps in Latin', an extraordinarily dull and unimaginative affair, but it produced results. The 'D' block boys used a far better text designed to get them up to 'O' level. For this exam, too, they were required to study some real Latin, prose and verse. One of my forms was A3, boys who were required to sit 'O' level Latin but were reckoned to have absolutely no chance of passing. I got one boy through in my first year and it was probably this that persuaded Fred Snell to keep me on his staff. In the years that followed only the top sets took Latin and I can recall no boy ever failing.

I remember my first D block class, a particularly bright lot, and my first Fifth and Sixth Forms, too; well more or less. There were five boys in that first Fifth Form, I think. I had but the vaguest idea of how much Latin they knew, having taken the equivalent of 'O' level - they called it Lower School Certificate - in 1939. Still, the syllabus was straight-forward enough, and I coped: Latin unseen’s, prose competitions, Roman history, two set books.
When I was at school myself, at Berkhamsted, we were visited at least three times by Government Inspectors and the headmaster used to sit in on classes occasionally. While I was at Peterhouse I was checked only once, by Norman Davis, in my first term. He stuck his head in at the class-room door: 'Everything all right?' he asked: heard me say 'Yes, thanks,' and shoved off.

English was something else. I had a couple of forms, I think, D and B block, and not the faintest idea what to do with them. The Head of Department was Martin Graham, charming and distinctly unhelpful. We used a ghastly book for things like comprehension, which I thought was pretty useless, and I went ahead in my own way; got boys to read and write.
One of the first questions I asked all new boys was 'What did you read during the holidays?' One boy replied 'Nothing.' He told me that at his home there was nothing to read except the Bible in Afrikaans and 'The Farmers Weekly'. By far the most entertaining boy, sometime later, was a Japanese, with very little English. I had set, as an exercise, the writing of a letter to an aunt, thanking her for the Christmas present of a bicycle. His letter ran: 'Dear Aunt. Many thanks for gift of bicycle. Owing recent transport difficulties very welcome.'
English teachers came and went, (notably John Roe) and eventually I found myself with some 'A' level English, quite possibly because there was no one else available. Well aware of the snide remark "Those who can, do; those who can't teach.".

Writing and poetry
I did some writing myself, and had a number of short stories (mostly SF) published locally and one in South Africa. I also tried my hand at poetry and won a prize in the BBC All Africa Poetry Competition. One of the BBC's judges had helped produce a book of English poetry used at 'A' level. I thought his own poems in it and his comments were bilge. When he decided I was prize-worthy I realised that I was wrong; while he might be an indifferent poet his critical abilities were of the highest order!

The death of Greek
Greek did not last long. Very few boys wanted it, and the last two I had were not time-tabled; I took them in free time. It died, I think, about 1965.
One of the first things to strike me about Peterhouse - and of course it applied to other secondary schools in Rhodesia - was that scholastically the boys were a year behind their equivalents in England, but in most other respects were way ahead.

Swimming and the pool
Besides work in the class room I was expected, as were all staff, or course, to take the odd game. I had made the error of telling Fred Snell that I had swum and played water polo for Oxford while I was up, and so I was told to take swimming. This was an error on his part, because when I had seen the swimming pool I told him what was wrong with it. It was untiled, there were no lanes marked on the bottom and the concrete was covered in green slime. There was a huge msasa overhanging the shallow end and periodically it shed its leaves into the water. There were diving boards at the deep end, one, two and three yards - not metres- high, and the water was far too shallow for the top board. The safe depths are, of course, laid down by FINA. These defects were attended to, eventually. Apart from inter house competitions there were galas ( the word was new to me in the context of swimming) with other schools, and, annually the inter schools at Les Brown baths. We never won this, being invariably beaten by St George's or Prince Edward; or by both.

At various times keen sportsmen on the staff tried me out on rugger, athletics, cricket and hockey. Rugger is all right, up to a point; cricket I find appallingly dull, but hockey not so bad; at least one does not have to run up and down the whole field and athletics with such excellent and time honoured exercises as throwing spears or discuses or cannon balls has much merit. I told top cricket man, Sandy Singleton, one that the only reason why cricket was played at schools was because it enabled one member of staff to keep twenty-two boys out of mischief for hours on end. (Bridget had a letter on more or less the same lines published in The Herald). Sandy was my right hand man in the classics department, then Latin only, and was an excellent teacher. We took it in turns, year and year about, to have the 'O' level set and shared the 'A' level work. He taught the 'A' level boys the prose set book - usually Livy.

In those early days, if we were playing Umtali High School, the cricket teams boarded a train with sleeping compartments in Marandellas after supper on Friday, travelled overnight to Umtali, played all Saturday and returned in the same fashion on Saturday night. I calculated that the captain of the First Eleven, one of my better 'A' level students, spent about six hours a week in the classroom doing Latin but could easily be engaged in cricket for sixty. Sandy said that this was very right and proper! In any case, my presence on the cricket and rugger fields was soon dispensed with, and I had fun with the most lowly of the hockey teams. We used to play Nagle House Girls and were always careful to see that they won; or were not beaten too badly. I once tried to enliven the game by having two balls; this was fun but since, clearly, it would not please Peter Ginn, i/c hockey, it had to cease. And at other times I oversaw the hurling of discuses and cannonballs.

The magazine and societies
Besides these activities I was asked to edit the school magazine (which I did for twenty years), run the sailing club, the rifle club, the model railway club and the astronomy society. We actually managed to buy a very second hand reflecting telescope which worked pretty well until some idiot boy decided the mirror needed cleaning , and used wire wool to do so. The model railway, a splendid gift from Mr and Mrs Carter, was housed in a highly suitable room which had been designed as a place to air blazers that had been dry cleaned. It was never used for this purpose; it was where the Housekeeper, a redoubtable matron, keep a dozen or so cats, a thing the Bursar strongly objected to but couldn't do much about. When I asked him for a place to keep the trains his eyes lit up. The cats were removed, and the Housekeeper didn't speak to me for years. Sailing took place on most Sundays at the Nyambuya dam where local sailing enthusiasts had built a club house, PKs, jetty and so on. Boys and girls from local schools were welcomed as junior members, a good many of them with their own boats. Regattas were held, instruction given and the threat of bilharzia removed by regular spraying at the launch areas. Both our children sailed here, though Martin's first experiences were on the dam at Ruzawi School. They also took part in junior sailing schools at dams such as McIlwaine and Kyle. It was at Kyle that Jane, while sailing an Optimist, encountered a group of unfriendly hippos and decided that sailing was for the birds.

During my first years at Peterhouse the boys took Oxford and Cambridge 'O' and 'A' level examinations. These were written, as in the UK, in July and August and were over before the term ended. Fred Snell refused to let sixth formers who had completed their 'A' levels go home until the end of term, so there were two or three weeks during which they had to be occupied. Organising this fell upon me. During the first week I arranged for speakers to some and talk to them. One was Sir Roy Welensky; he was fine. Other speakers tended to send the boys to sleep. On these occasions when the speaker had finished and asked if there were any questions there was usually a blank silence. To avoid this embarrassment I used to choose two or three of the brightest boys, threaten them with dire consequences if they dozed off and primed them with suitable questions to ask when the time came.

For the remaining weeks the boys went off in groups of three or four and studied some aspect of Rhodesian society. Usually these were well done; in depth papers on the tobacco industry; the railways; local government and so on. One group, however, decided to have a look at the hotel industry and among other establishments investigated the old Queen's Hotel. They were unaware of the reputation of this place had and were taken aback when Madame told them they were a bit too early, my dears; the girls don't come on duty until about five. Still, it was in its own way most educational.

Housemaster of Founders
We had been about three years at Peterhouse, when Norman Davis, who was Housemaster of Founders, decided to leave. The house was offered to me, and I was delighted to accept.
Soon afterwards Fred Snell announced that, despite the vitriolic opposition of the new Rhodesian Front Government, he would take African boys. Since, I suppose he thought that ten years in Nyasaland had taught me something about Africans, the two Chipunza boys came to Founders.
Very few white parents objected. One, whom I'd better not name, from Mutare, wrote asking me to assure him that his son would not be expected to share the same dormitory, or use the same showers and PKs as the Africans. Scientific research, he informed me, had proved that it was pointless to educate Africans anyway, since they were useless at anything except playing in jazz bands and running in track events. It so happened that at that time I was studying for an external degree in English with UNISA and had just received their degree giving day publication. It listed all those Africans, Malays, Chinese, Japanese and so on who had earned themselves degrees and doctorates in the sciences and the arts. I sent him this, and heard no more from him.
I looked after Founders for seven years, and then left, since our son, Martin, was coming to Peterhouse. Having a father on the staff was bad enough, but one who was a Housemaster was too much. Later, when Martin Graham went on leave, I was also Housemaster of Ellis, for one term.

Changes to the syllabus
When Fred Snell retired, things began to change. Among the major changes was the dropping of Latin. My last two boys, rather like those last two taking Greek, were taught in free time; the Peech cousins. Both of them passed. I was then asked to teach other subjects, usually at a lowly level, with the exception of English, of a sort, to sixth formers. Anyone hoping to go to university had to pass an exam named The Use of English, basically comprehension and essay. It was introduced because the universities were finding that far too many would-be scientists were practically illiterate.

I remember one question which read: "Explain, in English, what 'a squared minus b squared equals (a plus b) multiplied by (a plus b)' actually means." The other subjects I taught were, at one time or another, Art, Computers, Divinity, French (mostly to the girls over at Springvale), Geography, History, Maths and Shona. One of my particular joys was teaching English to our daughter, Jane, then the only girl at Peterhouse. I quite unintentionally upset the Head of Divinity when he asked me if I would do The Acts of the Apostles with one set. I said of course I would, and added that the book was one of the most valuable sources of First Century Roman History that there was. He did not think that the book should be studied from that aspect, and said so with some vehemence.

So thirty years at Peterhouse passed....
So thirty years at Peterhouse passed, none of them without its own particular joy. It was a marvellous place for children to grow up in. Our two benefitted in particular from the Peterhouse Nursery School, then under the excellent headship of Mrs Morton. Peterhouse saw Martin equipped to enter Stellenbosch where he obtained a BSc in Forestry. Jane was told while at Arundel that her maths were not good enough for her to be entered for 'O' level. I was furious about this, naturally, but the headmistress was adamant. So Jane came to Peterhouse and passed 'O' level Maths (and French). I had the greatest satisfaction in informing that headmistress of this! Jane went on to take two 'A' levels and then qualified as a nurse at Groote Schuur.

Teaching in a school has its ups and downs, of course, but the downs are relatively few and are generally caused not by boys (or girls) but by parents. My sympathies are entirely with Fred Snell in this. Once, having endured an almost endless list of complaints from some mum, he leaped to his feet and declared: 'Madam, you are the sort of parent who makes me wish I was the headmaster of an orphanage!'

John M Coates
August 1998

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