The worst thing about coming bottom of my class was not the stark evidence on the report form (Number in class: 28; Position in class: 28), embarrassing as that was. It was the relative silence, the complete absence of drama, after I had presented the report to my parents.
My father sat there looking shell-shocked; my mother, quietly tearful. I’d have found it far easier to cope with the situation if there had been shouting and accusations and slamming of doors. Then I could have felt ‘justifiable’ anger, threatened to leave home, and stormed out. Instead, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame.
The end-of-year result was hardly surprising, given that I had done as little work as possible right from the start. Even so, seeing 28 out of 28, in black and white, was a shock. I thought that making my standing so obvious was unnecessary. But that was just the way things were done back then.
I was thinking about this episode recently, while reflecting on my career; a fairly successful one, though I say so myself. Yet there was nothing in my Year 8 progress report to suggest that as a possibility. Being last in a kind of league table is not known to be a predictor of success.
After that report, I promised myself that I would improve. I worked supremely hard – and Mr Dale, you helped, by chipping away at my lack of confidence in various ways.
Like the time you happened upon me working by myself in the art room one lunchtime. I’d created a linocut of a hand holding a globe, with the caption “It’s a small world!”.
“That’s very good”, you said.
“Well, anyone could have done it. It’s nothing special,” I answered, and not with false modesty. I really believed that to be the case.
“But nobody else has done it, and you have.”
With you as my form tutor and maths teacher, I worked relentlessly over the next year. I did what was for me the unthinkable: my homework. All handed in on time, no excuses, in every subject. In the evenings, instead of leisure reading, I did school work.
I know it had some effect, because although I found maths difficult, I suddenly found my niche. Logarithms. I became an expert. I even found myself helping others in my class.
So, at the end of summer term, I waited with keen anticipation for my report. Tearing it open, I looked straight at the top of the sheet: Number in class: 28; Position in class: 25.
After a year of working, doing the very best I could, eschewing most of my leisure activities in favour of homework, I had leapt three places. Three!
I’d only just started learning economics, but already I was beginning to think like an economist. “If spending all that time and effort results in being 25th in class, and doing nothing results in being 28th, I might as well not waste the effort,” I told myself.
I’m a great lover of alternative histories, and time travel books in which someone changes a single event with dramatic consequences. For instance, what if the Archduke Ferdinand’s driver hadn’t taken a wrong turn? That’s the kind of thing I was thinking about when reflecting on my career: what was it that changed everything?
I realised that it was when I finally got around to reading my full report, and came to the comment you wrote:
“A disappointing outcome, but in the last two weeks Terry has excelled in a particular branch of mathematics. I feel that similar determination across the board will transform the results.”
I redoubled my efforts, worked like crazy, and made it to position 15. By the report after that I was 5th. I like to think I’d have made it to 1st had I not reached the end of my school career.
I wanted to thank you, Mr Dale, and I guessed that you probably weren’t much older than me. But after some research, I discovered that not very long ago you’d died after a sudden illness. I hope that in some sense this is a case of better late than never, because I just wanted to say: thank you, for changing my life.