Wednesday 11 March 2020

J.L. Carr, Headmaster

Apologies for the longer than usual silence: I haven't been felled by the dreaded virus, but have been suffering from one of those protracted 'colds' that drain a person of energy. And this coincided with a string of unusually busy days (mostly family stuff), so there was little time or energy for blogging. I have, however, been reading – among other things, re-reading, for purposes of research and pleasure (my favourite combination), Byron Rogers' wonderful biography of J.L. Carr, The Last Englishman.
  Whether or not Carr was 'the last Englishman', he was surely the last – perhaps the only – primary school headmaster to lead his pupils through the streets every cherry blossom time chanting Housman's  'Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough'. Despite the best efforts of officialdom, he enjoyed a quite extraordinary degree of autonomy as head of Highfields primary school, in a socially  'mixed' area of Kettering – and he got quite extraordinary results: having resolved that no child would leave his school at 11 a non-reader, he succeeded, across his 15-year career, with every pupil bar one – a boy whose negative achievement so impressed Carr that he kept the school photograph in which the lad appeared, adding the caption, 'He's the one who resisted the charms of reading!' Carr also insisted that all his pupils, boys and girls alike, be taught to cook competently. Reading and cooking – what more do you need for a good life?
  When neglected children turned up at school unusually filthy, Carr would deal with the matter by washing them himself – imagine how that would go down now! – and returning them to their parents with a note and, often, some item of clothing or a pair of shoes. Still more unbelievably, Carr decided to keep the school playground open at night, so that children could play there. 'Evidence of great activity around the school each evening, especially roof climbing,' he noted calmly in his headmaster's log. There seem to have been remarkably few accidents. As for teaching, Carr's methods were highly individual. History was his delight: as a colleague recalled, 'He'd take that himself, when he'd have the whole school in the hall listening to stories of armies and fighting. He'd recite Horatius, he had the whole thing by heart [as did my father], and would march up and down. It was very dramatic, the children loved it.' Carr was also liable to pluck the children out of their classrooms and take them off, with little or no notice, on outings to local places of interest – outings they never forgot. Nor did anyone who came across him, as pupil or colleague, ever forget J.L. Carr, schoolmaster.
  And then, as impetuously as he'd decide on a school outing, he gave up teaching for the life of a writer and publisher. But that's another story...

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