‘YOUNG’ FOR 40 YEARS
Mr Dickson's reflections on retirement
From Mrs Wall: It is heartwarming to read Mr Dickson’s reflections on his time at Urmston Grammar. Mr Dickson’s love of English, his enthusiasm for football, for drama and for music, his sense of community, his faith and his commitment to bettering the lives of young people are all important components of the person that he is. It is a remarkable accomplishment to spend over 40 years as part of a school and to remain true to the values and ethos that brought him into teaching in the first place.
Thank you Mr Dickson for all that you have contributed to our school over so many years. We wish you a long, happy, healthy retirement – a chance to spend time with your family and enjoy all the things you love. We will miss you
I wonder how many reading these reflections are old enough to remember the character Young Mr. Grace from the seventies sitcom ‘Are You Being Served?’ He was a frail, old character usually escorted on to the department store set by two young, slim women and kowtowed to by all the other characters because he was the owner of the store Grace Brothers. Despite his advanced years, he was known as Young Mr. Grace, as he was the youngest surviving member of the Grace family. When I started teaching at Urmston Boys’ Grammar School in 1982, I joined the English department, head of which was Mr. Dixon, some 20 years my senior. It was, therefore, difficult for students to make it clear, when enquiring at the staff room door, whether they wished to speak to Mr. Dixon or to me (Mr. Dickson). The simplest thing for them to do was to refer to me as ‘the young Mr. Dickson’. Fine for me – but not so great for Mr. Dixon who had to suffer the soubriquet of ‘the old Mr Dixon’!
So, my career started at the old Boys’ School which used to be situated on Bradfield Road. A well-remembered feature of the site was the ‘Mound’ which one would pass on entering the school field. As the name suggests, it was an elevated piece of grassy ground, with mildly precipitous sides, probably ten feet high and covering an area approximately 10 x 10 meters. William Golding, in his novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, recognized the tendency of adolescent boys to turn savage when lumped together without the civilizing influence of female company, and this Mound was the arena for many a fight. Why such a visible stage was selected for these fisticuffs is difficult to imagine. It might have made it a great place for spectators to observe proceedings, but it also meant that teachers were soon on the scene to break up those proceedings and deal with the miscreants accordingly. Since the boys joined the girls in 1988, all students moving across to the newly extended site at Newton Road, such physical enmity has virtually vanished, I am pleased to say. In the 30 years since then, I can recall having the necessity of separating sparring students on only two occasions in all that time. Back at Bradfield Road, two such fights a month would not have been unusual.
I guess most who know me think of me as an English teacher, but a few years ago, a young man at a local hostelry, out of the blue, offered to buy me a drink. As I’d had my quota by that time, I politely declined his offer, and he said to me, “You don’t remember me, do you?” An uncomfortable pause ensued. “You used to teach me French,” continued this relative youngster; “you’re the young Mr. Dickson.” I did actually come up with the right name for this former student a few seconds later. And, indeed, I did used to teach first year (year 7) French – for one year only, before the Trafford adviser for French suggested I might be better off on the Games field rather than in a classroom teaching French. And to the Games field I was duly sent. So, while English has always been my chief specialism, I have been a French and a Games teacher too. I also directed a couple of plays while at Bradfield Road. While Drama often featured in English lessons, it was not a discrete subject at the time of amalgamation. However, when I met up with Mike Parker, formerly of the girls’ school, our mutual enthusiasm, coupled with that of the students, led to Drama appearing officially on the school timetable, initially for Year 7s, but then expanding each year under mine and Mr. Parker’s stewardship until it eventually became the fully fledged GCSE and A level subject it is today. When Debbie Ripolles arrived, Mike and I, though still Drama enthusiasts, were happy to hand over to one with more specialist skills, and – of course - Mrs. Glen still continues to run the department that Mike and I pioneered all those years ago. So, yes, I’ve been a Drama teacher too.
While the English classroom remains my primary milieu, possibly because it is so familiar to me, it is actually the sorties outside that environment that create the strongest memories for me. It seems a little ironic that I was taken away from French to teach Games, as I had shown my credentials for doing so by volunteering to manage the Year 8 football team. That 1982/83 team lost every single match they played! With a view to encouraging me, the following season, Chris Rudol, then Head of P.E., passed that team on to a different martyr and gave me the new Year 8s to manage; they’d had a decent season the year before. But still they lost their opening game for me. I can’t remember the score, but I think our opponents probably netted 10 plus goals. Seemingly, I was the problem. Only, not so! From that inglorious start, the team went undefeated from then until the last game of the season, where in the Trafford Schools’ Cup Final we lost 3-0 to the team that had taken their score to double figures in that very first game of the season. And we were without our leading scorer for that final game. So, I reckon we did all right. We’d certainly improved.
School plays provide many other fond memories. I had the privilege of staging two musicals that I had composed: ‘The Spaceman’, a re-working of the Gospel stories, with a bit of Chris de Burgh’s ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ influencing the mix: and ‘Laud the Flies’, a poor pun on ‘Lord of the Flies’ - here, as Bernstein and Sondheim had re-worked Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ taking it from 16th century Verona to 20th century New York, I re-planted the children from Golding’s desert island misadventure to an adult-free school environment with similar outcomes. I acted the role of Jonny Casino in ‘Grease’, and Bill Sikes in a production of ‘Oliver!’ I was quite seriously concerned at a recent Parents’ Evening when one of the mothers sat down, and her first words were: “I used to be a student at this school, and you once threw me across a table.” She then smiled and said: “It’s true, I once played Nancy to your Bill Sikes.” Amongst many theatrical experiences, probably directing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, alongside Mike Parker, was the production that brought the greatest sense of satisfaction. It’s a real challenge to present Shakespeare’s work to a modern audience and make it as accessible and as entertaining as it would have been to Shakespeare’s own contemporaries. But I think we did a very decent job of it.
And for me, as a would-be rock god, a pet project of mine was ‘Out of Bounds’, the school’s very own pop group. This had various line-ups over the years and, to be honest, my frustration would be to get one set of enthusiastic students sounding just great and then, having reached the end of Year 11 or 13, those students would move on, and the great little band would not be the same band anymore, and everything would have to start all over again, but I did get to work with some very talented singers and musicians along the way. We also managed to get into a recording studio on a couple of occasions, and even succeeded in selling a few cassettes (if you don’t know what a cassette is, ask your mum and dad) of our recordings to our most devoted followers. Sadly, my copy of that cassette has gone astray. If anybody reading this, by some remote chance, still has their copy of the Out of Bounds cassette, I would love to give our offerings at least one more listen. Please help if you can!
So, here I am forty years and four headteachers on from my nervous beginnings at Bradfield Road. So much has happened in that time. Inevitably, there have been highs and lows - reasons to laugh and rejoice and, yes, at times, reasons to cry. But, on the whole, I look back very fondly on my career at Urmston Grammar. I feel blessed to have been among so many people – students, staff and parents – all ultimately dedicated to achieving the very best for those students. And it’s not the place; it’s not the changing curricula; it is those people – from governors to PTA members, from parents to students to colleagues past and present – who have most powerfully created these fond memories.
It's some time since I first recognized a student’s name and asked if they had a brother or sister in the school, only to receive the reply: “No, you used to teach my dad!” I’ve been dreading the day when someone says: “You used to teach my grandad.” I’ve had plenty of students tell me that I used to teach their aunty, their uncle or their cousin. And plenty of former students attend parents’ evenings (now as parents themselves) and still, despite my very advanced years, they call me ‘Young Mr. Dickson”, while reminiscing over the now deceased but always fondly-remembered Old Mr. Dixon. But, thankfully, nobody has yet told me that I used to teach their grandad. And I think that’s the way I’d like to keep it. So, after forty and a half years at Urmston Grammar, it is time for me to go. As the young Mr. Grace used to say: “You’ve all done very well!”