He was one of those teachers that you knew by reputation long before you actually saw him. Some kids nicknamed him “lines” because he had a fondness for the phrase “50 lines” as punishment for anything he deemed fit. He was an old-school teacher. He didn’t follow the modern rules new teachers learned in teacher training college. He did things his way and nobody, not even other teachers, would dare argue he did otherwise.
I’ll never forget my first contact with him. I was in second year (aged about 13) and our history teacher was off sick. So he filled in for the one hour lesson. And so it was that I met Mr. Tom Casey, one of the guys who made me the man I am today. He was perhaps in his early 60’s. Tall and slim. Grey, receded hair. Half moon glasses and a thin, hard face that would scare any school child (or teacher) into doing anything he said. I later discovered that he was an ex-SAS officer back in the days when “they didn’t officially exist” and he controlled a classroom the way an army instructor controls raw recruits.
He would pace around the room, making sure everybody kept looking straight ahead, and he’d ask a question. You were just sitting there praying that he wouldn’t tap you on the shoulder and expect you to answer. But quite often you would and you’d better be damn sure you gave the correct answer. I don’t really remember that first lesson because we were all in such a high state of alertness and concentration that nothing entered our heads except the sound of his voice.
You could easily tell the people in his class because they’d be the ones sprinting to get to him as quickly as possible. He reckoned you could get to his room from anywhere in the school in two minutes. So once the bell rang to end one class, you had to get to him as fast as you could. He’d stand by the door and peer over his half-moon glasses at you and, once two minutes was up, he’d close the door. Anybody who had to open that door was subjected to a lecture about punctuality and instructed to complete “50 lines” saying that they wouldn’t do it again.
When it came to choose my subjects to sit O Levels and the new Standard Grades in I chose to do history and it turned out I was in Mr. Casey’s class. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I was a lazy student and never really tried very hard at anything, always happy to do the minimum. But for two years I endured his militaristic approach to teaching and I was scared all the time of not being able to answer his questions over the homework exercise, or turning up late to class (I’d just like to say that I never once had to do any lines for him). He made me work hard at what I did and take pride in it.
So when it came to choose my Highers (the Scottish equivalent to A-Levels) I chose history and made damn sure I was in his class. I originally wasn’t but I complained and ensured that I was transferred to him. He was just as hard a teacher as ever but was the one I most looked forward to seeing. Once you were used to the fact that you had to concentrate all the time and give it your all, you realised that he was truly passionate about history and loved to teach. I eventually got a B and for my final year at school I selected, amongst other subjects, to do SYS history (as in Sixth Year Studies, one step above Highers). Not surprisingly I ensured that I was in Mr. Casey’s class, and he was teaching 13th Century Scottish history, which was great.
But something changed. Mr. Casey wasn’t nasty any more. He no longer tried to scare us. He no longer lectured about punctuality. He didn’t pace around the room like he had a gun pointed at us. He didn’t try to menace us at all. He didn’t need to. We had earned his respect and he knew that we were doing SYS history because we too were interested in it. We did it because we wanted to, not because we had to. So he treated us with respect and earning that respect is one of my greatest achievements. In fact, he was an incredibly nice guy with a very sharp sense of humour. He didn’t teach us about the Scottish Kirk (the Church) because he didn’t agree with it, and he didn’t vote because “there was nobody worth voting for”. He was his own man and did what he thought was the right thing. And he was usually right.
That final year of being taught by him was great. He was a powerful ally and all the other kids couldn’t believe that he was such a nice guy – he wasn’t to them. The only thing I learned in school that I still remember today is what I learned of Scottish history in the times of Robert Bruce that year, and the six points of the charter championed by the Chartist movement of the 19th century (he drilled them into everybody’s head until you could recite them on command – in fact during my sixth year he’d occasionally demand that we recite it to see if we still remembered, which we all did). For your records, the six points of the charter are as follows: universal suffrage, vote by ballot, payment of MPs, equal electoral districts, abolition of property qualifications for MPs and annual elections.
He was the only teacher that former pupils often came back to see at my school. These adults would turn up who he used to teach and he’d chat away with them for ages, genuinely interested in how they were getting on, always offering advice if he could give it. And once I left school I was one of them. The thing I realise now is that he didn’t try to scare pupils because he was a nasty man. In fact the opposite was the case. He loved to teach, and nothing pleased him more than to see children grow up and become adults and maybe learn something of value along the way. He was the hardest-working teacher in the school and although he didn’t always play by the rules, he always got results. He didn’t punish those who couldn’t produce, he only punished those who didn’t try.
The work ethic I learned from his classes has stayed with me for life. I never realised until I thought about it last night what an impact he has made on me. Many of my personality traits bear a striking resemblance to his. I lost touch with him a few years ago after he retired and I moved to England. I don’t know if he’s still alive. But if I’m anything to go by, his legacy will live on in everybody who was lucky enough to be taught history by him.