Tom Eastwell – an inspirational teacher

I learned yesterday that one of my former teachers, Tom Eastwell, had died, well into his 90’s (see here for the news report concerning his life). He was no ordinary teacher; I would not be exaggerating by saying that his teaching had an effect on me that none before or after did. Reading the report, it appears I was not alone. He taught me in my last year at Blenheim Junior School (1961-62). I have often reflected that despite going on to obtain three degrees, my time in Mr. Eastwell’s class was my best educational experience, and Mr. Eastwell was the right person to help ensure I got that experience.

eastwell

I should add that Mr Eastwell was no saint and I distinctly recall three incidents when my late mother came in contact with him and took him to task. On one occasion I was slapped on my legs and the marks still showed when I got home. Mr Eastwell believed in corporal punishment and was not reticent in using it, even though he did inspire his pupils to greatness (which I will get to). My take is he was strong on discipline but less so toward the girls! Anyway, mum disapproved and made sure Mr. Eastwell knew. On another occasion the boy living next door to us decided to run away from school and he was chased by Mr Eastwell and a gang of kids. Given the boy’s parents were not at home, he sought refuge in mums house and found it. When Mr Eastwell approached mum, he was told in no uncertain terms to b****r off, since she disapproved of witch hunts. The third occasion was when parents went up to the school to find out what their children had been up to. In her discussion with Mr. Eastwell, mum took him to task concerning his low expectation of how I might turn out in my future school journey. He thought I would do well to scrape a few O’Levels, and mum expected more!

Fifty years on is rather a long time to retain vivid memories of one’s class teacher, but impressions are many nevertheless, down to him wearing a “Ban the Bomb” (CND badge) in his lapel, that he was active in one of the teaching unions, he was antipathetic toward religion and his sporting interest was evidenced by him often appearing in his red track suit and talking sport, e.g. Essex cricket, with the boys (I remember one discussion around how good a fielding side Essex were, which much influenced me). Above all, he was a b****y good teacher that stretched his pupils as far as they were able to go. In that final year, I had been promoted from the “B” stream to the “A” stream (the class Mr. Eastwell taught). I had been held back previously because of bad behavior but was bored because I was not academically challenged. This was far from the case in Mr. Eastwell’s class, where my learning came on in leaps and bounds. I became a keen learner thanks to him. It was not the bog standard “3 R’s” I recall but lots of other stuff, including having an enquiring mind. This had a profound effect later on my education philosophy.

So here is what I remember: the school play where I played the medicine man in the Melancholy Princess and received acclaim and I still have memories playing the Sheriff of Nottingham trying to hang Robin Hood before being rescued in the nick of time by his band of merry men; three school trips – one to London where an amazing amount of stuff was taken in that day, which we were required to research and write about, and another to the American exhibition held at the end of the pier, when I nearly won a prize; the various sporting activities – I even made the school cricket team and did modestly well in football and pinball; craft work, e.g. making puppets out of paper mache – and later putting on a show; producing the school magazine – mainly done by the pupils; various concerts and assemblies and getting a chance to play a part in them; being part of the recorder group and country dancing display; chemistry experiments done in front of the class; story time, I can still remember Sir Roger Bordell, a baddy – and no doubt with help from my friends there will be a lot more I might recall, all thanks to Mr. Eastwell. The only blot, if my mum is to be believed, is him trying to get us to write in italics, when I had only just began to master joined up hand writing, and the experience was to set me back later in my writing, when I went to secondary school. Another thing I later picked up on was Mr. Eastwell was not a fan of selective education. While most of my class passed the 11+ and went onto grammar school, I did not. I suppose if he had focused on getting to pass that exam rather than his pet educational projects things might have been different, but then we did learn much and I got 3 degrees

My first job upon leaving university was as a teacher, although it only lasted three years. I can’t be sure but I reckon it was the thought of Mr. Eastwell making the sort of difference he did that helped me to make that decision. I suppose it was the painful realisation that I would not be able to make that creative difference my role model did so successfully that led to me to deciding to cut my losses and move on. I still reckon, and Mr Eastwell is the proof, that despite systemic constraints, influences we have little control over, etc., teachers can still make a big difference in the lives of their pupils, which potentially makes teaching one of the best careers one could undertake, and why society does well to honour teachers.

Finally, and back to the newspaper report, one of the many things I discovered about Mr. Eastwell was that he was a Tottenham Hotspur fan. In 1961 so was I, and it was in that year Spurs played Leicester in the FA Cup Final. When my Leicester supporting friend insulted my team and I felt compelled to defend its honour, it led to a fight in the school playground and that led to us being marched into Mr Eastwell’s classroom, where we both received the customary “slipper”. At least Mr. Eastwell was even handed! Thank you sir for the memories and inspiring so many of your charges to greatness.

Addendum: Today (14/10/16) I decided to go to Tom Eastwell’s funeral, held at Southend Crematorium. It was very well attended, including by past pupils. I met one of them just before going in, who shared some of my fond memories, including Mr Eastwell’s use of the slipper and then swiftly moving on. The funeral was not religious, in line with what I picked up all those years ago, but it was joyful. The person leading hit the nail on the head by mentioning the need to love, be loved and leave a legacy, which applied to Mr Eastwell in abundance. She made the point that there are some people we love and some we respect but as far as Tom Eastwell was concerned, both is applicable. It was good to listen to her eulogy and that of Mr. Eastwell’s three sons: Nick, Jem and Tim. If anything, besides filling in some of the gaps, it reinforced some of those impressions I derived as a result of being in their father’s class. Here was a man who had independence of thought, fair mindedness, creativity, an almost unique brand of sense of humour, and a can do attitude that did what needed to be done. It was appropriate in saying our final good byes it was with David Bowie’s “Ground control to Major Tom” playing in the background. My thoughts are with Mr. Eastwell’s wife, Wendy and his three sons and grand children.The poem by Joyce Grenfell, read at the start, seems apt:

If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known
Weep if you must
Parting is hell
But life goes on
So sing as well.

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