Mr R R Stephens
R.R. Stephens was the new headmaster at Mundella Grammar School who arrived at the beginning of my second year. He was there for only three years. 1957-60. A controversial figure, universally disliked by teachers and pupils. He scared the life out of me.
Mrs Jocelyn Wood, a teacher 1957 -62 reported in her memoirs on the school website:
A new head, Mr Stephens, had been appointed to tighten things up. And he certainly did. By the end of the term, he was generally loathed - not only by the old hands but also by us newcomers.
From Day One he shook things up. He rattled the cage at the first school assembly. And he kept on rattling. Staff who'd been at the school for years disappeared. Pushed, fled or retired? What did an 11-year-old know? I think he had everyone running scared, staff and pupils alike.
Mrs Wood reports on his other tricks:
One of his first actions was to have windows inserted in all classroom doors so that he could patrol the corridors and see what was going on. He found the glass partitioned classrooms were useful. One day he came into one of my lessons. He told me to carry on; he was not interested in my class. He spent the lesson sitting at the back of the room watching the teacher in the next room.
His mission was to drag Mundella up by its boot-straps. Academic standards WOULD improve. Academic gowns would be worn. I remember his three-year rule of fear lasted an eternity. Maybe the "R" In his middle name was "Robespierre". Enough heads rolled.
This was a man who the whole school jumping at the sound out his footsteps. This was a headmaster who entered a classroom unannounced and interrupted .. silencing the teacher mid-sentence. This was a headmaster who had pupils stunned to silence when you met him on the stairs …… This was the headmaster who terrified me out of my skin.
ASTONISHINGLY … outside of my Mam, .. this Godzilla of the Deep was the single biggest positive influence on my life. He totally re-shaped my future. My guardian angel. Without him, I would not have become the person I am. Or my kids either. Horrifying …. chillingly …..I owe a “monster” my life.
To appreciate the impact that this fiend had on my life, a few background notes are needed. I was born a Medders’ boy. Brought up in a “broken home”, father abandoning us before I knew him.
My home at Mundella was in the worst of the slums The Meadows could offer. West of Wilford Road, back-to-back cramped terraces. No bathroom, no hot water, the only water was the cold tap in the lean-to kitchen. The toilet was in the communal block, 20 metres from the back door.
When I retired, my title was Associate Professor at the oldest Hungarian university. This transformation from my childhood beginnings in a Meadows slum to my children’s present-day is remarkable. And I attribute it entirely due to the influence of a “monster”. R R Stephens. An outstanding story of social mobility. The paradox is that it was effected by this headmaster who was universally loathed and feared.
This my tale. About the fire-breathing dragon dressed up as my guardian angel.
A scary thing happened at school today, Mam.
It was the second of those terrifying gob-smacking events, my direct encounters with R R Stephens. Never a comfortable place to be. This day the predator was on his panther-prowl through the school. Today not monitoring teaching through the glass panels in the door. This time the hunt had a named prey. R R Stephens came in pursuit of one specific target. He came hunting down George.
Lower Fourth Arts, Mr Jacobs for English Literature .. first lesson after dinner ... I am about 14 years old. We are studying Thomas Hardy, Trumpet-major. We are desperately trying not to show how boring it is. But no choice, it’s an 'O' level set-book.
We must be concentrating so hard on not falling asleep because no one has spotted the panther peering in through the glass pane. The door opens. We leap up out of our seats. R R Stephens has entered.
He didn’t always but today Mr Stephens does acknowledge the teacher. Mr Jacobs (Jake) Head of English, respected member of staff. A quick nod to his head of department, then R R Stephens growls. Pointing at me.
"George. My office. Straight after school."
The door shuts.
My heart stops. I think I remain standing when the others sit back down. Paralysed. Frozen. Mr Jacobs looks at me. He raises an eyebrow. The unspoken question, What have you been up to, boy?
Harbinger of doom
I never heard another word in that lesson. Or the rest of the afternoon. I went around like a zombie, my senses were paralysed. Stunned. I took nothing in. In the break, the other kids crowded around. They assumed I’d done something wrong. Seriously wrong. Criminally wrong? Why else would the headmaster himself come and summon me?
The angel of death had come himself. This was SERIOUS. Deadly serious. Why come personally? He was telling the whole class how serious. If George didn't turn up tomorrow for school, they shouldn't be surprised.
What had I done, my classmates wanted to know? I had racked my brains instead of bathing in the glories of Thomas Hardy's Wessex. Nothing occurred to me. Yet it had to be spectacular to have the headmaster's wrath brought down on my head.
I was a goody-two-shoes in school. I'd never put a foot out of line. At Trent Bridge Juniors, the head-teacher had never reached for his slipper with me. Miss Slack had never hovered over my knuckles with her ruler. At Mundella, corporal punishment for boys had been stepped up under Mr Stephens .. we used to wonder if the Deputy Head had only one line on his job description. But never me! I was perfect!
Had I been mixing in bad company? Had I got dragged into some other boys' crime? And I was getting increasingly panicky as I saw the clock ticking away to 4 o'clock.
The school bell rang. I swear it had never been so loud. I must have jumped out of my skin. The whole class looked at me. Most with sympathy. But I couldn't stay. I threw everything in my bag. I gulped. I couldn't even say, It's been nice knowing you, guys. I'd never have got the words out.
I ran. I ran out the door, across the hall, hurtled down the stairs.
"Straight after school" … When R R Stephens said that it meant within 30 seconds.
R R Stephens was a master of mental torture. He controlled the school by the power of his personality. A prevailing sense of impending threat. That was his trademark.
"Straight after school". I shot out of the classroom. Out across the Upper Hall, probably with a stentorian voice pursuing me bellowing, Don't run! I shot down the stairs through pupils sauntering at the end of the day. It was alright for them to saunter .. their lives weren't on the line.
Outside the headmaster's study was a small ante-room. Four bare walls, no seats. I stood there panting, heart in my mouth. Most scary of all …. I am alone. No one else has been summoned. I’m in this alone.
HOW? WHY? WHAT? All afternoon, ignoring lessons, I'd racked my brain. Searching for the answer to Jake's raised eyebrow, What have you been up to, boy? NOTHING. I was convinced I'd done nothing wrong. I was a Goodey-Two-Shoes. Never a suggestion of a misdemeanour. Never me. Not a whiff.
Goodey-Two-Shoes shouldn't be hopping outside Mr Stephens' room quaking in his shoes. Best I could come up with, a friend had done something wrong, my name had inadvertently come up in the investigation.
But then …. that would mean there'd be others there, wouldn’t it? The boys who had actually committed this evil crime. Was I here to snitch on them? The way I was quivering, I had no doubt I’d grass them up. Willingly!
If there'd been others waiting there, I could have patched together what was going wrong. I could have had my excuses ready before entering the lion's den (- no, Mr Stephens was not a lion, definitely a panther. More deadly, more cunning.)
No one else there. No one else summoned. I was there alone carrying the can.
A master of psychological terror. R R Stephens had a traffic light system installed above his door. The red light glowed. I was to wait. When the green light was lit, I was to knock and take my life in my hands.
I wait. I wait. Classic heavy-interrogation technique. Making the victim sweat it out. But at 14 I haven't got to that page in my boys’ comic, I don’t know about such tricks. I wait. I stand stock-still looking at that red bulb. If it changes and I don't see it … I'll be in an even worse mess if I don't react immediately.
In the next room, I hear the school secretary lock her door and go home.
Still I wait. Standing staring at the red bulb. Willing it to change. Willing it not to change. The noise of kids in school has died away. The kids have gone home. I’m alone outside the monster’s lair. Soon the sounds of post-school activity are silent too. No teachers' footsteps.
And still the thing glows red. I have nothing to do. I have my homework in my bag. But I don't dare get it out. I might not see the green light flash. I'll lose valuable time putting it away before I timidly knock on the door.
I lock my eyes on that red light. I will it to change. Knowing when it does, I might wet myself.
In that moment time does not exist. I have no idea how long I am standing there. I've stopped trying to work this out. My brain is no longer trying to rationalise. The wait has got to me. The terror has paralysed me. I'm not finding excuses to brush away the cause of my behaviour. I am going in there. I am throwing myself at the headmaster's mercy. I am confessing to every evil sin I've committed since I was conceived.
Hell! It's green. I stare at the green bulb. Paralysed. It's green. I can't move. My heart has missed a beat. Broken, I stride to the door. I knock. Oh no! Was that too loud?
Nothing. No response. Should I knock again? Dare I? Nothing. An endless silence. The pulse in my ear is thudding.
How can I find the strength to turn the doorknob!
I stand before Mr Stephens' desk. He sits the other side looking at some paper, he doesn't look up. I stand to attention on the other side. I'm not actually at attention, I hope. I know from the Boys' Brigade how that looks. But mentally I am at attention, back straight, looking straight ahead at the light from the window. I don't even dare put my school bag down.
I wait not daring to look at him. Not daring to make a sound. Hardly daring to breathe.
I probably jump when he looks up. Here it comes. The accusation. I know I'll admit it. I'll take the blame .. whatever the crime. I just want out of there.
"George. Go home today."
My heart stopped. I froze. Expelled.
“Tell your mother, ……
His voice always sounded stern.
" …. you're going to university."
What am I hearing? Am I listening? Am I taking this in? I've been expecting one of his withering looks. A world-class master at those. What is he talking about? Don’t change the subject. It was ME! I confess! I did it! Why is he talking rubbish?
"That means … Good 'O' levels? Those are predicted."
Were they? No one has told me but then no one would. But I always got the class prize at Speech Day. I should have known.
"You don't leave at 16. Tell her that. You stay on into the Sixth Form."
That is still two years away. My detailed career planning hasn't got as far as 'O' levels yet. He continues .. staring at me. I am withering under that gaze. His face for all appearances could be giving me a good telling off. He still looks bone-chillingly stern.
"Good "A" levels. Then on to university."
Do I know what a university is? In the Upper Hall, there are honours boards, names of pupils who went on to university. All I know is that above the boating lake in Highfields Park at Beeston there is a big white clock tower. Someone had once told me that Jesse Boot had paid for it to be built. It was called the university.
(This was a time when only about 5% of pupils attended university and a disproportionate number of those came from public schools. An infinitesimally tiny percentage were born in The Medders.)
"Tell your mother …."
I am still trying to avoid looking at my headmaster. Because he is staring terrifyingly sternly into my face.
He was probably worried I was too dim to take this in. I nod. I am hearing the words, I can repeat them verbatim. But I UNDERSTAND NOTHING.
"She needn't worry about the money. The Council will pay for everything."
He clearly knows my financial circumstances. And he only ever referred to "your mother", never "parents". But that kind of perspective is far from my thinking. Somehow I've “got away with it” .. whatever "it" is, whatever heinous crime I have committed. I’ve got away with it! I want out of here.
"Tell her when you get home. Tell her, money is not a problem."
He looks at me. Magnetically. Because suddenly I do look into the sternness of his face. And then quickly flinch away.
"Tomorrow morning, leave a message in the school register. Tell me she agrees."
Later I realised he'd never allowed for Mam to say No.
It was a wonder I don't snap off a salute and do a brisk About Turn. I just run.
Mam says Yes
I went home and told Mam everything that had happened .. leaving out the scary details I didn't want her getting worried. Or know what a coward she had.
Things were always tight financially. It would have been 100% normal for me to leave at 16 and bring money in. The reason there was a frown on her face, though, was because she felt she was out of her depth. She didn’t understand.
She always felt at a loss when it came to Mundella. She'd left school at 13. She could read and write perfectly well. And she could talk the hind legs off a donkey when it came to making her point. But grammar school was in another galaxy.
"That what you want to do, duck?"
I couldn’t explain it because I didn’t understand it either. What R R Stephens had said to me, I had mouthed it back. But did I understand what I was getting into? Not a bit.
"Yeah. I think so …..?"
Mam shrugged. She didn’t even appreciate I had been paid a huge compliment by the headmaster. She certainly wasn't clear I'd been offered a life-changing opportunity. It was a mystery. She couldn't throw her arms around me and jump up and down for joy. There was no crying out, Well done! She didn't really understand the implications. I didn’t either. It was a mystery.
"OK, duck. Tell him Yes."
I have accorded this tale with a lot of emotional detail. The interview with R R Stephens has been dramatized. But not exaggerated. Those terrors were real. The man inspired that.
The dramatization aims to portray to those who did not study through the three years of his Reign the anxieties his man could stir. Those extreme emotions waiting outside his office were real.
To appreciate the miracle of this situation, one has to understand the disparity. R R Stephens rightly deserved his reputation with staff and pupils. Yet for the transformation he brought about in my life …. I owe him everything. He stepped totally out of character. That incongruity was truly amazing. Is there another pupil from his time who could write in such glowing praise?
Because … from that hour in my life … a new life took off. No exaggeration. Without that brief terrifying meeting in R R Stephens' lair …. I would not be the person I am.
What If ….?
Without that conversation, I would have left school after "O" levels. Most kids from my background did. I lived in Colliery Road. First job … office junior at the pithead, maybe?
Without that conversation, I would not have gone into the Sixth Form .. kids like me didn’t. Mam wouldn't have known what the “Sixth Form” even meant.
Without that conversation,
I wouldn't have gone on to get a degree .. or two …. or …
I wouldn't have trained to be a teacher
I would never have met my future wife.
I would have had kids … but not the kids I have.
And that’s where it gets scary. Because of R R Stephens, I have the wonderful kids I have? Without him, they would not have achieved what they have made of themselves. Isn’t that a chilling thought? My fortunes were entirely down to luck. Luck gifted by a “monster”. Acting out of character. A massive incongruity.
It is remarkable that this one man .. “generally loathed” by the staff, feared by the pupils, he scared me witless ….. that the head-teacher who was regarded as a monster …. That this man transformed my existence.
He shaped my history. He moulded my destiny. My guardian angel. A man who most thought of as the devil incarnate. Cloaked in his academic gown.
In that office in Mundella Grammar School, I was born-again. A new Me came back out.
What If Not ……?
The word “seismic” is no exaggeration.
It is chilling to think that if R R Stephens hadn't spotted me .. if he hadn't aggressively intervened in my life … I would not have my two fantastic kids. There would not be the joy of my three bubbly grandkids.
Chilling isn't it? To think, What if not ...?
What does that say about the fragility of life? The window of opportunity for that influence to bear down on me was narrow. R R Stephens was only at the school for three years. Why would he spot me? How did it happen? By chance?
That article from Mrs Wood suggests that an inspection report was highly critical of the way R R Stephens was reforming the school. He left prematurely. Was he pushed? Mundella breathed a great sigh of relief when he went.
Why did I come to his attention? A mystery. A huge piece of luck.
Incredibly, luckily, that guardian angel did land within that window. In the oddest form. Loathed by his staff. Feared by his pupils. I recognise with bafflement how incredibly lucky I was. In a brief three year window, R R Stephens re-shaped my Medders’ boy existence forever. Out of all recognition
It is chilling to wonder what would have happened if he had not intervened.
It is chilling to think how much I owe R R Stephens.
Did Mundella do me good? YES. With a barrel-load of luck.