By David McVey
I didn’t particularly enjoy school, but I got by academically and I certainly wasn’t a refractory pupil. In fact, I liked many of our teachers, few of them were to be dreaded and even fewer seemed to take a particular dislike to me. But writing about Scottish schooldays requires a grisly tale of teacher-terror (it’s the law), so I’m going to focus on the exception. Yes, there was Mrs. Argyll. Not, of course, her real name.
Music was one of my poorest subjects; by second year I was just making up the numbers as I would drop it before third year and the beginning of the countdown to O Grades (this was the 1970s). I couldn’t (and still can’t) play an instrument, hated singing, and couldn’t manage the latter in tune or time, anyway. No one ever sits in front of me in church twice.
My first year music teacher, Miss Mitchell, didn’t seem to mind this. She was barely in her thirties but jolly in an old-fashioned, hearty way. She was beautiful too, though she often hid her looks behind dark-rimmed specs and by piling her long, velvety-black hair in a Wilma Flintstone beehive. She encouraged the talented and committed but didn’t make the rest of us feel like we were worthless plankton. An accomplished pianist with an astonishing classical singing voice, such was her charm and loveliness that some of us, for the first time, listened to that kind of music without flinching. I can still hear her singing, to her own accompaniment, Schubert’s arrangement of The Erl-king.
Our principal teacher of music was dreamy-eyed, donnish Mr. Sage. The vainglorious Rector of our school had cajoled him into writing the music for our school song; as if such a colonial-era public-school notion was not ludicrous enough for an ordinary comprehensive school in the West of Scotland, the Rector’s self-penned lyrics began;
Forward with flags unfurled;
Meeting the changing world…
‘What flags?’ asked every set of first years exposed to this nul points horror, ‘What does ‘unfurled’ mean?’ I’ve forgotten the rest of the lyrics and I bet every other former pupil has too.
Our other music teacher was Mr. Robertson; I was never in his classes. He was a drab-looking soul, with a tweedy jacket and a dreich mustache, the very picture of a minor council clerk, yet he had a reputation as a ‘cool’ music teacher. Sometimes, when Miss Mitchell or Mr. Sage was banging on about Mozart or Schubert, we’d hear Beatles or David Bowie recordings coming from Mr. Robertson’s room. I once arrived in a class that he’d just left and saw the lyrics of Hawkwind’s Silver Machine chalked on the board.
Mr. Sage taught my class at the start of our second year. We were one of the ‘LG’ classes, deemed promising enough on first year evidence to learn German or Latin in second year. I took Latin and dropped it like a hot petra after just the one year (Philistine…).
Like Miss Mitchell, Mr. Sage often required us to sing songs as a class, while he worked away sensitively at the piano. Now and again, he’d cry out ‘Next verse, Joan, solo!’ or ‘Chorus, William, solo!’ and the named individual would sing as appropriate. He always chose those whom he knew to be strong singers, in one of the school choirs, perhaps, or someone who would be specializing in singing for O Grade Music. Then Mrs. Argyll arrived and Mr. Sage no longer had to take our class. You can see where this is going.
Our music teacher complement was now complete and after the Christmas holidays, we went to an unfamiliar room where Mrs. Argyll was waiting for us. She was small, dumpy and mumsy, and wore big lavender-rimmed owl specs, a voluminous woolly skirt, and a capacious cardigan. Yes, there was perhaps something of the Dame Edna Everage about her appearance, or perhaps Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films. Her manner was bright and hearty as she learned our names, but she seemed to lack the warmth, the niceness, and certainly the looks of Miss Mitchell.
She settled herself at the piano and indicated the words of a song we were to sing. The chorus, at least, is branded permanently on my memory for reasons I’ll go into shortly; it went;
Long live the merry, merry heart
That laughs by night and day.
Like the Queen of Mirth
No matter what some folks say.
I’ve since looked the song up and found that it’s a mid-19th century work by Stephen Foster, one of the fathers of American song, who wrote genuine classics like Beautiful Dreamer and I Dream of Jeannie (Mrs. Argyll never explained this, by the way, as Mr. Sage or Miss Mitchell would have done). This must have been the product of an off-day. It had little to say to a class of Scottish teenagers. Why, I wonder, weren’t we instead looking at our own rich heritage of traditional song?
In particular, I didn’t really grasp what the song was about and Mrs. Argyll certainly didn’t tell us. As we sang, I was haunted by an image, like something from a Poe story, of a hideous, blood-dripping human heart that cackled all through the long night. And the Queen of Mirth; who was she?
Anyway, we did our best with it, and then, suddenly, Mrs. Argyll stopped playing and the singing stopped an instant after, like a vehicle responding to its brakes. Mrs. Argyll broke the sudden silence by shouting ‘David!’
There were four Davids in our class, but she was looking at me, no doubt about that.
‘You were not singing, David!’
‘Yes I was, miss,’ I said, weakly. And, yes, I had been.
‘Don’t argue with me, David. In my class, those who don’t sing with the class, sing to the class. Do you understand?’
‘Miss I was singing…’
‘Do you understand?’
I nodded and offered a feeble ‘Yes, miss,’ though I didn’t understand at all. Mrs. Argyll then played through the piece again and I sang, all right, I gave it everything I had which, considering the material, ought to have earned me some credit. I was no more in tune or time than usual, but I was very much a part of our unheavenly choir.
The song ended. Mrs. Argyll turned towards us and released a deep sigh. ‘You still were not singing, David. Come out here.’
‘Miss, I was. I was singing.’
‘Come out here!’
Out I came, confused, head reeling, and was directed to stand by the piano.
‘Now, I’m going to play through the chorus, and I want you to sing it out to the rest of the class.’
She did so and I stood there, the picture of misery, my flutey, piping, yet-unbroken voice aiming at each note of the ghastly chorus and missing every time. We finished and I looked hopefully at Mrs. Argyll for news of my release.
‘That was dreadful,’ she said with a chilly, sinister quietness.
I wasn’t arguing.
‘You start on this note. This note,’ she said, striking a bright chime from the keys.
By now, my head was swirling and I barely knew why I was there, or what I was supposed to be doing. I asked if she could play it again.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Could you please…’
‘Speak up, boy!’
‘…play it again.’
Her face seemed to chill even further and the room iced up.
‘David,’ she said, in tones that would have suited an SS Officer in an old war film, ‘if there is one thing you will learn in my class it is this; you never, ever give me an order.’
Of course, I’d done nothing of the kind; I was just an embarrassed, confused, humiliated 13-year-old who wanted to go back to his seat and die.
As I squealed and squawked again through that chorus whose words I would never forget, I sneaked a quick look at the class.
There is no crueler beast than a class of thirty 13 and 14-year-olds. Yet I saw no enjoyment in the faces of my peers, even among those I didn’t get on with. Instead, they were puzzled; why was this teacher picking on McVey? Oh, he’s not much to look at and he’s rubbish at music, but he’s OK at most other things and he’s no troublemaker. They recognized that Mrs. Argyll’s choice had been random; pick on a handy, unprepossessing-looking specimen to humiliate and in so doing scent-spray, at the outset, her power and authority. And it need not have been me; it could have been any of them.
I finished the last chorus.
‘Dreadful, dreadful,’ said Mrs. Argyll, sadly, as if I’d personally insulted her, and waved me back to my seat.
In the weeks that followed, she sang other songs with us. Now and again, she would direct her malevolent gaze at me when we’d finished, and shout ‘David!’ and suggest that I hadn’t been putting my whole might into the song. It was a threat to me, a threat to us all. Then, gradually, she left me alone. I’d served my purpose.
We arrived back in August for third year and found that she had left; I’m not sure why. The word was that she’d moved to the Roman Catholic secondary in the town. It was scholastically more prestigious than ours, but also had a reputation for boisterousness. I later heard that she’d left that school, too, on long-term sick leave after a pupil had thrown a chair at her. Of course, this may well have been a schoolboy urban myth or even a fabrication dreamt up by thoughtful schoolmates who knew how the humiliation she’d dealt me still hurt.
But that didn’t trouble me. The image of a chair crashing into my tormentor was not unpleasing. I still find it strangely warming. Please don’t judge me harshly; you were not the one standing in a cold sweat by that piano. And, it goes without saying, if you’re a teacher, tutor or lecturer (as I am, now), make sure you never treat any of your students in that way.
About David McVey
David McVey lectures at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking (ie hiking), visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly (ie TV), and supporting his home-town football (ie soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.