” Dynamic leader or demonic dictator?” John Brown was the headmaster at the Victorian era school for boys that I attended from 1961 until 1968. He played a major part in my character development in many ways. As a Methodist minister he broke convention by inviting Budhists monks, rabbi’s, catholic priests and atheists to address our school assemblies. I broke conventions in other ways and he attempted to break me.
I was awarded a place at Bexhill Grammar after surprisingly passing my 11 plus exam. It was an honor for my parents but a loss for me as I left all my old school friends in Hailsham and barely ever saw any of them again. In a strange Victorian red brick school with ancient teachers wearing caps and gowns and speaking Latin I felt like a fish out of water and rebelled against this new authority.
I remember my early confrontations with my headmaster involved a few spankings with a size 12 bedroom slipper. But, I’ll never forget how, later in my first year, he punished me in a cruel and unusual manner that would be considered despicably illegal today. Our temporary classroom was thirty feet wide and raised two feet above the ground on concrete blocks. This was a time when all school students were given a third of a pint of milk daily in glass bottles. Somehow, over the years, rebellious students had smashed a large number and the shards of hardened silica had settled in the dirt and debris under the classroom. To us it was just a pile of broken glass but to him it was an opportunity.
“Ellis, get under there and crawl to the other side he bellowed at me” I stood numb and dumfounded in my neat and clean school uniform but tearfully succumbed to his demands. Dirt covered and fearful, I emerged with only a few cuts and scrapes but emotionally traumatized. My relationship with Mr Brown was forever, irreparably damaged.
My next personal encounter with Headmaster Brown came as a result of my ineptitude with Latin. Our ancient Latin teacher told stories about being in the Royal Air Force during the first world war when it was called the Royal Flying Corps and planes were made of wood and canvas. Latin classes were generally a time for silly pranks. Boys were stripped of their trousers and pants, pen shooters rained peas, buckets of paper shreds booby-trapped the door, embarrassed giggles ogled nudes in Health and Efficiency magazines.
My test scores were abysmal and my attention was always elsewhere. Once during a translation exercise I expanded upon the story of the Romans invasion to include pubescent schoolboy descriptions of rape and pillage. Typically other students marked our work and I thought they would be amused. Much to my shock and horror, that day the books got collected by the teacher and, the next day I ended up in the headmaster’s office.
“Do I need to send you to a psychologist Ellis?” he growled. I held my head down questioning if I was indeed mentally deranged or simply suffering from a dose of schoolboy sexual silliness. I confessed to the latter and he responded with ten strokes of his willow cane across my posterior as I leaned over his office couch. It hurt as much inside as it did on my cheeks.
Headmaster Brown never forgot that incident, he cast me as the lion in the den, below the stage, for a play he directed, he refused to appoint me as a school prefect and declined permission for me to have time off to work a Christmas postal job which I really needed. Yet, I saw he was very conflicted.
He was known as an avid cricket fan. I remember him holding a radio to one ear listening to county and test matches while holding a bible in the other hand teaching a Divinity class. I was the school’s best wicket keeper and he managed the team personally. He really needed me in the first team so I got to represent our school even though he totally despised me.
He refused to make me a Prefect but was unable to prevent me being appointed as a House Captain and he knew that I hung out with all my mates in the Prefects room despite his opposition. In my final year I was selected to represent East Sussex County under 18 Basketball team and that was considered a great honour for the school. I needed to attend practices and games all over the County and the only person available to drive me was Headmaster Brown. I remember our journeys, painfully silent and tense, as he fumed about me getting out of classes and receiving special treatment. I must have driven him crazy and perhaps, in the end, it was him who needed the visit to the psychologist.
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