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Lessons from extraordinary English teacher

By Ann Baker

In the third and fourth form my English teacher was Miss Hall, the headmistress of Wellington Technical College. I don’t remember much of what she taught but I do remember she wore the same dress every day under her dusty black gown.

Came the fifth form and all was about to change. Wellington Tech was a co-ed school but we did not have mixed classes. Boys and girls had separate wings of the school.

Great was our delight, when at the beginning of the year we discovered two things. One, we were to share English classes with boys, and two, we were to be taught by a teacher who had an air of mystery about him. The previous year this man been one of the caretaking staff and was now a member of the teaching staff. And rumours had it that he had been in prison!

We turned up for our first lesson with great anticipation to be greeted by a rather shambling figure with bushy grey hair and a shabby black gown. He stood on a small stage at the front of the classroom where he was confronted by 50 giggling and noisy fifth formers. It was excitement enough to be sharing the class with BOYS but to be confronted by this figure, who we promptly nicknamed ‘pre-historic’ was more than we could cope with.

Over the following months, however, I came to appreciate the worth of this man who taught me the value of courage, honesty and tolerance.

The teacher was Ormond Burton. He had been a Methodist minister but had been expelled from the ministry. He had been a staunch pacifist before and during the early days of the WWII. He spoke at Christian pacifist rallies and was frequently before the court because of this. He had been imprisoned for the duration of the war and on discharge had to find a new life for himself. I don’t know how he came to join the caretaking staff but I do know that he eventually became head of the English Department.

He never managed to fully control this unruly class but somehow was able to instil into us the love of words, written and spoken. We regularly did creative writing, which was put on a board for all to see. He encouraged class debates and accepted our rather ignorant views.

That year compulsory military training was being discussed throughout the country. If we didn’t feel like doing our set work someone would suggest that we have a debate. “And what subject would you like to debate?” “Let’s discuss compulsory military training, sir,” and he always let us, with his customary courtesy and tolerance.

Eventually we learned he had received a decoration for valour during WWI. This humbled us a bit but we continued to goad him. Only twice was I aware we disconcerted him. He once stamped his foot at us. For what I don’t know but in doing so he fell off his low stage, which diminished the effect rather.

I had the privilege to remain in contact with this gentleman after I left school and believe he had the most profound impact on my life.

He was eventually reinstated into the Methodist ministry but continued to be true to his principles even if they upset people. In the early 1960s I lived in Hawera. Ormie Burton was invited to come and speak. He came with his usual message of peace and non violence. A young couple, friends of my own age, got very upset at his message and became quite vindictive to him at question time. I couldn’t understand them and got rather upset because he was still my hero.

A man of peace, yes but he managed to stir up controversy wherever he went. I never saw him react angrily. He was a gentle man of great acceptance.

An author, a caretaker, a prisoner, a hero, a teacher, a minister, a man of courage. I will always be grateful to my fifth form English teacher.