In memory of Mr. J. S. Nicholas

By Derek H. Page (1941-1948)

As we age we often look back on our life experiences and embellish them. We make them more pleasant than they actually were so as to give us a greater sense of peace. This is especially true when we write of our experiences with others who have passed away. We write only of the positive and ignore the negative, or if we write of the negative we do so with humour, so as to trivialize it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the various laudatory comments made of the contribution to the school of Mr. J.S. Nicholas, commonly called Nick, not affectionately as has been reported, but after the Devil of the same name.

I am not sure where to start but I have to start somewhere. Nick was a terribly bad-tempered individual. I came to the conclusion that the problem was that he didn’t like boys. If he did I saw no evidence of it.  The students at my time went to considerable lengths to avoid him. Going to school I had to walk down Newbould Lane and I made sure that I either went well ahead of him or well behind him. Any interaction would be bound to be unpleasant. What an indictment of a teacher that his students tried to avoid him. He was universally hated. He was a sadistic brute, always ready with his cane to inflict pain for the slightest misdemeanour.  

Nick was not only a brute and a bully. He was a snob. In berating a student for some unacceptable behaviour he would say “Are you a scholarship boy?”  If the boy answered, “Yes sir” Nick would say “I thought so.” If he answered, “No, sir” Nick would respond “Well don’t behave like one.” This is an example of Nick’s reputed dry sense of humour. Very funny, if you weren’t a scholarship boy; but very cruel if you were. I must have heard him say this in front of the whole school a dozen times during my time at KES. Clearly Nick was happier in the days when KES did not accept scholarship boys.  In my opinion vocalizing such a sentiment should have disqualified him from any position of responsibility in the school or for that matter any other school.  I am not prepared to accept the excuse that this was the thinking of the time. I knew it to be wrong when I was twelve. He was older and should have known better.

Much has been written of Nick’s skill as a teacher of mathematics. This needs to be addressed at length. I won the maths prize in form 2D, and took maths under him as part of my science education through second year 6th.  So I can speak with some knowledge. Nick taught by the book and only by the book. If it wasn’t in the book he didn’t teach it.  The book contained chapters of teaching followed by examples. . Nick assigned certain chapters to be read and examples to be tackled. He appointed a trusted manager (Peter Lewis in my time) whose job it was to let him know where we had got to. In class Nick would give the answer to each question and ask who got it right. If most of the class raised their hands he would simply move on to the next question, stopping only to say “Take two marks.” When he came to a question that most of the class did not admit to getting right, he would go over it on the board, and then ask “Does everyone understand it?” Very, very rarely someone would raise his hand and say. “Please sir I don’t understand it.” Nicks response was always the same. He went over it again in identical words yelling it at the boy, finishing up with the question “Now do you understand, boy?” The response was always “Yes sir. Thank you very much sir” I cannot recall a single instance of a student saying “I am sorry sir I still don’t understand it.” Nick belonged to the school of teaching by intimidation and fear. He used the works of Charles Dickens as an instruction manual in educational procedure rather than as a condemnation of it.

Marking, under Nick, was an arbitrary process. Everyone used an exercise book to write up the answers to the examples. In all my years under Nick, I never knew him to ask to see anyone’s book. He certainly never saw mine. In the book you wrote down beside each example the number of marks you received, and at the end of term totted it up, to come up with a term mark. This was all done on the honour system. Nobody checked. In fact the reported marks were entirely fictitious. The class began to realize the rank order of our individual capabilities, based on the previous terms marks and we colluded to arrange the marks in that rank order. We were careful to ensure that there was not too large a discrepancy between the top student and the bottom student so as not to subject the less talented to Nick’s wrath. But no-one ever failed. We made sure of that. We were also careful to ensure that the marks would more or less follow the results expected in the next exams.

So how was Nick as a teacher? Often it is argued that his results in Scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge are an indication of his capability. I would contend that even better results would have been achieved under someone else. You have to ask the question “Who taught Newton calculus?” Unless you believe it was Leibnitz you have to admit he taught himself. And in a lesser way that’s what we did. We taught ourselves. We were the most capable students of the Sheffield district. What is more we taught each other. When I was in second year sixth, Tony Truman who was behind me both literally in the classroom and chronologically in first year sixth, benefited from my help with his work. Later he went on to take a degree in pure mathematics.

Nick was an absentee teacher. Whole lessons would pass without him appearing. When he did appear it would only be for a small fraction of the allotted time. I don’t recall him ever being present for the whole period. Rumours abounded as to where he went, but the most prevalent one was that he sat in the Master’s Common Room with his feet up doing the Times crossword puzzle. He certainly spent no time in preparation of his lessons or in marking student work. What a relief it was when he left and Wallis took over to teach us second order differential equations while remaining in the room. Sadly it was a bit late for me.

Nick was very fortunate. Mathematics is probably the only subject that could be taught that way. Try to do the same with French or history or chemistry. And the cream of the KES crop was the only group of students with whom he could get away with it. But let’s not credit Nick with the results.  We taught ourselves.

Finally, I am not at all receptive to the concept that Nick had a genuine affection for his students and missed no opportunity to praise them for their achievements. I still have in my possession my report card for my year in 3A   Alongside “Algebra” are the following entries.

Number in class              31
Position in class               1
Remarks                    Good    JSN

Would it have hurt him that much to say “Very Good” or even possibly “Excellent”?

What a thoroughly nasty piece of work he was. I have searched my brain to find some positive characteristic about him that I can mention. I have found only one. He is the only person I have known to wear spats!

(I was recently impressed by Hugh Smailes’s account of his time at KES. Although he states that he was not part of the “Crème de la Crème” that were in Nick’s class for maths, it is encouraging to hear that he recognized the autodidactic nature of our experience.)

Derek H. Page, 2012