How Great Teachers Keep the Past Alive

16/10/2014 11:39 BST | Updated 15/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Wellington has a bit of a penchant for street art. I'm not complaining, I'm a sucker for a paper pigeon, and I actually think it is an amazing way to communicate with residents in a really relevant way.

Take the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI; there are any number of very formal ways that the city could have marked the occasion. Instead, they have pasted images of ten soldiers with their personal stories around the city, near the places they lived, worked and went to school.


There was no fanfare, they just appeared one night where there had been blank walls and stand, ghostlike, silently watching over the city they once knew.

Every time I see them I'm reminded of the last lines of my favourite war poem.

Actually I'm not sure favourite it the right word, but it's definitely the most enduring piece of my school education and the moment that I realised two important things; that a passionate teacher is a rare and precious gift, and that I was hopelessly in love with writing.

It was an alignment of stars that led me to that point, orchestrated by a wonderful teacher called Mrs Hughes.

We had to study poetry for our English GCSEs, and we were given the rare opportunity to pick the collection we would use. We took a vote, and after a landslide in favour of War Poets, we were all sent away to buy our anthology.

A few days later Mrs Hughes stood in front of her recalcitrant audience and asked us to open our books.

After taking a deep breath, she began to read:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

By the time her voice cracked over the last few lines I was sitting up straight, the hairs on the back of my neck hot and prickling.

We all were.

This was no jingoistic anthem, this was a visceral calling out of every army general and politician who had tried to sell the British public on the "glorious" war they had waged.

It was, quite simply, the most gut wrenching piece of literature I had ever heard.

Mrs Hughes led us on a journey through WWI through the words of the people who fought it. From the early romanticism of Rupert Brooke, to the sucker punch of reality dealt by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon we met them all and felt as if there were alive today as they had been in the war.

The memory of her classes stay with me, even today.

And I may never be able to get through Dulce et Decorum Est without my own voice cracking ... no, I hope I can never get through Dulce et Decorum Est without my voice cracking .. because passionate writing, like passionate teachers, should never be forgotten.