Friday, November 26, 2021

Remembering John French - games teacher

Yesterday I had a message from school friend Annie. She was both my classmate, and daughter to my games teacher. She announced the news that her dad had died over the weekend.

I was sad to hear this - Mr French was one of the teachers everyone loved at school, and I'd often relayed messages to him through his daughter.

I wanted to take time to write about my memories of him for Annie, and how he left a lasting influence on me...

When you think about a PE teacher in the 80s, there’s a certain image that it’s hard to shake. Brian Glover’s tyrannical, bullying games teacher in the movie Kes.

Indeed, when I went on to University, many of my peers would share similar ghastly stories about loathsome PE teachers and how much they came to hate any session with these people.

Except for me. And that in a way is a good way to start any remembrance of John French and his cohort of PE and games teachers at Abbot Beyne.

Rather than being stern authority figures, the games teacher of Abbot Beyne felt more like our peers, our older brothers. You could imagine them as kids who loved sports so much at school that they chose to never grow up, instead turning a career in sharing their passion.

To form an image of Mr French in my mind is to imagine a trim figure in a faded, well-love rugby kit that almost resembled a jester. It’s an apt image he would typically watch us assemble before a lesson with a smile on his face, and a quip never far from his lips.

Mr French introduced me to the sport of rugby, and as he did so, and he broke down the rules and the plays, there was no doubt about the huge enthusiasm she shared with us all. And his passion was contagious.

When he selected me to train as a second row, I don’t think either of us knew how this would be a position I’d play on and off until I reached my forties. He chose well.

Looking back, Mr French was that first unique individual who did not teach, he coached. Whether we were training or playing his was a constant voice of encouragement. “You can do this, Talkie.” (His nickname for me, he loved giving nicknames)

I was a science nerd, I excelled in one area, but as a clumsy, awkward teen, sports terrified me. I felt like I lacked the coordination, I lacked the physicality. I constantly told myself that I couldn’t.

But games teachers like Mr French and Mr Atkinson constantly reminded me that I could. To avoid the defeatism and to strive. Make it happen.

I got to not mind our sports and PE lessons. I really got into rugby, although I remember Mr French pulling me to one side and tell me “this isn’t American football, only tackle the person with the ball”. I guess I had a few rage issues.

Even in the much hates cross-country, he was typically with the stragglers, reminding people that they could do it. Although I came to hate his cure for stitch which was “put your hands on your head, lean back and RUN FASTER”. [IT DIDN’T WORK]

In five years of having him as a teacher, I only had him get annoyed at us once. One Wednesday he gave a group of us end-of-day detention for not getting changed after a lesson fast enough.

True to form, when we all turned up for our punishment at the end of day, he looked at us baffled, and just sent us away saying there wasn’t really any need for it, and just change quicker next time.

The teachers we experience in life stay with us.

The bullying ones who belittle us and become a voice inside us. A naysayer. An echo we hear every time we fail. When things go wrong, we hear the mocking tones of our hated foreign language teacher telling us how we’d never amount to anything. And we think they were right.

But the ones who had faith in us hold a sway over us which can be life changing.

When in my late twenties, I decided to start cross country running, I felt like an idiot. But the voice of John French that stayed with me said that I could. I just needed to keep trying and when stitch hit, run faster.

When in my early thirties I decided to take up rugby again, I felt nervous as hell, finding many of the players of my local club were much younger.

I’m still far from a physical specimen, but I have no fear of the gym. I know too many who feel intimidated before they even enter one. But when my best friend tells me that there’s a new boxing class or resistance band or even a three-hour-dance workshop on, I’m not afraid. I tell myself I can do it and enjoy it. It’s a remarkable gift and a freedom.

The voices of our teachers and our coaches who believe in us never dwindle. They become spirits which walk with us to encourage us and remind us that we can achieve, especially when we doubt it ourselves.

Such people are a gift in our lives, and it’s no exaggeration to say that we love them for it.

So, thank you for that gift, Mr French.

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