Hey, it’s the Teacher Feature! This is going to be a regular-ish series exploring fictional teachers from page, stage and screen, and fittingly, the opener is going to focus on a character from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, which gives this page its name. I could have chosen Hector or Irwin, but instead I’m going to write about Mrs Lintott, played in both the original stage version and the 2006 film adaptation by Frances de la Tour.
Every staffroom needs a Mrs Lintott. She’d look after you in your first few weeks as a rookie teacher, making sure you knew how the coffee rota worked and whose chair you shouldn’t sit in. She’d dispense wisdom and offer suggestions on how to approach particular students. It was the Mrs Lintotts of my first school who gave me the pieces of advice that have stayed with me all my career. Don’t try to be their friend. Be kind, but make sure they know where the boundaries are. Bright students can wind you up far more effectively than less able ones. If you expect to make a meaningful connection with every student you teach, you’ll burn yourself out. Mrs Lintott has a box of tissues and a packet of digestives in her desk drawer, and knows just when you need them. She’s essential to the running of the school, although her role isn’t an official one and doesn’t come with extra pay. A school without at least one Mrs Lintott is a very poor thing.
Mrs Lintott, in Bennett’s play, acts as a kind of moral centre, standing in the middle of a triangle formed by the dilettante Hector, the smoothly ambitious Irwin, and the repulsively shallow Headmaster. The Headmaster wants the school to rise in the league tables: he is determined to get more students into Oxford and Cambridge, and recruits Irwin to tutor the school’s most able History students. Mrs Lintott has taught them in the past, but it’s clear that her approach won’t cut it, in Oxbridge terms. She offers hard graft, ‘plainly stated and properly organised facts.’ (I bet she loves a well-organised lever arch file, with dividers and plastic wallets, all the headings underlined.) Irwin offers flash. As Rudge, one of the boys, puts it: ‘You’ve force-fed us the facts; now we’re in the business of running around acquiring flavour.’ He gets his students to approach the past from unexpected angles, finding tangential ways in. With him, the boys find the moments when history ‘rattles over the points’. They develop intellectual agility. But they couldn’t have done it without Mrs Lintott laying the foundations.
Hector’s lessons, meanwhile, are all about ‘sheer calculated silliness.’ They’re the antidote to the Headmaster’s weaselling, a space to shore up fragments of Gracie Fields and George Formby and act out scenes from classic films. They are fun – witness the improvised scene in the French brothel – but eventually the boys realise that they’re not going to get them into Oxbridge. Hector is a joker, but he’s also sad, in every possible sense of the word. He offers the boys lifts home on his motorbike, and gropes them as they sit behind him, but they treat this with a weary eyeroll rather than reporting him. He recognises the loneliness in Posner, the most fragile of the boys, and speaks to him of the ‘sense of not sharing, of being out of it. Whether because of diffidence or shyness, but a holding back. Not being in the swim. Can you see that?’
Hector knows that Irwin’s lessons are about playing an intellectual game. So does Mrs Lintott. She’d have no truck with such Ofsted-isms as ‘rapid and sustained progress’, with knowledge organisers and ‘wow words’ and the need for everything to be outstanding all of the time. She’d recognise that true learning is a long slow burn, an uneven path.
In the play, Mrs Lintott has some cracking lines. There’s the obvious one about studying at Durham: ‘It’s where I had my first pizza. Other things, too, of course, but it’s the pizza that stands out.’ There’s the bit where she defines history as ‘women following behind with a bucket.’ There’s also the point where she describes the Headmaster as ‘a twat … a condescending cunt.’ (In a production at my former school, the student who played Mrs Lintott delivered this line with real relish.) But for me, the part where we really see the essence of Mrs Lintott is at the end, at Hector’s memorial service, when she tells us what has become of the boys. Their fates in the film differ from those in the original play – Posner’s ending is happier, Lockwood’s sadder – but that doesn’t really matter. What I like about this scene is the sense of Mrs Lintott’s role extending into the future, there not just for the seven years of secondary school but for many decades to come. She’d be the one who’d bump into her former students, or their parents, in the supermarket, and find out what they were up to. There’d be shared reminiscences, and maybe the odd letter. She might attend the occasional wedding, in her size seven, wide-fitting court shoes; she’d certainly be there for funerals. Teachers who matter don’t just get you through the exams. They balance and stabilise; they help to make a school a genuine community that shows young people how to be. They might not set the educational world on fire, but they do help to ground it.
Everyone should be taught by at least one Mrs Lintott, at some point in their life. Who’s yours?