I imagine most people reading the title of this post will be puzzled by the name, and wonder what corner of the poetry world he hails from. And the answer is: he doesn’t. He wasn’t a poet. But, after my grandmother, he is the person most responsible for me being a poet. And he died last week, aged fifty-three.
Grant Andrews was my English teacher for my final three years of High School. Like most kids, (and especially the kids who moved around a lot) I’ve had lots of different teachers. Most were ok – good enough at their job, decent enough people. I’ve had a couple of unbelievably bad teachers too (including one English teacher who was utterly appalling, and not just because she was less literate than the fifteen year old students she was teaching, and had a hate/hate relationship with one J Preston). But I’ve also had a couple of superb teachers. And Grant Andrews was the best.
He was quite simply the most gifted teacher I’ve ever come across. I know I’ve said it before, and that some of you will be groaning and rolling your eyes, but he was a John Keating figure. I went from being the bright kid who was thoroughly cynical about marks and so on to being at the top of my year (well, in a three-way tie) in English. And it spilled over into my other subjects too. All because he pushed me. Told me that he expected me to do better. And somehow that was all it took. He didn’t preach, he didn’t moralise. He just … expected. And none of us could bring ourselves to disappoint him. He had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what his students needed – when they needed a kick up the arse, and when they needed the usual rules to be suspended. When we needed to be left alone, and when we desperately needed someone to take us aside and ask what was going on. And he cared. We were all messes back then, but he managed to keep us all going. And kept us sane. He could get TUGs (two-unit-general, the lowest level English class) fired up about Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake! And that took a really good teacher.
I feel in love with John Donne, thanks to Grant Andrews. I remember him handing out the battered copies of The Metaphysical Poets, and telling us to read ‘The Canonisation’. We, being hormonally charged seventeen-year-olds, started sniggering about all the rude bits. And he, very calmly, proceeded to point out all the ones we’d missed. And then to take us through how the poem worked, as a piece of verbal theatre. It felt like watching a magician at work, and being taken backstage to see the trapdoors and the collapsible hat. I fell irrevocably in love, then and there. With poetry, with John Donne, and probably a bit with my teacher too. His love of the poems, the plays, the novels and writers we were studying came through in every lesson. We all drank it in. Even the odd text that he didn’t like – I remember him saying that he hated Pride and Prejudice, but that we were still going to study it because it was important, and well written. So we learned that even the things we didn’t like could be valuable. Again, that really took some serious teaching skill to pull off. And he did. Over and over.
He used to use me in class to set up arguments. Then, as now, I was a fairly combative person. So he’d deliberately throw a provocative comment at me, knowing I’d argue the point with him. Then a few of the others would join in, and before you knew it, the whole class would be debating the intricacies of Coleridge’s ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, or ‘Kubla Khan’. With jokes. And gestures. We spent a lot of time laughing, I remember that. It was the easiest that learning has ever been.
I suspect he’d be shaking his head in disapproval about now, if he were reading. ‘Too much reliance on emotion, Preston. Come on, do it properly. My feet are getting wet.’ Sorry sir, I can’t quite get my head around it. ‘Ok, give yourself a break. Walk away, and come back to it when you’ve cleared your head. Keep your central argument in mind, and structure the rest around it. You know what to do.’ But you’ll still be dead, sir. ‘Yes, but you’re not, so that’s no excuse.’ Don’t you have some kind of joke to add? Famous last words? ‘Good night, Mary Ellen.’
He was brilliant; he was kind; he was way too young to die (and I’m having trouble with the concept of his only being in his late twenties when he taught me); and he will be vastly, colossally missed.
Good night, John-boy. And thank you.