Remembering a singular teacher.
I’ll always remember him leaning against that old oak with his testicles hanging down out of the crotch of his shorts. It was a Sunday afternoon, we were on a school camping trip, and it had rained all weekend long. We must have been 11 or 12 at the time, and I can’t remember now who started laughing first, but soon we were all laughing; naughty little boys all elbowing each other, and glancing down between the old man’s legs. He repeated the same words again and again, cocking his head, and fixing various boys in the group with a puzzled smile. ‘Go on, what are you laughing at, lad?’
Eight years later, after being confronted about ‘lewd comments’ many decades previously, that beloved teacher hanged himself. He drove out of the school gates, a school he’d been to as a boy and had then taught at for some 50 years, and was found that evening by the school chaplain. Mr Rainy Brown was always good with knots. When he died, I’m told that throughout the boarding houses, boys wept. He had meant so much to them and he had always been there, throwing his arms around our shoulders after rugby practice, sitting and listening on cold dark afternoons, and taking us camping to the Borders, to Galloway and to the Western Isles.
I was not, as a child, a particularly good student. I read everything I could find, from Anthony Burgess to Nick Hornby to Nancy Mitford, but I was so disorganised that I’d often lose the books before I actually finished them. I couldn’t do maths, I struggled with languages, and my handwriting is still so bad that even I can’t read it. JRB, as Mr Rainy Brown was affectionately known, had an eye for boys like me. When I’d just lost all my folders again for the third time that term, he was there. JRB taught me bottom set maths and I remember him, very distinctly, telling me that he’d look after my jotters and bring them along to each lesson and that way I wouldn’t leave them on the school bus, in the dining hall, changing rooms or swimming pool. JRB knew that I loved writing but he knew too that I could hardly hold a pen (not however it is you’re meant to hold it anyway) and every term, he would sit with me, while I dictated an article for the school magazine. As I talked he would scribble in pencil, his always beautiful handwriting running across unlined sheets of thick white paper.
When he died, I went to my drawers and opened a box full of letters that he sent to me over the course of about three years after I left the school. He would always be somewhere interesting and he would always address them elaborately in the top right corner. ‘August: Looking out across the Mull of Kintyre where a summer storm is creating a big sea’, or ‘October: Pulled up in my caravan in a mossy wood where beech mast and leaves lie blown across the lane.’ I read his letters, in the months after he killed himself, again and again and then one day, feeling that the time had come, I folded them up and put them in a hole in a dry stone wall up at the back of a field full of lambs. They are probably still there or perhaps a little field mouse has shredded them and turned them into bedding. JRB would have liked that.
I hadn’t thought about him for some time until I ended up, earlier this year, reading through transcripts from a large inquiry into sex abuse in Scottish schools. The inquiry was established in 2015 and was given four years to make recommendations. Over the years, from the age of five to 18, I’d been to three of the schools that were implicated and a couple of teachers who I knew well made notable appearances. Bill Bain, a rugby coach I had at Glenalmond, and a now-convicted paedophile who did a six-and-a-half-year stretch for abusing five boys, admitted to the judge chairing the panel that he should never have been a teacher and he realised, he said, that a better ‘system’ would have identified him. As I read on, I came across reams and reams of testimony given by various members of staff and a number of pupils about Mr Rainy Brown. David Spawforth, a previous headmaster, had spoken at great length about JRB’s educational philosophy – he was a person, Spawforth told the inquiry, who subscribed to ‘muscular Christianity’. He was a man out of time, a sort of Kurt Hahn figure, as Spawforth put it, who encouraged adventurousness with very little adult supervision in the hope that it would foster self-reliance. Over the years, Spawforth had found JRB to be a man who liked to ‘sail his own ship.’ He wore a bow tie, resented female involvement in the school, and generally wished to give his boys the same sort of education that he himself had experienced in the 1940s.
The specifics of the ‘lewd comments’ weren’t laid bare. There were a number of people who referenced them in the inquiry but quite what was actually said and when, seems to have been forgotten. There were, however, other important allegations. There was some mention of an incident when JRB swam naked with a group of boys on an outing to the hills. It emerged that the incumbent headmaster at the time of JRB’s death, Andrew Hunter, had found out about the incident when he was appointed in 1998. There is an interesting divergence in that Hunter told the enquiry he should have taken action over the allegation but his predecessor, Spawforth, who told Hunter about the incident, said that at no time did he have concerns about Rainy Brown. ‘In no case was there a hint of lewd comment, conduct, or behaviour.’ It’s easy to see why Hunter regrets doing nothing but the 90s were a pretty foreign country and the incident reportedly happened quite some time before that. JRB was born in 1937 and he grew up in a period when men swimming together were usually naked; there’s the opening of Ulysses or Forster’s A Room with a View. I often find myself thinking back on a school trip during the summer holidays when I decided to swim naked in the sea. JRB caught up with me some hours later and asked me, quite seriously, not to swim naked again. He had been told, years earlier by Spawforth, that the world was changing, and to think a bit about how things might be perceived.
There was also an anonymous claim, made during the inquiry, by the mother of a man who wrote a diary entry about JRB raping him, along with two other boys, on a school trip, but the claim identifies Rainy Brown as a priest and the man, who later died after struggling with drug abuse, refused to go to the police. The authorities have seemingly found no evidence to support the incident happening, the other two boys have never been identified. In the months after the suicide, the police expected to receive a deluge of bleak tales from damaged former pupils but nothing of substance landed. ‘No further allegations, other than one case of improper behaviour, was forthcoming’, Spawforth told the inquiry, something that the police themselves regarded as most surprising. The former headmaster concluded his testimony by noting that senior members of staff had decided that a memorial service for the dead teacher was inappropriate in the context but that if there had been one, he would have happily gone along.
I too would have gone to a memorial service. JRB was a man who gave me so much. He was deeply in love with the natural world and he taught me to love it too. He gave me a love of trees, an understanding of birds, and an interest in the sea. He made me feel seen, he made me feel special, and quickly he made me adore him. I was not the only one. The inquiry is full of comments about how brilliant he was with those who struggled. ‘Rainy Brown is the only human being in my life’, one former pupil, now a retired solicitor in his 60s, told the judge, ‘who I would consider to be a saint.’ The same former pupil noted that he went his whole school career without once celebrating his birthday, apart from the time that JRB let him go into Edinburgh with his friends to have a knickerbocker glory.
I would have cancelled everything to attend a memorial service if there had been one, but I suspect I would have sat there, in that dreary school hall, wondering about the true nature of the relationship we had and in some ways, my relationship with the very things he taught me to love is tainted by that unknowability. There are wild and beautiful parts of Scotland where we swam and where we built fires that for me will forever be haunted by memories of him.
We live in a world, when it comes to loving children, where people are either good or bad. In the inquiry, the members of staff interviewed were pretty unanimous in suggesting that they felt JRB was nothing more than a deeply committed educator. Reading their words, though, I can’t help but feel that they are shying away from the complexities of the world. Can a man really sit there with his bollocks hanging out on a rainy day without realising? It is cold in the Scottish Borders. All I know for sure is that his commitment to his boys was greater and more passionate than any other teacher I’ve known. I wonder whether you can be that good without loving boys in an intense and indescribable way. To love somebody, after all, is to give yourself to them and he gave himself to us fully. Perhaps some of the best teachers stray very close to loving children too much and without that love their brilliance and their ability to inspire would be lost.
Some weeks ago, I went to have lunch with my school Spanish teacher. I quit my job and went north to go fishing for a bit and she happens to live on the way. I hadn’t seen her in 15 years, but she was just as she always was, in all of her curiosity and wonder. Her sons had been at the same school some years before me and one of them had been very upset when JRB died. As we ate paella, she said to me that her son told her that when he thinks of JRB, he likes to imagine that he’s in one of his favourite glens somewhere, having been transformed into a tree. It’s a lovely thought and I wish I could think it too, but whenever I think of him, I think of all those little boys, giggling beneath that old oak, and I hear his words, ‘what are you laughing at, lad?’, and really I don’t know what to think at all.