The pavement is cracked, uneven, uncleaned. Walking down the road, there is a feeling of the 1970s having returned. Derelict property, closed shops, waste gathered in doorways. Looking at a patch of pavement, there was a moment of wondering how it might be described, what words there would be that would capture the staining, gum and discolouring.
Miss Everitt would have asked us for words to describe things. Questioning, questioning, questioning, Miss Everitt encouraged, pushed, cajoled, her class of twenty unpromising pupils. Once she read the story of Peter jumping into the lake to reach Jesus who was on the shore. “How would you have described Peter?” asked Miss Everitt.
I raised my hand. “Rash,” I said. (I had just learned the word).
“A very good word,” said Miss Everitt.
Miss Everitt taught the infant class in High Ham Primary School, she must have spent forty years travelling from her home in Somerton to come to our two teacher school. Forty years teaching successive generations of children lots and lots of words.
The passage of five decades has brought a realisation of how much the learning of words has meant, how much difference the efforts of that primary school teacher made to the lives of at least one of her pupils.
Were it not for the teaching of Miss Everitt, and Miss Rabbage in the junior class, even television programmes would have been a challenge. Children’s television in the 1960s was very shaped by Reithian values. Television was about entertainment, but it was also to educate and to inform. Classic literature would be dramatized; magazine programmes like Blue Peter were filled with opportunities for learning. Words were plentiful and complex and demanded attention.
Miss Everitt’s words were the foundation for the educational experiences of the years that followed. The words were building blocks for an understanding of the world and communication with others. The more teaching developed vocabulary, the better equipped were those who left the classroom.
Perhaps teachers comparable with Miss Everitt and Miss Rabbage are now rare, the teaching profession no longer commands the respect it enjoyed fifty years ago. Perhaps, more significantly, the context in which teaching takes place has changed beyond recognition. There is little that is Reithian in the programming of the satellite channels, nothing whatsoever in most of the electronic games. Children spending hours each day on social media have little exposure to challenge or opportunities for learning.
When the schools return in the coming week, extended days or special catch-up programmes will not have nearly as much impact as equipping children with words.