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The Funky Preacher

This page was created on 20 April 2020

Revd Dr John Smith (JDS), aka ‘Funky’, Maths teacher and Chaplain

I used to be moderately good at Maths, and sat GCSE at the end of my 2nd year at secondary school. I wasn’t actually intending to take Maths A-level but nevertheless was in a post-GCSE Maths class for my 3rd year (1992–3), taught by the Reverend Doctor John Smith [1] — much better known to us all as ‘Funky’ [2].

[1] — The apparent anonymity of being called John Smith allegedly worked against him in a story we all heard — a story so outlandish it might even have been true: it involved his being stopped by the police late at night, and being unable to satisfy them as to his identity — the police officer sarcastically retorted, “Oh yes, Sir, and I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re the Reverend as well, are you?” to which the hapless Funky could only shrug, “Well as a matter of fact, I am!”.

[2] — The use of his nickname, except to his face, was ubiquitous even among Dons — with the notable exception of NIPM, foul of whom I once fell on this account: it was during a revision session for GCSE Maths, shortly before tea on a dark evening. NIPM was reading out a speed/distance/time exam-question for us to answer, which began thus: “John Smith gets on a train…”. By this point my quick-wittedness had already got the better of me and, spotting an opportunity to gain kudos among my fellow students I blurted out, “Foon-keh!!”. Even as I started to say it I recalled NIPM’s views and realised too late my mistake — and was instantly reproached for my interruption with an angry aside, “Reverend Doctor to you!”.

His nickname arose from the obvious and somewhat off-putting body-movements that he would involuntarily make whilst preaching in chapel — a sort of nervous twitching and dancing on the spot.

John Denmead Smith, The Funky Preacher, had something of a reputation among us boys, of not being easy to learn Maths from; indeed, I struggled throughout the year. In his turn he struggled to keep control of us, for we were uninspired and somewhat prone to playing up. One day he suddenly jabbed his arm forwards four times, pointing at each of four boys who had apparently not been paying attention: “You, you, you and you, double detention on Sunday afternoon!”, he thundered. I don’t think it stuck. He did not take kindly to even the most oblique criticism and, referring to the fact that one student had spoken to him privately wishing to change sets (in search of a different teacher), in front of the whole class he stormed, “I suppose you don’t give a toss who teaches you, do you?”.

He forbade us from taking notes during his lessons; not, I fear, that it would have been apparent what was worthy of noting. When he drew graphs on the board, he’d frequently say something like, “So it goes down… and then it comes up!” finishing triumphantly in evident expectation that we’d make some sort of innuendo — only to feign annoyance when we duly did so: “I’ve heard all these jokes before, can’t you think of some new ones?”.

I waited behind to talk to him after a lesson once, to bemoan the fact that I wasn’t keeping up with the Maths and that I was finding it hard to concentrate amid such a disruptive class; in a comment that only later I would see to be foolish I said, “Why don’t you just put them all in detention?” to which he replied very matter-of-factly, “Because that would put me in a weaker position.” A lightbulb moment — I never forgot that.

Someone asked him a question, more out of seeking to disrupt his flow than to learn anything; as Funky realised he was being ignored he broke off from his explanation, the Yorkshire twang of his accent to the fore, to bark, “You ASSked me a question, and now you’re not LISTENINGtoTheANNswer!!”, the end of the sentence all rolled into one exclamation.

If you don’t do well enough, you’ll do it again until you do

On 8 June, when he felt that we hadn’t been learning enough from him, he announced a little angrily, “I am going to give you a test on the year’s work: if you don’t do well enough, you’ll do it again until you do”. Fortunately, he never did.

One time I was on the receiving end of one of his punishments: four of us were. The punishment was to come to his front door at half-past seven the next morning to wake him up. When we wicked boys duly turned up at half-past six on that bitterly cold morning, we energetically pulled the cable-operated doorbell and heard its answering clattering ring — which eventually summoned the sleepy and confused Funky who had to give us the benefit of the doubt, but whose comical appearance in a ghastly bright-orange dressing-gown almost made our punishment worthwhile.

He liked to show how ‘in touch’ he was with current schoolboy lingo. He raised a chuckle in chapel when during a sermon he used the term “Schpode” (an embellishment of ‘spod’ as in one who studies excessively and is disliked because of it); and caused some slack-jawed amazement when in class he used one of our own insults to enlighten someone who had been particularly dim: “Oh, take a pat!” (pat as in ‘patrony’, our presumed manifestation of what must be bestowed upon one when one is treated condescendingly).

Beneath the somewhat chaotic exterior was a kind heart and a fine sense of humour. It was hard to keep a straight face as JDS, glasses mended with sellotape and perched wildly skew upon his nose, went through the Chain Rule for perhaps the fifth time within half an hour (with what, nearly thirty years later, is still to me an explanation utterly devoid of meaning; spoken very quickly and rhythmically): “dy by du by du by dx — do you get?”.

Or when a few boys, growing increasingly restless during a double-hour before lunch on Wednesday, would ask to be excused to visit the loo, Funky’s response came with a typically curious inflection and an even more curious construction of sentence: “You’re not going to be doing any smoking, are you?!”.

A German lad joined our set for a term, and although Friedrich spoke good English, Funky seemed to find it necessary to engage him directly — so his catch-phrase which was more a nervous tick at the end of sentences, “Do you get?”, became “Ja?” with a sort of lunging look at poor Friedrich.

Of music and trains

Before a church service, amid choir-members’ fir-cone fights in the churchyard I happened to walk through the vestry and encountered Funky who was humming to himself. When he realised I was there he felt the need to comment, “It’s like being in the bathroom!”, again airing his Yorkshire accent.

The local Model Engineering Society occasionally set out its 7¼-inch-gauge model railway in the school grounds. A working steam-locomotive had sufficient tractive effort to haul three or four basic ride-on carriages which could each carry two or three people; for a nominal donation onlookers could ride to and fro along the single length of track. I and another boy, both of us on our way to careers in the railway industry, delighted in sitting at the controls and driving a real steam-train and its passengers on these trips. But there were pitfalls for the inexperienced: when driving the train in reverse, one had to use a marker to gauge where to slow and stop so that the back of the train did not exceed the limit of the track. On the final such occasion, the inevitable happened… youthful exuberance overcame judgement and braking capacity, the rear of the train collided with the buffer — and equally inevitably, the innocent passenger who took a rearwards tumble onto the concrete was The Funky Preacher. It just had to be! Fortunately the dishevelled JDS was both uninjured and very understanding.

Detention

As I failed more and more dismally to understand the Maths (or indeed to keep up to speed with most aspects of my existence when I was 15) I found myself staring blankly at my Mathmā Outers (homework) for two hours: the symbols, the logic, and what the question was expecting me to do completely lost to me. For that, Funky put me in double detention with the proviso that in the second hour of ‘Detinā’ I would do the Maths Toytime which I’d so woefully failed to complete.

Of course this helped me not one bit, even with some attempted preparation, and I ended up round at Funky’s house not long afterwards. My gaze immediately lighted upon a poster on the wall of his study, featuring a dancing figure and the caption Le Funky, which rather gave the lie to any idea that he might dislike his appointed nickname.

“What are we going to do about your Mathmā?”, might well have been his opening gambit, and the afternoon-long inquisition that I’d been fearing thus began, with Funky reclining in an upright chair with his feet on his desk… but barely ninety seconds later it ended abruptly when he was in mid-sentence, as with surprising force he retrieved his feet to the floor and stood up suddenly — had there been a lampshade within range he’d surely have hit his head on it! — and he enquired comically, “Would you like to see my photos of EYgypt?”, the first vowel of Egypt being almost a diphthong, ‘ooey’. Before I could answer he was off rummaging, and for the next several tens of minutes we were looking through photos taken on his trip abroad! The very first one was of himself, on a boat on a waterway among evidently foreign scenery, and I had to suppress the urge to laugh out loud — for he was clearly wearing the very same tweed jacket as ever, and the same hat was perched at a rakish angle above his beaming face. The very notion of the mathematics which I’d come round to be helped with, or punished over, was mercifully quite forgotten for the remainder of my visit.

Compound interest

He made a seemingly innocent reference, in the course of a mathematics example written on the blackboard, to his salary (in 1993): “I get paid £7,000 per year, so if I put it in my bank and am paid interest at this rate…” We boys started to murmur, and eventually one put up his hand: “Sir, um, do you really only get paid seven thousand pounds a year?” A double-take at the blackboard, then the feigned look of confusion on Funky’s face gave way to glee as we had fallen into his trap, and he made haste to correct his chalked numerals, laughing, “Oh sorry there should have been another nought on there!!”.

My favourite memory of Funky was during a Mathmā hour when I was sat at the front — as often ended up being the case, for there would be a rush to sit near the back, of course. He was again going over the supposed usefulness of differentiation, and integration (or anti-differentiation as he made us call it); how it enabled us to see the rate of change of a variable at any given point in time.

“If I were driving my car at sixty miles an hour in a thirty zone, and I got stopped by the police, could I say, ‘But that’s ridiculous, officer, I haven’t been going for an hour yet?’!”. He tried another example:

“Suppose I go into my bank which is paying me three percent interest per annum, and they pay me the interest every day that they owe on one thousand pounds?” He probably started to ramble somewhat as he described the theory of compound interest, but the scenario became more ridiculous as he then declared,

“So I could go into my bank every day and ask them how much money I have. Do you get? So I’d go in each day and ask them, ‘How much money have I got?’ ‘How much money have I got?’ ‘How much money have I got?’ ‘How much money have I got?’… so, what do you get?”

A silence descended upon the room. Truly, what would you get? My sense of humour pinged, and I muttered to myself, “They’d get really pissed off with you!”. It wasn’t intended for anyone else to hear, but JDS seemed to have picked up on it and loomed severely over me: “Did you say something?” he demanded; I felt my face redden. “No, Sir” I replied meekly, hoping he’d let it rest. The others still said nothing, and Funky looked at me very squarely and asked again, “Are you sure? I thought you had something to say?” My embarrassment turned to surprise and joy as Funky’s expression cracked and, with great energy and amusement he said,

“Oh I see… I thought you said, ‘They’d get really pissed off with you!!’”; and he dissolved into fits of laughter — which had the class laughing not only at my observation, but also at Funky laughing about it.