My Favourite Teacher - Professor Peter Shergold
Peter Shergold helped shape the policies of John Howard and Kevin Rudd as Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2003-8.
He is Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, chair of the Higher Education Standards Panel and has been made a Member of the Order of Australia and a Companion of the Order for his services to the community.
Lustily we sing,
Make the rafters ring.
So began the rousing anthem of the boys-only grammar school in England to which I was sent as a boarder for seven years. We enjoyed singing 'lustily' with a long, drawn-out sibilant 's'. In a vague way it seemed redolent of the wanton behaviour to which we collectively aspired but, locked in school grounds, seemed a distant hope.
In my first month at school I was identified as a B-former and thereafter I net successfully the limited expectations of my teachers by scraping seven 'O'-levels (including Bible knowledge) and two A-levels. Only as a debater did my star briefly shine when, to my headmaster's clear disbelief, I won an inter-school competition.
I witnessed the merit principle at work, finding myself rejected not only as an officer in the school's Combined Cadet Force but also - far rarer - being passed over for induction as a prefect. I'd like to say the rest of my life has been a response to such slights on my leadership capacity, but it’s not true.
I was, by sixteen, pretty comfortable with my modest achievements and future prospects. By spring 1965 my form-master's report was unambiguous: 'In general his work is satisfactory. I wish I could say the same about his general attitude and behaviour, which I find deplorably irresponsible.'
Most of my teachers concurred. In lone dissidence on my report, sits one neatly hand-written comment by my English teacher, SBN: 'His recent written work has shown considerable perception and understanding and the ability to express his ideas clearly.'
It was SBN - Stewart Norman - who, through literature, lifted my gaze to a wider world. With enormous insight he guided me, and many of my unruly mob, toward an appreciation of Shakespeare. The first thing I enjoyed were the dirty bits, carefully glossed over by previous teachers. I came to understand that Benny Hill's double-entendres were part of a rich British cultural tradition.
Then came the excitement of the violence and lust of raw power. And finally, miraculously, I came to understand the poetry of language and ambiguity of meaning. It was a secret world which, just as much as the posturing of the rock band, The Pretty Things, spoke to adolescent rebellion. When my friend Nick Palmer was criticised for writing an essay in which he referred throughout to 'William' I was surprised: Shakespeare had become one of us.
SBN taught us that Shakespeare was meant to be acted. Reaching my normal heights of academic achievement, I was selected to play Lucianus, and from that safe vantage point (mostly in the wings) I watched my friend Nick Page portray Hamlet with genuine rage and blanched as the boy Ophelia suffered the consequences. I've watched many fine productions since, but none will surpass the emotional intensity of that first experience of seeing at first-hand what Shakespeare could be.
Through SBN I came to realise that safe pieties could be challenged. I remember dismissing Charles Dickens as a writer of Victorian sentimentality only to find myself confronted by a teacher who carefully tore apart my lack of cultural and historical understanding. I still recall the shock of realising that this was a teacher who cared passionately about Dickens's reputation. Passion, at my school, was not generally a quality to which to aspire.
Through SBN I was surprised to discover that the novelist Thomas Hardy also wrote poems which I barely understood but, under SBN's gentle interrogation, I came to love. The lessons linger in unexpected ways. I can still be at a tense meeting and, watching the body language, remember the first time I read that, 'The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/Alive enough to have strength to die.'
SBN taught me that reading was an exciting place to be. When I was introduced to William Faulkner and ee cummings, American literature suddenly seemed attractive. In spite of being suspended from school in my final months - for escaping from my dormitory for a midnight liaison with a girl from the nearby Bedales School - Hull University accepted my belated application to study American literature, history and politics.
It was the start of a different life.
One brilliant teacher, almost certainly without knowing it, was the reason.