Pupil to Teacher

To Peter Hetherington, my English teacher 1965–1969

The pupil, like the child, assumes this privilege:
to take for granted what is given. Even so,
we knew by instinct that your teacher’s gift was rare:
the mix of tenderness and ardour for the books
you showed us into; your glad welcome for the valid thought
the learning brain sometimes put forth, spotted unerringly
and sorted from the mawkish airs
and trying-on of other people’s scholarship
of teenage intellectuals; the boldness of your judgements —
telling us, in 1966,
that Godot is as great a play as Lear
it took my breath away and gave it back.
Even your rages — annual, in March,
when play rehearsals hit a crisis — cried out loud
that going through the motions was the least of it,
that we could be in step, if only we’d step up,
with language which would tip-toe out of bounds
and leave us wiser than our masters…

Nearly 40 years have passed
and I’ve come back to thank you. Why so long?
Not sloth, forgetfulness or busyness; I needed all that time
to make a little heap of verses good enough
to say to you that greatness in a teacher
has its consequences; master, these are one.

Listen to this poem — read by the author