Philip Lawrence bounded into the classroom - Crittall windows, desks engraved with compass-driven grafitti, parquet floor stained with Quink - and, swinging between tables, offered a "time, gentlemen please" rendition of a rabble-rousing rhyme by W B Yeats. "Beautiful Lofty Things" overflows with such spirited lines (70 per cent proof, at least) as
"Standish O'Grady supporting himself between the tables/
Speaking to a drunken audience high nonsensical words"
and goes on to praise the Pallas Athene physique of Maude Gonne and the blind-drawing habits of noble, terrorist-snubbing Lady Augusta Gregory.
What a ditty to set before a class of superficially cynical sixth form Catholic boys eager to get out into the world. Philip was instantly labelled "Flowery Phil" because of his insatiable exuberance, velvet jackets and determined refusal to conspire with the surly inverted emotions of sin- laden boys struggling to turn into an apology for men.
There was a moment - no more than a term - when we were not as kind to Philip as we should have been. Yet, this lovely teacher need not have worried. Whatever he said sank into brains temporarily more attuned to Jimi Hendrix than Irish bards. Without Philip I do not think that I would have met Gerald Manley Hopkins or John Donne, Dylan Thomas, Baudelaire or Shelley on anything like level terms. Even while I pretended to show no interest in poetry, I was lapping the stuff up with the appetite of an Old Possum alley cat.
A lot of poetry - and blood - has flowed under the bridge since then. I'm still alive and writing for a living: Philip is dead, murdered by a teenager outside the gates of his Catholic comprehensive in north west London. I doubt very much if the boy who ended Philip's life so prematurely had an ounce of poetry in him. I wonder if he would have been different if Philip had been his teacher, if only for a term.
The time I overlapped with Philip Lawrence at St Benedict's School in Ealing, a Benedictine sibling of Ampleforth (where Philip was educated) and Downside, was time when I learnt to value education. He was one of three teachers who knew instinctively that passion, humour and inspiration count far more in winning the hearts of dismissive teenagers than detentions, beatings and wounding sarcasm. No matter what teenagers say.
Philip was 23 or 24 then. How I admired him. I thought it was wonderful when he successfully wooed Frances Huntley, gorgeous, brilliant new teacher and later his wife and mother of their four children. I thought it extraordinary (but only for a while) that Philip should go on to become such a tough and charismatic headmaster - and in the roughest tumble of the state sector. I know better now.
Philip Lawrence was a passionate man, bursting with energy and love and that in the end is all that matters. Those who stand back from life (and teenagers with knives), from adventure and from poetry can never capture the hearts of the young nor retain their affection and respect as age enriches them.
Philip Lawrence might have begun his career speaking to a sullen audience high nonsensical words, but he ended up a hero. Even so, for his wife, his childrens' and his pupils' sake, I rather wish he was still "Flowery Phil", the flamboyant 24-year old flame-haired teacher than the "have- a-go hero Head" of this month's news stories. You were, Philip, one of Yeats's Olympians.Reuse content