A sky full of stars

Uncle Vic and Auntie Rita were close friends of my mum and dad. So Uncle Vic was one of those uncles who get the courtesy title because what else are you going to call an adult when you’re a small child – Vic? Unthinkable. “Mr Spencer”? Too formal for someone you play cards and have tea and watch the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special with every Boxing Day, one year at their house, the next at ours.

But Uncle Vic was a teacher too, and had that unshakeable aura of command that all teachers had, in those days, so you had to mind your Ps and Qs a bit with him, too. He taught, and was either Deputy Head or Head, at Upperthorpe School, and a choirmaster, and organiser of a school football league. Talking to children and being obeyed was what he did.

It broke him, in the end, as it does to so many teachers: the job gets harder and the burden gets greater and the respect reduces, so I don’t think he exactly had a Goodbye Mr Chips retirement and some of the joy of the work was taken from him – but along the way he changed lives.

He changed mine. When I was a child I knew I wanted to be something (in the days when there was a real question whether a girl would want to have “a career” at all or would simply get married, as if that was an answer). And I was the first person in my family to go to grammar school (and, later, to university) so I didn’t have much idea of WHAT I wanted “to be”, so like generations of working class kids I said I wanted to be a teacher, because that was the only class of professional with whom I ever came into contact (except vicars, and that wasn’t an aspiration for a girl then, remember).

Before I went to university, Uncle Vic arranged for me to do some work experience at his school, at some kind of summer school. And yes, I went in all shiny-eyed and full of myself, and yes, I came out knowing that, whatever else I wanted to be, a teacher wasn’t it. Aunty Rita and Uncle Vic were the adults who treated me seriously when I was a child; spoke to me as you would speak to another adult and not in that “talking to children” voice people adopt, taught me that I could aspire, if I could think what I was aspiring to; taught me I could think, but I had to think about the process involved.

There are other family memories of him, of course. The one I remember most vividly is when his mother, Lily Spencer, who had been a stalwart at St Bartholomew’s all my life, died. Uncle Vic turned up on the doorstep, and even a child could see that he scarcely knew what to do with himself. And dad invited him in, and they stood in the lounge talking about the chimney breast dad was taking down and talking about the brickwork and plastering and anything but the reason he was there; the first time I saw that sometimes language isn’t all about the words at all.

Dad was best man at Vic and Rita’s wedding on St Bartholomew’s Day at St Bartholomew’s church 56 years ago. Mum remembers him as organist and choirmaster at St Barts – before my time – and one day when the choir was being particularly tentative a loud voice from the organ calling out “SING!!” Kim, my sister, remembers the Christmas card games and how Uncle Vic always reminded us of Eric Morecambe – something about his appearance, and of course the same wicked sense of humour.

I asked my nephew, wondering if the “speaker to children” role had impinged on his childhood, too, but he said he remembered “a positive aura but that’s it, I’m afraid”. But that’s it, I think. Just think how many lives a teacher touches. And a good teacher (and I have no doubt he was a good teacher) touches multitudes: Upperthorpe, the choir, the football. Like John Watson to Sherlock Holmes, a good teacher is a conductor of light. If that’s the case, Uncle Vic was a sky full of stars.

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