Cymru Culture

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Steve Lamb - The Interview

(June 01, 2014)

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people.


Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)



Steve tells us how it all began ... 

The Interview

The redbrick grammar school stood grandly, in an elevated position. Between the 1930s-built building and the main road lay tennis courts and a wide grassy bank. Pedestrians and drivers had to look up to the school; easily the most impressive building in the valley. This was no accident. Its position reflected the value the county had wanted to place on the education available to those who passed the 11-Plus.*

The heavy main door was open, but the building seemed empty, as it should have been on a warm August afternoon. No sound came from the classrooms, deserted by their pupils. Above the door, the school motto - Nid Dysg Heb Foes - was carved neatly into the stone lintel. No learning without … what was 'foes', I wondered. A brass plaque to the right of the door commemorated the official opening of the school by the grandees of Glamorgan County Council. A Mr Abraham Jenkins MA (Cantab) had been the headmaster. Abraham – the name's Old Testament severity a little chilling on that summer day. At nearly 2 o'clock, I took a breath and walked into the school for the first time. I might have been nervous had I actually wanted to be a teacher, but only the day before I had been offered an attractive job as a trainee surveyor with Cardiganshire County Council, based in Aberaeron. I had not taken a teacher training certificate, and had only sent in an application to the school as a fall-back; in case nothing else turned up. I hadn't rung up to withdraw because I had arranged a lift to south Wales with my university tutor, for whom I occasionally worked as a sub-editor on the magazine he produced. He had been The Times' Moscow correspondent. I always enjoyed hearing stories of his days as a journalist. His company was always worthwhile.

After the glare of summer sun, the vestibule seemed dark, its heavy oak panelling accentuating the gloom. The marble floor echoed as I walked across to the office where, through an open door, I could see a woman checking one list against another. "Mr Lamb is it?" she asked, before I had a chance to speak. "They are waiting for you upstairs in the library. Come with me."

I followed her around a corner, along a corridor and up a set of wide stone stairs. There is something imposing about an empty, echoing school. Without another word to me, she knocked at the first door at the top of the stairs, opened it and indicated for me to go in.

The relatively small corner-room had windows on two sides; its other walls lined with shelves of dusty volumes. All the tables had been brought together, creating a makeshift boardroom, and around this wide expanse sat at least fourteen old men. A short, thickset individual was looking at me. The others were not, they were looking down avoiding eye contact, as if I were the guilty man in front of a hanging jury. A younger man in a shiny suit sat away from the others; his head leant against his right hand as he looked out of the window at the hillside where sheep grazed lazily.

The man who had been considering me forensically from the moment I entered the room spoke sharply. His accent made his words almost incomprehensible to me. "If we offer you the post of probationary teacher of English, will you accept?" he asked without any introduction or other explanation. All eyes were now on me. To say no would have sounded ridiculous. Why would I have travelled for three hours if I wasn't looking for a job? Even one second of silence was intimidating, and I was beaten. "Yes, of course," I stuttered, and the eyes turned away from me once more, and I'm sure some eyes were closing in readiness for an habitual afternoon nap.

"Good. I'm going to ask you five questions and you have five minutes, and no more, to answer them." Decoding his words was a challenge and I lost touch with the questions between numbers three and four. "You may begin now ... and I’m timing you."

"I'm sorry, but I'm not able to hold those questions in my mind while I phrase and deliver answers," I tried to explain. Scornful eyes became interested in me again and I started to squirm before them. The younger man, who had been facing away from the table, spoke. "Mr Chairman, you know you are supposed to give the candidate, the only candidate, a copy of the questions," his voice was cultured and bored, he did not stop from contemplating the sheep on the hillside. There was smothered laughter from the old men around the table and the grinning chairman passed a sheet of paper to his right, which eventually came to me.

By now I was incapable of rational thought, never mind rational speech, and I gabbled across the questions for hardly any time at all. To call my words answers would be a shameless exaggeration.

"I'm sorry, that's all I can say ..." I muttered, and I stumbled to a halt.

"Come on, you have one minute twenty seven seconds left. Can't you think of anything?" The element of scorn in his voice would have been unmistakeable, whatever the accent.

"No. No more." Why was I so ashamed? I hadn't even wanted the job.

"I have a question for the candidate, Mr Chairman." The words came from a dapper figure who was sitting to my left. "What sport did you play in this school of yours in, in ... Birmingham?" The name of my home city sounded like an insult here.

"Rugger … sorry, rugby," I said, "our rugby teachers were both British Lions. Yes it's a real rugby school." Somehow, I had re-learnt how to speak, amazing. Equally amazing were the appreciative glances I now had from some of the school governors.

"Please wait outside and we'll call you back after we have made our decision," muttered the chairman.

I had just closed the door behind me and exhaled loudly, when an immediate call came for me to return. It had to be more questions, as there had been no time for any discussion.

"The job is yours. We expect you to start on Tuesday, second of September, at 8.50 sharp. We expect you to work hard for our young people, Mr Lamb. You can go now."

I reeled from that corner-room along the wrong corridor and away from the stairs. I did not know where I was going, but soon I came to a dead end. I stood there looking through a window facing down the valley towards the colliery winding gear and the coke ovens' steaming chimneys. So I wasn't going to train as a surveyor in an attractive west-coast seaside town after all. What was I going to teach the children of this valley community and how would I do it?

Steve Lamb, June 2014

* The 11-Plus was the selection test taken by all children in their final year of primary school. Used between 1944 and 1968/69, its result determined which type of school each pupil attended the following year. Those who passed went to grammar schools, those who failed didn't.


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