The Terrible Mr Gooden

The line between a terrific teacher and a terrible teacher is a fine line indeed. So many of the very best teachers dance along the line with fancy steps on either side, changing the lives of students fortunate to be touched by their magic or cursed by their conceit.

Mr Gooden was terrifying and a tyrant. He altered the course of my life more than any other teacher.

JK Rowling’s Severus Snape is the modern archetype of the terrific/terrible/terrifying teacher and Potter doesn’t know until the very end where Snape’s loyalties lie. But the tyrannical teacher par excellence is Miss Jean Brodie.


Jean Brodie: “Little girls! I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”

Maggie Smith’s terrifying teacher, long before Professors Snape and McGonegall and long, long before The Dowager Countess, was a fascist and an admirer of fascists. Miss Jean Brodie was inspired by Mussolini and Franco and inspired her girls to great heights; moulding and shaping their lives but ultimately dooming them to tragedy, sending them off to war and worse. Miss Brodie wielded charisma and conviction and certitude as weapons to inflict scorn and shame on her students. Snape too. But Mr Gooden had them both beat with charisma and conviction in abundance and he directed scorn and shame like guided missiles against a Palestinian hospital.

pink_floyd_3_wallpaperMr Gooden was an evangelical Christian and ran our school’s Good News Club, a welcome refuge from a rainy winter’s lunch break. To those who didn’t know him well, he had a reputation as a ferocious disciplinarian. To those lucky enough to have him for chemistry, he was a magical storyteller, bringing his subject to life and instilling a love of science that has lasted a lifetime. Mr Gooden, the chemistry teacher would be a shoe-in for Teacher of the Year. Mr Gooden the form teacher would merit a different award entirely.

Time for a quick sidebar to explain some features of English schools for American readers. JK Rowling captured a great many features of the British Grammar School with surprising fidelity. The sorting of First Years into houses to foster competition and team spirit is spot on (give or take a Sorting Hat) and, while we didn’t have Quidditch, we did have regular inter-house rugby, cricket and track/field tournaments (Lester forever!). Ordinary and Advanced Wizarding Levels are essentially O levels and A levels—the exams you take at age 16 and 18 that determine your success or failure in life. One big difference between an English school day and my American kid’s day is that we all travelled from class to class in a herd, only occasionally breaking ranks to split up for Latin or German. Our herd travelled everywhere together including, in our case, ice skating every Sunday and the occasional trip to Margate on the train. American kids (mine at least) miss out on that camaraderie and have to work harder for their friendships. That’s one thing that my school got right. The “Form” system made it so easier to build friendships and many of my friendships from that period have lasted a lifetime.

The official name for our herd was a ‘form’. Each form had a Form Room and a Form Teacher who started and ended each day with a roll call and was responsible for the discipline and life lessons that didn’t fall under the rubric of the curriculum proper. Our Form Teacher was a prominent part of our lives (like Professor McGonegall was for Harry, Ron and Hermione) and could make those lives great or awful according to their tastes. Mr Gooden was our Form Teacher for my second and third year of grammar school (7th & 8th grade for ‘mercans).

My first day in Form 2P was filled with trepidation. Mr Gooden’s reputation as a tyrant loomed but, like many a dictator, Mr Gooden up close was quite personable; charismatic even. Our days began with laughter and inspiration and I was soon grateful for a teacher that took an active interest in our lives. We were lucky to have Mr Gooden for chemistry too and he was a born showman in the chemistry lab. How well I remember the zinc and sulphur explosion! What better introduction to molecules than the oil drop experiment?

Mr Gooden’s active interest in the form room extended to encouraging us all to donate to his special charity collection every Tuesday morning. Mr Gooden’s class was consistently the most generous in the school and he made sure that we all gave until it hurt, publicly shaming anyone who fell short. He also made sure we “volunteered” for any extra-curricular project that required work. Character-building stuff, I am sure and, considered in isolation, something to be commended. But eventually the constant pressure to “volunteer” for good deeds and give money for good causes became oppressive. But it was on disciplinary issues where Mr Gooden really crossed the line.

I’ll confess right now that I was not the most well-behaved child at Chis and Sid. I had more than the average number of detentions. The average number was close to zero but, when the headmaster announced the detentions in assembly every Tuesday and Thursday, a handful of offenders were named over and over. It was rare that the list of miscreants did not include some combination of Monroe, Harding, Winch or Lawrence. Detention began with a certificate signed by the offended teacher and counter-signed by the offender’s parents.

Other schools had a punishment called detention but it was a pale imitation of the elaborate ritual of shame that Chis and Sid inflicted on its naughtier students. Mr Gooden rarely gave out the official sanctioned punishment though. Mr Gooden’s justice was more personal; more primal. It began with a barrage of scorn for anyone who did not live up to his lofty expectations. He had a way of focussing his ray of humiliation on a single student while making every other student feel that they too had let him down. Class punishments were common but it was the private discipline that provoked the most fear.


My first private chastening came after that episode in Ms Furey’s French class. I’ll confess again that I was often the naughtiest boy in her class. I spent much of third year French in the corridor outside Ms Furey’s classroom, reflecting on my sins, and far too many of my lunch breaks writing “Le silence aide le travail” 100, 200 or sometimes 500 times for some transgression or other.

I wasn’t the only naughty boy in the class though and, on that particular day, I was far from the naughtiest. As I recall, on that terrible day, Martin and David were the instigators and at the peak of the mayhem most everyone in the class contributed to poor Ms Furey’s breakdown. I was, at worst, a part of the chorus, embarrassed by her tears.

When I received my summons, I knew that evidence was not going to help my case. At roll call the next day, Mr Gooden said those dread words “Oh, and Kevin, I want to see you outside the Staff Changing Room at 12:15.” As anyone who has been on the receiving end of Mr Gooden’s wrath knows, the Staff Changing Room is where Mr Gooden kept his Size 14 Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls. The routine became depressingly more familiar with each punishment but the first time was special in its banality. First of all, the penitent (me) had to perform a series of stupid little tasks while Mr Gooden changed out of his track suit. Fetch me this. Bring me that. Deliver this thing. Next, you had to stare into those limpid pools of justice while he lectured you on the responsibilities and virtues required of a student at Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School. Finally, you had to take off your purple blazer, hang it on a coat hook and bend over to touch your toes while you waited for the Dunlop Green Flash to deliver the justice of the righteous Mr Gooden. The first whack was almost hard enough to knock me off my feet. The second and third came with increasing force as Mr Gooden got comfortable with his swing. Just three swings this time.

I forget the occasion for my second visit to the Staff Changing Room but it obviously was not sufficient because, on my third visit, the Green Flash plimsolls had been replaced by a cane and not one of those swishy canes like they used in old movies either. This was the kind of cane that the rule of thumb was apocryphally named for and each swing resulted in a thud rather than a swish leaving a welt of pink on my stinging backside. At least I was allowed to keep my trousers on.


As far as I know, Mr Gooden’s extra-curricular punishments were entirely off the record and neither the school administrators nor our parents were ever aware of them. I certainly never told my parents and would not have received any sympathy if I had. Mum had too many stories of corporal punishment of her own to be impressed by mine. I often wonder if Mr Gooden would have got in trouble if anyone in authority had known what he was up to. The closest I came to telling anyone about it was when Paul Winch and I got to enjoy some double discipline.

I forget the exact crime this time around but Paul and I were kept back after class. I was sent to wait on the landing outside room 51 while Paul went in for the opening bout of punishment. I don’t know who started shouting first but their verbal missiles were soon joined by wooden ones as they began to curse and throw chairs at each other. First Paul would scream some obscenity and throw a chair or two then Mr Gooden would shout something back and throw more chairs. This continued for an eternity while I listened in terror, knowing that I was next. Mr Berry—Head of Chemistry and Mr Gooden’s boss— walked by just at that moment and asked me why I was still in school so late and why I was crying. I told him I was about to be caned but said nothing of the roar of Bedlam that continued above our heads. Mr Berry said something vaguely soothing, grabbed his coat and headed for home. I waited for my turn in the chamber of horrors.

Eventually the ruckus died down and Mr Gooden came down the stairs to tell me to wait by his car. Paul told me later that he had broken Mr Gooden’s cane. He must not have replaced it because I never felt its bite again and Mr Gooden switched to more psychological torments. Mr Gooden drove me home that day and made me wait in the car while he spoke with my mother. I’ve no idea what he said but, when I got inside, I told my mother “I don’t want to stay at Chis & Sid”. “I know”, she replied.

Not long after the chair-throwing episode, Paul went away to some kind of prison for young offenders.. By then I was totally disengaged from school and had vowed to leave at the earliest opportunity. I never did another lick of homework or took a another book home from school. In most classes, I did no work at all. No official work anyway. I read Homer under the desk in my Latin class and I coded in Basic in French class. Still I came first in my class every year. I need to explain that.

In American schools, most of one’s grade comes from the opinion of one’s teacher. In England of that era, one’s grade came entirely from how one performed in the end of year exams. End-of-year exams took three weeks and bore little resemblance to the pathetic little multiple choice tests that they do on this side of the pond. For each subject, there were two exams of three hours each. There was no “teaching to the test”, the bête-noir of American teachers. It was teach-teach-teach for most of the year then now-let’s-see-what-you-understand-you-little-fuckers.

I came first in my class at the end of the third year. I won a prize for the most improved student (last-in-class to first-in-class is hard to beat) and Mr Gooden was furious.

One of my teachers, Ms McDonnell was new to teaching and, frankly, not very good at it. She taught physics (my favorite subject) and she taught it very badly. I paid close to zero attention to her awful lessons and did less than zero of the work assigned. When the exam results were published, only two students in her class passed. I got 70% and John Burford got 57%. No one else got more than 34%. Mr Gooden made me stay in class for every break and lunch break until the end of term while I completed all the work that I had missed.

The last two years of Chis & Sid couldn’t pass fast enough.


I had nothing more to do with Mr Gooden but by then I had a deep seated contempt for all teachers, even the good ones like Mr Lewis. We had a Mr “Chemistry” Lewis and Mr ‘Biology” Lewis (AKA “Basher” Lewis). Chemistry Lewis was a genius. I’ll always remember the day that he sat in as a substitute for biology when Basher was out sick. He asked us “So what topic are you supposed to be learning today?” “Cell-division” we replied. Mr Chemistry Lewis proceeded to give the lesson on meiosis and mitosis far better than Mr Biology Lewis ever could. I really felt that I had let him down when he reviewed my chemistry exercise book and I had done only two pages of work in two years.

When ‘O’ levels came around I came equal first with three other students all of whom went to Oxford and Cambridge. But I was already out of there, headed for life in a different colour blue. In my 16 year old head, I thought that the Navy would be more of a challenge than two more years of school and ‘A’ levels.

How stupid I was.


I did four more years of schooling in the Navy and the exams were just appallingly, trivially easy. I even did ‘A’ level maths in my spare time just to make sure my brain had not completely rotted (it took me six weeks and I got an A). I often wonder what path my life might’ve taken if I’d gone to Cambridge instead.

Thanks Mr Gooden. You changed my life.

The Least Funny of the Marxes

A series of short lectures on religion from my alma mater.

Stalin and his gang had found lots of other ways to oppress people that didn’t have any of the fun bits of religion. Or, indeed. opium.

Those hilarious people who put ‘Jedi’ on the census form.

Two more in the series. Look out for the heretic mouse torture and God with a hosepipe.

Family Fun

Here’s a fun game to play with your american-speaking children.

Write out these three words on three separate cards and hand the cards to one of your children to read.




Have child number one read out the cards and have child number two write down the words that they hear. Score 1 point for each word that they hear correctly.

Endless fun for the whole family!

The Science of Jiggling

Having now shepherded two little clowns through elementary and middle school, a lot of teachers have crossed my path. It has been rare to come across one with a passion for science.

I have come across teachers who apologize for how hard maths is. They explain how they will make it easier and more fun for the kids by letting them draw pictures or play with the manipulatives. That’s great for kids who like to draw pictures but it’s not so great for kids who like maths. Nothing worse, for a kid who can’t draw, to be made to draw pictures in maths class. I’d rather be doing maths.

Especially in middle school, it seems like many teachers do all they can to delay the inevitable encounter with scary science. Collectively, my kids have written around 9 essays entitled “All About Me” as the first assignment in a science class.

To be fair, there has been a handful of teachers who clearly loved their subject and were able to convey some of their passion, but most have come across and somewhat apologetic “Sorry kids, I know you rather be reading novels, or making music or learning about the civil war but this is science class and you are going to be learning science whether you like it or not and we’ll start by writing an essay entitled ‘All About Me'”.

Imagine what science classes would be like if all science teachers were as excited by science as this guy.

Eleven more like that one if you click through to YouTube.

While I am ranting, why is that science documentaries in the UK are always narrated by scientists, while in America they have actors narrating the very same programs? Hands up who thinks Morgan Freeman is an expert on penguins? Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a famous scientist like Sigourney Weaver!

History of English

I love learning about the history of English. I love the Open University and I especially love the fact that they put all of their courses online. It’s almost enough to make me want to finish my OU degree. In my day, you had to get up at 6:30am to watch boring lectures and tweed jackets and elbow pads.

So, History of English in Ten Minutes one minute at a time.

In the first minute: Angles and Saxons: gave us man, wife & werewolf; church Latin gave us bishop and martyr; vikings gave us give and take.

Chapter One should be straightforward and obvious but it always surprises me how many people think that English came from Latin. This chapter kills that misapprehension dead. With a big axe!

Next up: The Normans.

No Limits?

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing that I couldn’t do if I worked hard enough at it.

Except art and music. All my attempts at drawing ended in tears and my attempts at playing the recorder made people cry. Miss Sindy, my art teacher at Chis and Sid, always seemed to lose my work. I never did figure out why.

As I got older, I discovered that I had plenty of limits and, one by one, I found that most of the things I was good at, I would never be great at.

About 20 years ago, though, I bought an electric piano. I don’t remember why I bought it but I remember that I used to practice and practice for hours on end. I got to the point where I could play, like, 20 pieces all the way through without a mistake. My downfall was Clair de Lune. I had always loved Debussy and that piece in particular and it became a matter of pride that I was going to own it. Sadly, it owned me. I could play it through nicely until those fast arpeggios at the end. I spent months and months trying to get it but eventually gave up.

About 10 years later, I had my piano shipped out to the states. I was never really able to get the hang of it again and it sits in the corner now, daring me to try again. To this day, I hear those first three notes in a movie, or in a store, and I shake my fist and curse Debussy.

I was reluctant to try guitar for the same reason. I hate starting things and giving up but I eventually got a guitar to keep Dylan company when he was having lessons. It quickly became obvious that I was never going to be good at guitar no matter how hard I practiced. But a guitar is pretty forgiving and, unlike a piano, you can get a pretty good tune out of one even if you are not very good. So I keep strumming and having fun without ever really feeling that I am getting any better.

Drawing grabbed me about 10 years ago.

I started with sketching in MS Paint with a mouse. Then decided I needed a better drawing program, then a graphics tablet. I had a lot of fun. Drawing on a computer is forgiving too. If you make a mistake, you just hit undo and try again.

One day, I had a fancy that I might try drawing on paper. I had drawn an eagle that didn’t suck when I was 14. Maybe I could draw another one of those.

I went to Barnes and Noble and came back with armfuls of books: How To Draw What You See, Lifelike Drawing, Drawing a Likeness, Drawing the Female Nude. I read all the books that night. Next day, I went to Aaron Brothers and bought a sketchpad, a box of pencils and an eraser, rushed home and opened the first book and started drawing. The first couple of portraits were crap but by the third or fourth I was thinking – Hey! This isn’t so hard! Let me try a nude!

For about a year, I drew like a maniac and then one day I just stopped.

I was halfway through a portrait of my wife. I had a five year old child and a newborn and I could never seemed to find a couple of hours of quiet to sit down and sketch. All the books went back on the shelf and all the pencils went in the closet and that was the end of my drawing career. I never did finish that picture.

I had put a few of my portraits up on the wall and, every now and again, I’d stop and look at them and wonder who I was when I drew them. It was a different person who no longer existed. I picked up a pencil every couple of years to try again, but I could never make any sense of it. But then I got an iPad.

With my iPad, I was able to recapture that sense of freedom to make mistakes. You make a mistake? Just paint over it!

I even managed to turn my sins into a virtue. If you paint over your mistakes – over and over – you get a nice layered effect. Hey! I had discovered a style!

I’m still enjoying sketching on my iPad – with Art Studio – but I feel like I’ve hit something of a natural limit. I can copy pretty well now – I’ve learned to draw what I see – but I can only draw exactly what I see. As soon as I try to deviate just a little from the script that the subject has written for me, everything goes to crap. I have no control at all. Cliche, but: It’s like my drawing is in control and I’m just a vehicle.

I have a couple of pictures in my head that I’d like to draw but I know that there is no chance that I can attempt them at my current skill level and I’ll need lessons to get past where I am now. Meanwhile, it gives me enormous pleasure that I can paint a beautiful little girl and have the result turn out beautiful too.

10% of everything is not crap

I finished the book. A few of Bach’s points stand out as especially significant to my own life. But first, I want to talk about his story about his fellow testers at Apple.

At first I thought I would learn a lot from the other testers. There were more than 400 of them in my building. But talking to them revealed a startling truth: Nobody cared.
Almost nobody. In the first six months I worked at Apple, out of all the testers in the software testing division, I met maybe 10 who were also reading testing books. The rest muddled through without much ambition to master their craft. It was clear that catching the college kids would not be difficult, after all.

The pattern I experienced at Apple would be confirmed almost everywhere I traveled in the computer industry: Most people have put themselves on intellectual autopilot. Most don’t study on their own initiative, but only when they are forced to do so. Even when they study, they choose to study the obvious and conventional subjects. This has the effect of making them more alike instead of more unique. It’s an educational herd mentality.

This is almost right.

I have been thinking a lot, recently, about Sturgeon’s Law. Theodore Sturgeon is a science fiction writer who was once on a panel with with other writers from other genres. One of his fellow panelists threw out the observation that

90% of science fiction writing is crud

To which Sturgeon replied

90% of everything is crud

It’s usually quoted as crap rather than crud and, since it’s better to be useful than correct, I’ll go with that formulation.

Most people understand Sturgeon’s Law as a pessimistic observation of the rottenness that surrounds us: 90% of teachers are crap; 90% of software professionals are crap; 90% of restaurants are crap; 90% of beers are crap; 90% of tv shows are crap. But I prefer to think of Sturgeon’s Law as a strategy for avoiding hasty judgment in an unfamiliar domain.

If you are at the top of your game in software testing (or science fiction or beer drinking or whatever), you probably surround yourself with other people who think like you and have similar interests to you. When you compare your own circle (beer drinkers in Portland; historical fiction writers) with an unfamiliar circle (beer drinkers in Denver; science fiction writers), you are comparing the best of your circle with the average of another circle. That’s not a fair comparison because, if 90% of everything is crap, the average is crap too.

Sturgeon’s Law is about the 10% that is not crap. You have to go find the best before you decide that college graduates are all automatons or that beer drinkers in Denver drink piss or that video games are mindless (compared to movies) or whatever.

Some consequences:

If you are a liberal and all your liberal friends are smart, you need to go look for some smart conservatives before you pass judgment on conservatives as a whole.

If you are a responsible software tester, go look for some smart software developers before you decide that developers are irresponsible.

I could go on.

I have a hunch that this observation explains a whole bunch of phenomena: kids these days aren’t as smart as they were in my day; Women can’t change a plug; recent immigrants are stupid and lazy; and, of course, 90% of science fiction is crap.

None of this conflicts with Bach’s observation about his fellow testers at Apple or his advice that, with just little effort, you can be better than 90% of your co-workers. But it should make you pause before you decide that your group is better, in some way, than some other group.

One other observation and then I am done with buccaneering for a while.

Bach describes a strategy for learning that is very similar to my own. He talks about building a schema for a new topic before he goes about learning the details. I do that too.

When I am learning a new subject, I want to have a theory for what it’s about as a whole before I start learning the particulars. It’s a bit more iterative than that, of course: particulars help me understand the whole and the whole helps me understand the particulars; but my initial goal is to develop a theory for how everything hangs together rather than learn any particular detail.

I sometimes wonder if the people who study for exams miss this.

Having never studied for an exam (except my Latin O Level – I didn’t have a good theory of Latin), I don’t quite know how studying works. But I suspect that the studiers are trying to fill their heads with facts rather than build a skeleton understanding of the subject. It’s inevitable that they’ll forget everything almost immediately because the soft tissue of facts has no bones to cling to. If you have understanding, you can’t help but learn the facts as an accidental bi-product.

I have been trying to teach this to my son but, since he doesn’t study for exams either, he probably knows it already. I hope so. I expect he’ll turn out to be a buccaneer scholar too, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

Buccaneer Scholars Unite!

I just started reading James Bach’s Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar. Buccaneer scholar is Bach’s term for someone who takes responsibility for their own education rather than having it handed to them by the authorities.

The book is an odd mix of autobiography and How To guide. The autobiographical bits have remarkable parallels with my own life right down to our reasons for learning harmonica and the kids we saved from certain death (I came across mine floating face down at midnight in the pool at Corton’s Holiday Camp with not another soul around).

A sampling of coincidences …

We both learned to program in BASIC from a book before we even had a computer to type them into. I used to write programs during French classes in a book under my desk and then type them in when I got home. I typed mine into a Zx81; James into an Apple II. I graduated to Z80; James to 68000.

James left home and school at 15. I waited until I was 16. We left for about the same reason – school was boring and we felt we weren’t learning anything. It took me several years though before I bluffed my way into my first programming job. I would’ve done it much earlier except I didn’t know it was an option.

Unlike James, I loved taking exams as a kid. It was a chance for me to excel at school without actually doing any work. In England, at that time, the only thing that counted towards your final grade was the exam at the end of the year, so I was pretty much able to do zero work for the rest of the year and still come top of my class. Sadly for them, American kids don’t have that option.

I should clarify what I mean by zero work. Like James, I was incredibly driven to learn. Apart from teaching myself to write software, I read lot of books – just not the ones my teachers wanted me to read. My dad got me a college textbook on organic chemistry for my 14th birthday. I read that several times.

Also like James, I excelled at antagonizing my teachers and was constantly in trouble at school. I also had an episode of failing exams on purpose.

The Navy had a very strict policy on throwing people out if they weren’t able to keep up academically. We had an exam every week or two for the four years of my apprenticeship. If you failed one, you were put on a Commander’s Warning; two got you a Captain’s Warning and so on as you worked your way up the hierarchy of shame. Each warning came with ever increasing ceremony (picture a military court and you’ll have the setting about right) and ever more impressive certificates of failure.

I got very good at getting exactly 49% (50% was a pass) but, on a surprising number of occasions, when I got my paper back, it had been altered to give me a couple of extra points and a passing grade.

When I received the final warning signed by the Commander in Chief himself, my Divisional Officer scribbled on a note “this beautiful certificate is even more impressive than the one you’ll get when you graduate”.

One more failure and I was out. But I blew it. I was so disenchanted with how low the academic standards were in the navy that I wanted to know if I could still pass a proper exam. A friend of mine was taking A-Level Maths and I went and asked if I could take it too.

The education officer explained how it was a two year course and no one had passed it in ten years and failures reflected badly on him and it was a waste of his time and blah blah. Somehow, I conned him into letting me take the exam without taking the classes.

A couple of days after I got my CinC Warning, I was pulled out of class and told to go see the Captain. I was not told why, but I assumed that I had failed my fifth and final exam and that the end of my career in the navy was imminent. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the Captain had called me out of class to give me my A-Level result personally. I had got an A.

It took them a couple of days to figure out that I was the same dude who had been failing all those exams. When they did, I was told in very plain terms that I would not fail any more exams or there would be serious consequences. In a couple days, I had hatched my new scheme: I would become an officer and exercise an officer’s option to resign…but that’s a story for another day.

Back to the book.

I am about three quarters through it already. I’m enjoying it immensely but it’s hard for me to recommend it.

If you are the kind of person to quit school at 16, you probably did that already. And you probably don’t need James’s lessons on how to learn.

If you are not that kind of person, you probably think of people like us as reckless fools. You are probably better off taking the establishment path to an education anyway.