(Apologies – no graphics in this post. For some reason WordPress isn’t letting me upload images, and it’s too late to mess about with it now. If I manage to fix it tomorrow, I’ll edit and re-post).
We all had our favourite subject at school, and mine was Maths – eventually. Obviously, I’d done Maths since primary school, but then it was compulsory so I didn’t get any choice. I was OK at the subject, but didn’t enjoy it.
Then, at a key stage in my life, we got a different teacher.
Mr Fred Bury was the Deputy Headmaster of our school, and a Maths teacher. Someone else taught our class through my first three years at secondary school, uninspiringly. To me, Mr Bury was essentially a figure on stage at school assembly who stood in for the Head from time to time. As a figure of authority he was slightly scary – he was tall, with a moustache, dressed in a sharp double-breasted suit (it was the seventies: that was still allowed), always seemed to have a tan: “dapper” would be a good word to describe him. As Deputy Head he had a role in imposing discipline, so we tended to see him as someone to be kept away from.
Entering our fourth year (Year 10, as it’s now known) we were gearing up for O-Levels (now GCSE), because our class were the “express stream” who took O-Levels a year early with the aim of eventually sitting the Oxford or Cambridge entrance exams a couple of years later (which will be the subject of another post at some point). To help ensure we did as well as possible, Mr Bury took over as our Maths teacher.
And we found that he wasn’t scary at all. He was dedicated and committed: to his subject, the school and his pupils. He was funny – sardonic and sarcastic, just the kind of humour that struck a chord with me – and an excellent communicator.
Somewhere in that year I went from being OK at Maths to being good at it and, more importantly, to loving the subject. To the extent that, having got a Grade A at O-Level I went on to study Maths and Further Maths for A-Level, and then on to a degree in Engineering (which had an enormous amount of Maths in it).
So what happened?
Quite simply, Mr Bury changed my life.
I don’t know exactly how he did it, but he was inspiring and uncompromising in a drive for excellence: when we started his A-Level Further Maths course he told us, “I’m not going to come down to your level, you’re going to come up to mine.” And we did.
I can still recall a lesson, probably in the first year of Sixth Form as we started his A-Level Pure Maths course, when Mr Bury stood at the front of the class and explained on the blackboard the “derivation” of differential calculus, and how it is used to find the slope of a curve at a single point. And it was beautiful, such a wondrous, elegant thing to see – a whole new subject being opened up before our eyes through a series of lines and the careful explanation of Mr Bury’s words. Pure Maths is a lovely, elegant subject, where ideas become revelations, and that was a revelatory moment to me (probably just as well – I was already committed to two years of Maths and Further Maths by this stage).
Mr Bury retired a few years after I left school, and he went to live with his sister on the south coast of England. Two years ago I heard through LinkedIn that he had died, at the age of 92, and my old school was holding a memorial service for him. I went and was very moved to hear stories from his former colleagues, now mostly all of very advanced years and some quite frail, which for the first time explained something more about the man.
I knew he had been a pupil at our school, Head Boy even. As pupils we used to joke that he was the embodiment of The Kinks’ “David Watts” which was in the charts at the time with The Jam’s cover version:
He is the head boy at the school
He is the captain of the team
He is so gay and fancy free
And I wish all his money belonged to me
And I wish I could be like David Watts
He’d been in the RAF during the War, then come back to the school to teach, and had been there ever since. He had stepped in when one Head Master died, and we pupils had never been aware of his disappointment at being passed over for the permanent job. Basically, apart from his war service and university studies (Maths at Cambridge), he’d spent his life from 11 years old to retirement at our school.
Mr Bury, his ability to transmit his knowledge and love of his subject, and to stimulate my love of Maths, had more of an impact on the direction of my life than any other person outside my family. That’s what a great teacher can do.
I still love Maths, even though I rarely get chance to use it – it was quite a sad moment when my younger son finished his Maths GCSE, because neither he nor his older brother would be carrying on with the subject, and that was the last time I was going to be able to indulge in “helping” them, whilst secretly enjoying myself. Maybe if we ever have grandchildren, and I’m still capable by then, I’ll get another chance to “help”.
To this day, from time to time during a particularly dull meeting, rather than doodling or trying to write down the names of all 50 US States (I always seem to forget at one, often Maryland for some reason), I’ll try to recollect a proof from all those years ago, like proving that the angle at the centre of a circle is twice the angle at the circumference.
I understand that this will sound weird to a lot of people who never made the connection with the subject I did. But they weren’t fortunate enough to have been taught by Mr Fred Bury.