Eat your words, teachers!

Denise Rack Louw reviews Could Do Better: School Reports of the Great and the Good edited by Catherine Hurley (Pocket Books, R116)

Teachers should take note: the comments they write in pupils’ reports could return to haunt them in years to come.

Could do better is a recently published book that shows how far off the mark report-card comments can sometimes be. Take, for instance, a teacher’s comments on John Lennon.
Arguably the most famous and successful musician of modern times, Lennon was also a published author and his drawings are greatly sought-after. Yet his teacher at Quarry Bank School, Liverpool, wrote on his report card: ‘Certainly on the road to

failure .... hopeless.”

However, this view seems to have mellowed a little as Lennon was leaving school; for in July 1957 his last report read: ‘[Lennon] requires the sanction of ‘losing a job’ to keep him on the rails. But I believe he is not beyond redemption and he could really turn out a fairly responsible adult who might go far.”

At school, Helen Fielding — who later wrote Bridget Jones’ Diary — was censured for using ‘flowery language”. And author Jilly Cooper inspired the ascerbic, though interestingly ambiguous, comment: ‘[This pupil] has set herself an extremely low standard which she has failed to maintain.”

At the end of his first semester at New York University, Woody Allen (whose real name is Allen Stewart Konigsberg) was advised by the university’s reviewing board to ‘seek counselling for his inability to take life seriously”. Allen obviously failed to take the advice to heart and went on to make a name for himself as a comedian.

Stephen Fry — comedian, playwright and novelist — also failed to impress the educationists. His headmaster wrote in 1970: ‘He has glaring faults, and they have certainly glared at us this term.” A year later the head wrote dismissively: ‘I have nothing more to say.”

The fact that one school’s meat may be another school’s poison is highlighted in the school reports of Peter Ustinov — actor, director, playwright and novelist . The headmaster at Ustinov’s first preparatory school praised the boy not only for his ‘gentle and charming nature”, but also for ‘his unusual ability” and ‘his brilliance” in those subjects that required a degree of originality. At his next school, however, it was recorded that Ustinov was showing ‘great originality — which must be curbed at all costs”. Fortunately, Ustinov’s originality was un-curbable, and he ended his illustrious career as Sir Peter Ustinov CBE — Commander of (the Order of) the British Empire.

Some of the report-card criticisms quoted in the book seem to be directed not at the pupil’s performance or behaviour, but at his or her personality. Michael Palin, later a co-creator of Monty Python, was accused by his headmaster of being ‘just a teeny bit pleased with himself”. And actress Judi Dench was chided for apparent dreaminess. Her report read: ‘Judi would be a very good pupil if she lived in this world”.

In some cases, however, report-card sarcasm is casually but callously cutting — as in the case of poet Robert Graves. His headmaster wrote in the young man’s school-leaving report: ‘Well goodbye, Graves; and remember that your best friend is the waste paper basket.”

Even the great Sir Winston Churchill did not escape report-card complaints. At St George’s School, Ascot, he was at one time placed eleventh out of 11 in his form and was described as ‘a constant trouble to everybody”. Later, at Harrow, he was slated for being consistently late for school and it was feared that his ‘good abilities” would be ‘made useless by habitual negligence”.

However, after receiving a charming but ‘distressed” letter from his mother about his recalcitrance, the young Churchill pulled up his socks and ultimately won the approval of the school authorities in his final school-leaving report. Perhaps he was putting his school days in perspective when, some decades later, Churchill said: ‘I am all for the public schools, but I do not want to go there again.”

Could Be Better is generally entertaining and thought-provoking, and often also intriguing. My curiosity was aroused to know what transgressions actor Richard Briers could have committed that moved his headmaster to write: ‘It would seem that Briers thinks he is running the school, not me. If this attitude persists one of us will have to leave.”