I have just spent three hours searching the t’internet for one man: Mr. Snow. He was a teacher at Birkdale Preparatory School, Sheffield. He worked there for the whole of the time I attended the school, 1970-74, as third grade teacher and science/biology teacher. Unfortunately, I cannot find him – not a single trace of his existence. This is a shame because I’d like to say “thank you” to Mr. Snow.
The first school I went to was Mylnhurst Convent School, where I was taught by nuns. [In fact, it is slightly depressing to discover that Mylnhurst is no longer a Convent and has the worst-website-ever.] However, the Convent only went up to the age of 11, and it was my parents’ intention to send me to boarding school at the age of 13. To get into boarding school I would have to pass a series of exams – not just in English and maths but also in history, geography, science, religious studies, French, and Latin. Seven years earlier, my older brother had followed a route that went from Mylnhurst to Birkdale and on to boarding school. He had spent two years at Birkdale Preparatory school, cramming for the exams to enter Pangbourne Naval College. In theory, he failed the exams. Unfortunately, although life at the Convent school had been idyllic (as idyllic as life can be being taught by nuns – and only someone who has been taught by nuns can understand that statement), the educational standards weren’t very high. This meant that the two years spent at Birkdale, for my brother, had been hell. He was far behind his peers, had studied no French or Latin, and was at an academic loss. The only thing going for my brother was his sporting ability. My brother is was an exceptional athlete (he’s 56 years old now and is probably still better at sport than I, but maybe that doesn’t make him still “exceptional“). Anyhoo, the fact that my brother was very good at football/rugby/cricket got him into school. Even though he was not so good at maths/English/reading the British navy decided that he would learn.
This was all well and good for my brother, but I was not going to go to naval college. If my brother was going to follow my father’s footstep into the navy, I was following my father’s footsteps into the family business. I was university bound. This meant that I was going to a totally different boarding school to the one my elder brother attended. And, no matter how good I was at sport, the school I was attending expected me to pass the exams. Therefore, it was decided that I should leave the convent school and attend preparatory school – to prepare!
The convent school was great. The work wasn’t hard, lessons were fun, we learnt at our own pace, and the nuns were…nuns. However, Birkdale was a school, a very good school, a high-flying academic school. The headmaster was a tall, bald, shouty man – as opposed to a short, habit-wearing, quiet mother superior. In the classroom you sat in desks – as opposed to the group tables I was used to. There was going to be homeworks, assignments, projects, and books to read and books to write in. Everything about Birkdale was scary. I was very, very scared. At the time I had no idea of my abilities, the nuns had never made me sit exams, I’d never been placed within my peers. However, at Birkdale, each year group was split into two streams – a top stream and a bottom stream. There were exams three times a year, and these exams were used to rank you from 1st to 60th – so you had a good idea of where you were within your year group. My elder brother had not fared well academically, and the night before I started he filled my head with horror stories. How he had never had a break time (recess) because he spent most of his time in detention. How teachers had made him sit in “the dog house” – the area under the teacher’s desk – and, when he failed to answer questions correctly, how the teachers would kick him. He mentioned the chalk that would be thrown around a classroom, the blackboard erasers that would follow behind. The casual brutality of the teachers who would lift students up by their ear/hair or just clip them on the side of their head. It sounded so much more brutal than the world I was used to (although I had been “rulered” [hit with a ruler] several times by nuns). I didn’t sleep much that night.
I had already sat an entrance exam to the school, and when I arrived for the first morning, I was assigned to my classroom. I was to be in 3A, the top stream. In other words, the nuns had done that badly by me. In fact, there was a long discussion about putting me in 4A, the year ahead, which would have given me an extra year in the 6th form so that I could study for an academic scholarship. Unfortunately, I had not studied any French or Latin and the school started teaching these in the 2nd form, so that would have put me two years behind in these subjects. So it was decided to put me in my correct year group, but “great things were expected of me“, or so I was told. In the classroom there were three rows of double desks (two desks, with lids, joined together, and a bench seat that lifted up). All the kids were sat in alphabetical order, starting with the two children, whose surname began with an A, sitting in the front desk, and everyone else following on behind. I got to sit at the back of the middle row, just in front of the gas fire (yes, there was a gas fire in the classroom), next to Issac Hand. Even now, as I type his name, I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Issac Hand was to be my nemesis, my arch-enemy, the one boy who got me put into detention more than any other event/failure/problem combined. He and I never got on, and it was obvious from that first moment when I sat beside him. I was delivered to the headmaster, at the school’s front door, by my mother. He then took me through the maze-like building to my classroom. We entered, the class stood, I was introduced to Mr. Snow (my class teacher), and was sent to my desk. I sat there and cried. I wanted to be anywhere, anywhere else, anywhere that wasn’t Birkdale Preparatory school.
The first lesson was maths. Now, this was September 1970, and (as you all know) in February 1971 Britain was going to go decimal. The whole of the monetary system was going to change from pounds/shillings/pence to a new system that had 100 pennies to a pound. This system was far more complicated than the one I had been brought up with, where 12d was one shilling and 20 shillings was a pound. Totally understandable! Anyhoo, the maths lesson was to be about decimalisation. We were to listen to a radio programme (that had been recorded on to a reel-to-reel tape deck) which would talk us through decimal currency. At the end of the broadcast there would be a game of decimal bingo, where the announcer would call out monetary sums in old money, and we would have to cover their decimal equivalents on a bingo card. You know, he’d call out “one shilling and sixpence” and you’d have to cover 7½p on your card. Mr. Snow gave out all the bingo cards, while I sat at the back of the class, sobbing – you know, doing that breathing-thing where you go “huh-huh” in the middle. After giving out the cards, Mr. Snow went back to his desk but instead of pressing play on the tape recorder, he stood there looking at me. Suddenly came back down the classroom, took my bingo card off me, exchanged it for another card, then went back to the front of the classroom and pressed play.
I won the bingo game.
The card that I had, was the winning card. And there was a prize. A packet of mints. Mr. Snow awarded me the packet of mints and then offered me the chance to eat one of them, “so long as I shared them with my classmates“. This was fantastic. Not only had I won a prize in my first lesson in the big-scary-school but now I also had all of my classmates, desperate to be my friend so that I would give them a mint. Suddenly, school didn’t seem so frightening. Suddenly, I knew everything was going to be ok. Everything was going to be great, so long as Mr. Snow was there.
And it was. I stayed at Birkdale for four years, until I passed my exams to boarding school (with results that led to me being top streamed at that school as well). Oh there were moments that I was hit by flying pieces of chalk/board erasers, lessons I spent in “the dog-house” being kicked by a teacher, times I was lifted up by my ear, to stand on my desk in shame because I had used the word “nice” in an English essay. But there was never a time I felt in danger, never a time I felt really scared, because of the actions of one man, Mr.Snow. Looking back with the experience of a teacher – and an insider’s look at how preprepared bingo cards are marked before the start of a lesson – I know that Mr. Snow took pity on that crying/sobbing child at the back of his classroom, and he switched cards so that I would win.
I told this story to maria this morning and she pointed out that I should try to find Mr. Snow and thank him. And that is where this post started – my failure to find Mr. Snow. Having searched high and low, across the t’internet, I cannot find any reference to a Mr. Snow, third form teacher, biology teacher, working at Birkdale Preparatory School, Sheffield in the 1970s. So I can’t thank him. I can’t tell him how wonderful his actions are. All I can do is write this post and hope…hope that one day he (or his children) do a reverse search on google, and find this. If you do: