I remember when Mr Cummings first arrived at our primary school, in that little half-a-horse village where I grew up. I remember that for the few months (at least) before he was taken on as headmaster, our school had been a bit chaotically run. We had one interim leader who decided that for a week we would have themed days, one day we could come in wearing our pyjamas, another we could bring in teddies, and so on, culminating in a big disco at the end of the week. Which was quite cool, obviously, as a kid, but even I, at 7 or 8 years old, could sense the randomness of it all, and see the anxious face that dude perpetually had. Not to mention the fact that he wasn’t there very long, which in adult world I now obviously understand meant that something was amiss. The long and short of it was that things felt a bit directionless, and the idea of school had become a bit of a joke.
Then in walked Mr Cummings. To say he was a breath of fresh air would be an understatement. For one thing, he played the guitar, which was by far the coolest thing we had ever seen a teacher do. The other thing he did that stood out to us pretty quickly, or at least to me, was to treat us with respect. He spoke to us like we were, if you can believe this, actually people. Our morning assemblies went from being painful affairs where we were constantly told to 'sit still' while we were talked at about how we should care about Jesus or made to sing droning, tiresome hymns about, how, incidentally, Jesus was awesome, to engaging stories and talks about interesting and unusual ideas. Assemblies became something to look forward to, which in itself was a revolutionary concept. We still had to sing some hymns (because it was a Christian School) but Mr Cummings led these with his acoustic guitar, and he generally only chose the more rousing, modern religious ditties that we were happy sing along to (mainly because they involved shouting mildly sociopathic phrases like ‘If I had a hammer!’) This was much to the displeasure of one particular old battle-axe, who shall remain nameless. But that bitch once shut me in a closet, so pissing off her Miss-Minchin-pinched-face only added to the fun for me.
Mr Cummings also took over the Science teaching for the school (or at least, for the older classes, which included mine). The school was so small it was only divided into four classes, I can’t remember the exact breakdown, but I was in class 3 at the time, so that probably equates to year 3 or 4. Anyway, just as he had with the daily assemblies, he pretty much transformed the approach to these lessons as well. I can't remember any science lessons I had before Mr Cummings taught us, maybe this is because I was too young, but I'm not sure it’s that simple, because there is a definite point from which I can remember them, that just happened to coincide with having a new teacher. Many of the practical experiments he showed us, just simple things, like dissolving sugar in different temperatures of water to see which would be the fastest, or making little mazes to watch the behaviour of woodlice, I can remember to this day. I remember being interested in a subject that would normally feel beyond me. I guess it’s because he made the lessons eventful and relevant, which is how you get stuff to be sticky in people’s minds, and how you get them to understand bigger concepts, o’ course.
By the time I had moved up into class 4, Mr Cummings had taken over the music side of things for the school as well and he made sure that everyone in my class learned how to play the recorder. And I mean, ALL of us. Granted it’s the simplest instrument you could conceive of other than a triangle, but that’s why he chose it. Because it needed to be something that wasn’t too difficult for any student to get the hang of, no matter how tone death they may be, and one that could sound pretty tuneful, with a bit of effort. He taught us how to play Da Doo Ron Ron and Love Is All Around. This was so in conflict to what the other schools were teaching their students (Baa Baa Black Sheep anyone?) that we actually took our rendition of Love Is All Around to regional competitions, and did really well. I’m fairly sure timing this with the Wet, Wet, Wet re-release didn’t hurt matters either.
To add to the environment of creative influences, Mr Cummings brought in his daughter, Ellie, to help with some art classes. She was 18 and at the time appeared to me to be, hands down, the coolest person on the planet. I could not imagine ever being as grown up or as glamorous as her (this possibly still stands!) Ellie taught me how to draw roses (there’s a trick to it, y’see) and my parents commissioned her to paint a mural on my bedroom wall. The mural was of the Ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis, because I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt, and it was the most awesome thing in the world to me once it was finished. The mural stayed there until I moved out. I adored it, but I don’t even think I have a photo of it now, which is the way things often go as you grow up.
What Mr Cummings did as a teacher, was make each student feel valued and like they were part of a bigger whole. He took ideas that could have otherwise been considered boring or exclusive, and made them interesting and inclusive. We didn't always behave, we didn't always listen, we didn't always treat him with the respect he deserved, but he made it a place I wanted to go every day, he made us relevant and cohesive, he made us a school. Now, he wasn't the only teacher of value there. Our class 4 teacher, Mr Evans, was an artist and a great storyteller in his own right. The teacher of class 1, Mrs Pyatt, also led the school netball team and did a really good job of coaching us (yes, I was once part of an organised sporting team, and no, there are no pictures of this) Mrs Reid got called Miss Trunchbull due to her unfortunate shape and occasional tellings off, but she encouraged my reading to the point where I was reading books way beyond my years by the time I left class 3. However, I feel that it was the leadership of Mr Cummings that brought the skills of all of these people together into a working whole.
Mr Cummings also did a lot to make the school more involved with the rest of the community, which is particularly important for a village school I think. The fairs and fundraising events because bigger and bolder, with his band providing live music into the wee hours every time. It was through these events, his love of music and his general demeanour toward everything, that he struck up a friendship with my dad, which in turned ended up with my dad being Chair of the board of school governors for many years. It was my dad’s working relationship with, and respect for, Mr Cummings, or Phil, as he of course knew him, that made him take such an active role in his daughters' school lives. The previous Chair of the governors, for many years, had been an old man called Mr Ivy. He was a lovely old gent who used to kiss and hug all the kids when he came to visit, but not in an inappropriate way (really not) he was like a grandpa to everyone. Though I don’t think he ever had much interest in the politics and general admin of things, so was happy to let somebody with more of a handle on such nonsense take over. My dad did not become a replacement for this grandfather figure, given that he's not comfortable showing affection to his immediate family, let alone random kids, but he did a lot for that school. I remember him boasting after one particular Ofsted inspection, that the school had excelled in all areas except for one, where they got a barely passing grade. The reason he was so proud of this was because it was the ‘adherence to Christian teachings’ area. While it was still a Church of England school, as a devout atheist, the more my dad could do to remove the Churching from the Educating, the happier he was.
The years that followed leaving primary school were difficult for me, just as they are for everyone. Some of my experiences, I acknowledge, were a bit extreme for the average, but it's all relative, some people experience far worse during their teenage years. Whatever the specifics, for each individual, those years of growing up can be chaotic, insecure and painful. But what I remember feeling when I left primary school was a sense of excitement about the future, and confidence in some of my abilities, and I truly believe that Mr Cummings's teaching, his leadership of the school, and the positive atmosphere he created for both staff and students, helped to develop that in me. He taught me to think but not to blindly follow, he encouraged me to be interested in the world, but more than anything, he taught me the importance of our relationships with other people, that one person can make a big difference, and in order to achieve that, they need to be able to see people, accept people, and allow people to grow. This at least held in me in good stead for what was to come.
But, life can be humbling, and damaging. By the end of my high school years I had already heard that Mr Cummings was having problems and taking time away from his role at that school, due to politics, and workloads, and the stresses that come with dealing with other people’s issues all of the time. My dad decided to leave his role as Chair of governors around this time as well, because my younger sister had finished primary school, and after many years’ service, it was time for someone else to take a turn. Anyway, at this stage, despite still having hope the future (it would be another six months or so before I gave up on chemistry and my dream of becoming an archeologist) and despite having done well in some aspects of school life, I was already at a point where I didn't feel it necessary to be celebrating much. I was just relieved to have (quite literally) survived it all. So when we were told about an award evening for our GCSEs I sincerely felt like, I cannot be A with that S. It was only when my mum got a call from the headmaster to say that I really should go, that I acquiesced. This may seem like an inordinate level of personal attention to have given me, but it was only due to the fact that, unbeknownst to us, I had won an award for 'Outstanding achievement in English' and they wanted all the people who had been given awards in various subjects to be there to accept them, if possible. Even then, I was an ungrateful, moody teenager, who still didn't see much value in getting an award that didn't contribute to anything. Of course in retrospect, as a not ungrateful and not so self-absorbed adult, I really am thankful for the recognition they gave me on that night.
The guest speaker for that event, as you may have already guessed, turned out to be Mr Cummings. I think he was happy to be asked and proud to see many of the students that he had taught in the past, finishing their GCSEs, and being recognised for their achievements. The speech he made that night that stood out to me, taking me back all the many years to when I first heard him speak. I can't properly remember the words he used after all this time, of course I can't, but I remember how they made me feel. Mr Cummings always had been a very good public speaker, and he was moved to see us there, having grown and continuing to grow into the adults we were becoming. Because he was a muso and super cool, he hung the speech around the Sting song, Fields of Gold. He reminisced about the children we’d been, the expectations we'd had, the freedom, and the hardship that we'd undertaken since, to get to where we had so far, and the hardship that was still awaiting us, on the other side of that door. (Many years have passed since those summer days/ Among the fields of barley/ See the children run as the sun goes down/ Among the fields of gold)
And I remember this, he implored us, not to forget, not to accept second best, to continue to grow, to become fully realised people, he asked us, to walk in fields of gold. Even as I write this, the moment still makes me cry, and I can hear his voice in my head. (I never made promises lightly/ And there have been some that I've broken/ But I swear in the days still left/ We'll walk in fields of gold)
That night I had my photo taken with him and the award. I still have that photo somewhere, although not here, on this distant part of the planet I'm currently sitting in.
That wasn't the last time I saw Mr Cummings. About 18 months later, it was my dad's 50th, and we hired out a local pub for the occasion (coincidentally one owned by Mr Evans whom I mentioned earlier, who had retired from teaching to become a pub landlord, because people skills are people skills, at the end of the day) Mr Cummings's band played throughout the evening, as awesome then as they ever had been. My dad and my then-boyfriend, joined Mr Cummings to play 'Man on the Moon' by REM, one of dad's favourite songs, by one of my favourite bands. It was another moment I'll remember for the rest of my life. I was also very specific in my instructions to them to sing it how REM always did when they played live, because Mr Charles Darwin didn’t have the gall to ask, he had the balls to ask!
The last time I spoke to Mr Cummings was after he retired, unfortunately due to stress. That good ole outside world, wearing us down, as it ever does. There was an evening in his honour, greatly deserved I might add. I wasn't there, I think I was already away at Uni by this stage, and I just happened to call to speak to my mum, who just happened to be there, and she passed the phone onto him. So I thanked him. I thanked him for everything, for the inspiration he’d been, for the fun he’d been, for the friend he’d been, because a good teacher is usually a good friend too. After we finished speaking, he didn't hang up the phone, but passed it back to my mum. My mum, assuming he had hung up, put it straight into her handbag, so I heard what he said next (obviously I paraphrase, my memory isn't that good) and he said ‘that was a student of mine, calling to wish me well, to thank me.’ He sounded a bit choked up. I'm so glad I said it.
He died of cancer a few years later. Too young, as is often the case with the good ones.
I hadn’t thought about Mr Cummings for a long while, until I was walking through Wellington train station one evening last week, and a busker was singing that song, and I remembered, and tears sprang to my eyes again (yes I tipped the busker). Mr Cummings was teacher who truly made you believe that anything was possible, that our lives were an open book, waiting to be written. But he was also very genuine and I guess the fact that he was a good mate of my dad's helped to cement that idea in my head. He was funny, engaging, and taught us to enjoy learning, to take pride in our achievements when they happen, because the world has a funny way or reminding us of our failures all too often.
I guess it broke my heart a bit to know that the system ground him down eventually. I think that thought has always stood in my head regarding the idea of teaching, that no matter how hard you try, the politics will get to you eventually. I think it also contributed to the formation in my head of the idea that establishment = bad, and having as little as possible to do with it is the best way to protect yourself from being hurt. But we can't protect ourselves from being hurt, not ever, in any context, not if we want to live. And I remember him, because you never do forget a good teacher. And now I’ve come to a time in my life where I'm finally ready to look at what I want, I remember what he said to me, what he said to us all.
Whatever you do, and however you do it, may you walk in fields of gold.
As much as a writer writes, always, a teacher teaches, always. This applies to the people I know who don't even consider themselves to be teachers, but they are, because they can't help not being. These people don't dictate, they encourage you to look at what you want, they treat you like an individual, and they change you only by making you think about who you are, as opposed to what you should be.
So, I guess this post isn’t just about Mr Cummings, it’s a thank you to all of those people in my life who ever been that for me, a teacher, a friend, someone who helped me to move forward and grow, rather than remain the same for their own sake. Thanks also for not doing it because you felt you had to, or because you thought I needed to know better, but because you saw something in me worth investing in, just as Mr Cummings did with all of his students, because that’s one of the most awesome things a person can do. And I’m a good judge of awesome, trust me on this.
You would think at this point I would link to the Sting song, right? Or Man on the Moon, either would be appropriate in the context. But actually, I’m gonna link you to This song because I think the words fit much better what I’m trying to say in this piece. And I think Phil Cummings would appreciate a bit of Robert Plant (as would my dad for that matter) Dad rock FTW! ;o)