Write-offs? We'll show you something to make you change your mind

Think you can tell which students are destined to be heroes or zeroes? Think again: as Geoffrey K. Pullum shows, his career and that of an old school chum demonstrate that potential can be difficult to spot

November 24, 2011

Credit: Todd Davidson

One Friday evening in October I went out to see an old friend. It had been a while since we got together. And I mean a really, seriously, long while.

In late 1961, at the start of the academic year, I was a 16-year-old dropout from Eltham College, a public school in South London. I was not considered fit for sixth-form studies, and with good reason - I had failed half my O levels. Not knowing what else to do, and having no ideas at all about a career, I enrolled for a year at Croydon College (then called Croydon Tech). There I made friends with a guy called Ralph May.

Ralph at least knew why he was there: it was a condition attached to the money his mother had provided to buy him out of an ill-advised contract with the Army that he had signed at 15. But I had no idea why I was there. To get more O levels, I suppose; but I didn't know why I wanted to get them.

Ralph and I were, to be frank about it, both basically wasting our time academically. We were the students you feel angry with, the ones you wish you didn't have on your courses. We skipped classes, messed around, found humour and fun in whatever we could, and worked on figuring out things that related to what we saw as the truly important things in life: guitar chords and girls.

Your judgement, if you could have been there, would have been that we were two lazy young men going nowhere. Academically we showed no promise. Our department head, Dr Waring, wouldn't let Ralph sit the O level in maths, because on the mock exam he got essentially no marks at all (his 8 per cent, it turned out, was just a charitable donation made because he found the room and wrote his name on the answer book). Ralph and I ended up with almost nothing to show for that year except for passes in English literature at O level.

Last month, 50 years after we met, Ralph happened to be visiting Edinburgh, where I now live, and we planned to put an end to our many decades of being out of touch. He was coming to the city on business. We're both 66 now, but we're not destitute: we have paying jobs and neither of us has retired.

I could only meet with Ralph after his working day ended. And his job is an unusual one. The work he had to do that day involved several hours of concentrated set-up and preparation, following which he stepped out entirely alone on to the stage at the Queen's Hall, picked up one of the two acoustic guitars picked out by the spotlight, approached the solitary mike stand, and held an audience of several hundred transfixed for two hours with songs that were mostly his own compositions.

He doesn't go by Ralph May these days. He long ago adopted a new surname for professional purposes, as a mark of respect for a blind African-American blues guitarist whose ragtime guitar style he particularly admired. His name now is Ralph McTell.

Ralph's concert was extraordinary. I was unprepared for how good it was going to be. The poetry of his songs sometimes moved me to tears and sometimes had me chuckling with delight. The Edinburgh audience loved him dearly and were enormously receptive.

His artistry on the guitar is astonishing. Back in Croydon, my slightly better intuitive knowledge of basic harmonic structure enabled me to write down guitar chord sequences for Ralph, and he regarded me as a sort of guitar god. He once challenged me to write down the chords for Lullaby of Birdland, the hardest song he knew. (Apparently what I wrote down was basically right.) But Ralph is the guitar god now.

I know enough about the instrument to know when I'm seeing real brilliance. Ralph is a truly accomplished fingerstyle player. I know enough to spot that he can put a slight vibrato on a single melody line note while three other strings ring with a chord and the bottom two maintain the bass-line rhythm. He doesn't need me to write down chords for him any more. At the concert, he included Lullaby of Birdland in an instrumental medley in honour of Bert Jansch. Bass line, chords and melody simultaneously, all 10 fingers and thumbs in action.

He dedicated that medley to me, in fact, and told the audience that after the show he would be seeing a friend called Geoff from some 50 years ago. We had not met before the concert: Ralph's pre-performance soundchecks and ritual preparations do not permit any social interaction. So it was after the show when he emerged from backstage into the venue's bar and lounge area for an autograph-signing session (a tradition with him) that we looked at each other for what we believe was the first time since 1962.

Two broad grins, and one big hug, and the years dropped away instantly. The friendship was back as if it had never been interrupted. The old shared interests and memories flooded back. About a hundred people were waiting patiently for autographs and photo-ops. They beamed as they watched the reunion.

Before we sat down to talk over old times, Ralph spent 40 minutes meeting all those hundred fans, and signing his name or having his picture taken, whatever they desired. Then we got back to our reminiscing about Croydon days, until about midnight - which for him is dinnertime.

For some years after our squandered time at the college, Ralph and I had kept vaguely in touch with each other's careers. He knew I had teamed up with guitarist Pete Gage to form a group called the Ram Jam Band, which achieved some modest fame playing Stax-label soul music in the mid-1960s. And I learned that he had taken up folk singing when I saw him on TV (under his new name) performing his song Streets of London, which became a global hit. But ultimately we had drifted away into totally different lives. Only memories remained.

While Ralph was developing into the superb solo performer and songwriter that he is today, I had abandoned the music business after a few years. I struggled my way to a couple of A-level passes, and by the skin of my teeth managed to secure admission to the department of language at the University of York. There I earned a first-class BA in language and linguistics, and then a year as a teaching fellow. After a year as a research student at the University of Cambridge I moved to London and earned my PhD there while lecturing at University College London. In 1980 I moved to America, and spent most of my career as a professor of linguistics at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California. It was not until 2007 (having missed all the Thatcher years and much of Ralph's career) that I returned to Britain to become professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh.

That evening at the Queen's Hall I realised something about my own profession with great clarity. We who teach in further or higher education often look at the students who aren't applying themselves and dismiss them as useless ne'er-do-wells. Our contempt is really no more than a reflection of theirs: they seem to insult us by their total lack of interest in the subjects to which we have devoted our adult lives. It irritates us. These kids shouldn't be in a college or university, we mutter to ourselves. They're a waste of space, time and funding.

And yet, I see now, we actually have no idea who we might be dealing with or what's going on with any of our students. Ralph and I must have seemed annoyingly hopeless at the age of 16 or 17, but in fact some kind of mental activity must have been stirring in us. We found our separate ways to what we were destined for, and society did eventually begin to get something back from us. It's just that society had no idea in advance what it would get, or from whom. And we had no idea either.

Over the past 40 years Ralph has built an international following for his music (while married to the same woman throughout, by the way, and raising a son). He has given pleasure to millions, and brought the genius of several almost-forgotten African-American blues guitarists to a much wider public. He has written poetry of lasting value in the form of deep, nostalgic and socially thoughtful songs, and an interesting and touching autobiographical book about growing up in post-war England.

I rank my own accomplishments as much more slender. I was vastly less successful in music (if you are short one player and need a workmanlike rock'n'roll keyboard or guitar support guy of no particular distinction, give me a call, my evenings are free). But it turned out that I had a different calling, linguistics. That was what I was destined to get serious about. By the time I saw Ralph again I had co-authored a book that won the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award from the Linguistic Society of America (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, with Rodney Huddleston), had served as head of a very fine department indeed, and had been elected to the British Academy. I've done all right.

Who knows whether the staff who tried to interest me and Ralph in aspects of English literature had any effect on us? Ralph thinks he achieved one of his few O-level passes in that subject because he did have an incipient interest in poetry. I'm not sure I did. But all sorts of observations and recollections from English literature inform my thinking about the grammar of standard English every day. Perhaps some of those observations have origins in my lackadaisical attention to classes at Croydon. So perhaps the literature instructor at the college was not wasting her time. I honestly don't know whether she was. But what I do know is that no one could have told at the time whether she was wasting her time or not.

None of the staff at Croydon Tech, given a chance to bet on who among their students would become internationally known and successful at something cultural or intellectual, would have put their money on either Ralph or me. Not one would have predicted anything like what ultimately transpired in the lives of two such unassiduous students.

The plain truth is that we educators have absolutely no idea what we've got in front of us. Some of the young people we try to teach will be major successes in art or music or academia or law or perhaps some industry or profession that doesn't even exist yet. We simply do not know which ones are the future successes.

Somehow, I have resolved, I'm going to try to remember this the next time I encounter a student who seems to be wasting my time and failing to take education seriously. I'll still enforce the usual standards: you don't pass unless you get the marks. But I'll try to avoid making blanket judgements about their worth or prospects. Those scruffy youngsters, apparently going nowhere, are just behaving the way I did at that age. When I look at a teenager who's academically adrift, I have absolutely no inkling of what the future might have in store for them. I could be looking at another Ralph, or another me. It would be no bad thing to keep that in mind.

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