It was with great sadness I learned that my high school history teacher, Mr Tarbett, had passed away. He lived his life so thoroughly and keenly it is perhaps surprising he didn't pass away sooner, but sad it still is.
Ones first impression of Mr Tarbett was often unfavourable. Giant, bearded and aggressive, he stormed around the school in a tattered, chalk-dusted academic gown glaring at anyone who failed to meet his approval (that is, most people), in a world where teachers were otherwise gentle folk in summer dresses or lounge suits.
His lessons were enigmatic and confusing. In particular, A Level history lessons were often little more than personal rants about his personal life: the machinations of his ex-wife, plots to bludgeon the teenage thieves of his wine-by-post deliveries with a weighted baseball bat, an ongoing appeal to raise funds to have a hitman assassinate the head, Mr Franklyn. That sort of thing.
One might almost have imagined these were clever historical metaphors for what we were learning in class, but as little was ever discussed in class I don't think this could really be the case. I do however recall board rubbers thrown at Damien's head, off-colour comments on Simi's breasts and a long stick used to poke the inattentive during lessons.
Homework was where the learning came in: we were set essay questions to research and write, and real research was necessary. Unlike literally every other lesson, we hadn't already been given the answers. Mr Tarbett was also a strict marker. Where in other lessons one could routinely get 90% for little to no effort, Mr Tarbett was scoring me 40% on history essays where I couldn't really imagine doing any better. I mentioned all the facts, answered all the questions.
It took me a term or two to start to figure it out, but we were being taught far greater lessons than what happened in the past. Through his criticism of our essays we were learning how to think, argue and write. How to evidence, quote and persuade. I'm sure we learned far more than we needed to ace the course, and indeed what I learned from Mr Tarbett ensured university was a very easy ride. Arguably much of my twenty year career has been too. Really I'm still writing history essays at heart, just the history is a lot more recent.
When I decided I wanted to apply to Cambridge - on the day of the deadline for doing so - the head of sixth form refused and said I would only embarrass myself and the school. I stormed round to see Mr Tarbett at lunchtime and he stood up for me, forced Mr McLintock to give me an application paper and just told me to go for it. Everyone else had received weeks of support and encouragement, I was given half a lunch break to scribble down my essay.
Whenever anyone asks which teacher had the most impact on my life the answer is never hard to find. I only hope now he's gone that there will be others in future generations to replace him.