“It’s your move Roy. The bet is two shillings and hurry up, it’s almost lunchtime,” said my English teacher.
I dropped out of school when I was fifteen. Academia and I were incompatible and I happily left to work in a knitwear factory in Glasgow, my hometown. Mr. Milner, a holocaust survivor who carried a gun in the glove compartment of his car, owned the factory. Guns were (and still are) highly regulated in the UK so I always suspected that the gun was illegal. My job was to learn the trade from the bottom up with a view to management at a later date. I actually loved it, as I was working with machines and hanging out with grown men. They were (correctly) suspicious of me, a middle-class Jewish kid who didn’t fit into a working-class environment. The factory was well-run and I learned a lot about the business. It had many modern machines operated by Jacquard cards. These were a series of cards with rows of holes joined together like a chain. These cards gave mechanical instructions to the machines, thus controlling the patterns of the cloth. Invented in the 1800s, Jacquard cards were a precursor to the computer, and early IBM mainframes used punched cardboard cards to give instructions to the processor.
Another area of the factory used old-fashioned hand-operated machines, where an operator would stand, legs apart, physically moving the control back and forth to open and close the needles while pulling the yarn, thus creating a garment. The operators were all women and one young woman, apparently for comfort, came to work wearing a mini skirt. This was in the early sixties before mini skirts were a fashion item, so seeing one, and the long legs below it, was almost too much for my 15 year-old hormones. I often made detours through the factory just to watch her legs move. I eventually got fired (the first of many firings); it had something to do with having a bad attitude and an overwhelming interest in girls.
My parents were aghast. What to do? In despair, they sent me back to school. As I had dropped out of public school, returning there was not an option, so they sent me to a school that taught the high school curriculum. It was called “Dimmers College,” and it boasted to be “situated ‘round the corner from Glasgow University”—a vain effort to confirm its credentials. Like the student body, the faculty was a group of failures and misfits who had little interest in teaching, but needed a job. I loved the place. Colleges in those days had their own school colors and I acquired a 6-foot long scarf which mimicked the ones worn by real students at the university. I felt very grown up and mature and would boast that I was a student in the West End.
Three teachers stood out in my memory.
Mr. Percival taught science. He never asked what we had learned, never gave us homework, and one day announced that we had completed the course. This was great as there were still weeks to go until the exams. It never occurred to us that completing the course had nothing at all to do with learning the subject.
As a curious kid I had an interest in trivia and had recently read that the gas pressure in domestic pipes was around 1-2 pounds per square inch (i.e. very low). Mischievous as always, I decided to check this out. We were working on an experiment that used multiple Bunsen burners. At the far end of the room was a gas outlet with a Bunsen burner attached. I disconnected the rubber hose at the burner, turned on the gas and blew down the tube. At first nothing happened then slowly, one by one, every flame died. The class experiment was ruined, but my experiment was a great success.
Mrs. McKinley, who taught math, was a good teacher but she was born with an odor issue. Her armpits were rank and perhaps because of this problem, she insisted on wearing sleeveless dresses. At first the smell was unbearable but as the lessons progressed the odor in the overheated classroom had a soporific effect and most of us fell asleep. One day while passing the principal’s office, he stopped me and asked me to deliver a message to her class. The stink that hit me as I opened the door made me gasp and I almost collapsed on the floor.
My all-time favorite was Mr. Cunningham, our English teacher. A chain-smoking alcoholic, he regaled us with entertaining stories about his life. He was very proud of the fact that he had visited the nearby Glasgow Botanical Gardens and stole the only cannabis plant they had. It was such a heinous crime that the Sunday Post, that most maudlin of tabloids, wrote about it. He was never caught and swore the pot he made was really good.
Cunningham was constantly broke so he would stop teaching around 11 AM and start the poker game. Out came the cigarettes and we would all play until lunchtime. Invariably he would cobble together enough winnings from us novices to buy lunch. The neighborhood was famous for its Indian restaurants. The food was fresh, cheap and hot. Over the school year the whole class developed a tolerance for the most scorching curries known to man. Although Cunningham’s teaching style was eccentric, he was an iconoclast and I liked him a lot. His subversiveness had a lasting effect on me. He did encourage my reading and introduced me to authors like John Updike, Joseph Heller and Saul Bellow.
Unsurprisingly, I failed every exam with the exception of English.