Book review: Is There a Pigeon in the Room? by Cameron Wyllie

Cameron Wyllie’s account of his four decades as a teacher is rich in anecdote and reflection, but its most notable feature is its generosity of spirit, writes Allan Massie

Cameron Wyllie
Cameron Wyllie

A young man training to be a teacher found some of the experience distressing. He was assigned to a rather tough school and found the common room a bleak place. Some of the teachers had come to hate the job and, by extension, hate the pupils. He would have been happier if he had come upon Cameron Wyllie who taught for 39 years, finishing as principal of George Heriot’s, and can serenely say he loved his work from beginning to end, delighting in the boys – and later boys and girls – he taught.

He was lucky of course. He taught in only two schools – Stewarts-Melville and Heriot’s – and he taught English, which is a subject that can be very much whatever the teacher wishes. He taught debating and drama too, and he wasn’t bound to a tight curriculum. So he had a lot of fun and I would guess that many, even most, of those he taught had fun too, and remember at least some of his lessons with pleasure and gratitude.

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But he recognizes teaching is draining work and many teachers are burned out long before they reach retirement age. Colleagues often and understandably sympathise and cover up for them, but he recognizes there should be some way of easing them gently out.

Is There a Pigeon in the Room? by Cameron Wyllie

He himself began with no obvious advantages. As a young man he had no interest in sport and no feeling for religion. He was also, he says, “a camp wee poof” and he was soon openly gay. This made him an unusual entrant to the profession in 1980. It is a mark of how Scotland has changed in his working life that he was able to enjoy a happy an successful career. He loved teaching English, even though, by his own account, his taste in literature was quite narrow. Macbeth was the only Shakespeare play he really liked, which seems bizarre to me, but he much enjoyed taking classes through plays by Tennessee Williams , Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter. I would guess he made poems, books and plays he likes come alive for his classes. Some teachers teach their subject, others teach their pupils; it’s a rare teacher who manages to do both well, and it’s clear, despite his self-deprecation, that he was both.

His book is anecdotal, rich in sketches of boys and girls, colleagues and parents. Parents, as every teacher knows, are often difficult. Sometimes they have an exaggerated idea of their offspring’s ability. Just as often, they undervalue it – “I never thought Johnny could do that”. Wyllie himself seems never to have doubted that a gosling could turn into a swan.

He taught only in the independent sector and remarks, slightly surprisingly, that the difference between state and independent schools is greater now than it was 40 years ago, partly, it seems, because in the state sector teachers have less autonomy and are burdened by the Curriculum for Excellence.

Blessedly, however, this book isn’t about education. It’s about teaching (which is not the same thing), teachers and the taught. It is rich in anecdote and reflection. It is about the boys and girls he taught, for whom he felt both responsibility and love. He seems to have regarded and treated them as friends, and hopes that they felt the same about him. Many, I am sure, did.

It would be easy and agreeable to treat this book only as an often light-hearted ramble through Wyllie’s life. It is indeed that, and also a loving evocation of Edinburgh, but it is more than that. The playwright David Greig says Wyllie’s “most interesting virtue” is ”his unerring eye for the truth”; and this seems fair comment. But I would add that the great feature of his book is its generosity of spirit. We live in a time which often seems both defensive and disapproving. Wyllie values and offers sympathy, acceptance of differences, enjoyment of what life can offer. His book is great fun; life is to be enjoyed and relished, and, for him, as for Alexander McCall Smith, kindness is a necessary virtue.

Is There a Pigeon in the Room? by Cameron Wyllie, Birlinn, 209pp, £12.99