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Tuck Shop Chit Chat (Pls read)


Forum: Nostalgia


Des Thompson

Created on: 12/03/16 01:52 AM Views: 1877 Replies: 1
Des Thompson
Posted Saturday, March 12, 2016 01:52 AM

Des Thompson 

I note with interest that Des Thompson was ranked on our website as the most feared and respected of our teachers. I also have noted, without much surprise, that there are many Old Boys who do not have warm recollections of their old schoolmasters, either for their professionalism or personal charm. That was the nature of the time. We were highly suspicious of masters who were too friendly or familiar - and tended to test them with the most devious of schoolboy pranks. I have little doubt that I am not the only Old Boy who has kept his family and friends entertained, when they were not incredulous, with some of the hilarious if not bizarre DHS anecdotes circa 1966. 
But Des Thompson was never tested in this way. He not only had an imposing manner, but exuded a quiet strength backed up by a well deserved reputation as one of the outstanding teachers at the school. One of my early memories was of boys sprinting between lessons to get to his class on time. He apparently had a real thing about punctuality, and if you were late the door was closed and there were unpleasant but inevitable consequences. He never taught me but I knew that, if he had, I would have been a far better student for it.
When I applied for a teaching post in 1980 in the Natal Education Department, having just returned from a six years' stint of teaching in Australia, I was told by the person conducting the interview that the only teaching job available was at DHS and that Mr Thompson had indicated that I was to be offered this position. I never established how he knew that I was looking for a post, or indeed that he even knew or remembered me. What followed was a teaching experience that left an indelible impression of inspirational school leadership. Over forty years of teaching I have worked for some good, even remarkable headmasters, but for me there was something special about Des Thompson. I have not worked in a school where the headmaster had the kind of respect and affection that the DHS teaching staff expressed for their leader at that time.
I was once told that Des Joubert, a PE teacher and DHS stalwart, had demanded an apology from a teacher from a neighbouring school who at an inter-school meeting had unwittingly made a disparaging remark about Des Thompson, and that if the apology were not forthcoming, the matter could be settled elsewhere. You might think this story somewhat apocryphal but not if you had known Des Joubert, or indeed Des Thompson. I was more than a little surprised when I first observed that teachers would stand when Des Thompson entered the Common Room.  I soon understood why he had this kind of loyalty. Not only was he genuinely committed to providing quality education in the broadest sense for every boy - and he knew every boy - but he was a man of absolute integrity and utterly without pretensions or affectations. He had little time for pomp and triumphalism, and was clearly driven by an interest in what really is, rather than the superficiality and dissembling that are so in keeping with our times.
No one knew better the daily grind of the classroom, the needless distractions and the gratuitous demands that can make teaching unnecessarily stressful, than Des Thompson. An example of which was having to supervise the classes of absent colleagues during non-teaching periods - the periods that teachers treasure as time for marking and preparation. At the outset I was told that I would not be required for so-called extras. If a teacher was away, the door of his classroom would be left open and students would know that they were to enter the room for their scheduled lesson and get on with reading or private study. If the teacher in the room adjacent to mine was away, I was expected during the day to make the occasional check to see that nothing untoward was happening.  I was astonished at the efficiency of this approach and on no occasion found it necessary to discipline a rowdy classroom. In fact I had to remind myself to do this because I was never prompted by a disturbance. I finally was able to make sense of it all when it was explained to me that, should the Headmaster on one of his impromptu school tours make an unannounced visit, which he had been known to do, and if someone were talking or disturbing others, there would be an immediate consequence of the kind most sensible boys seek to avoid. 
During his tenure as Headmaster, DHS enjoyed a period of extraordinary academic success, partly owing to what seemed to me to be a form of selective entry, but more because Des Thompson placed such emphasis on academic discipline. He seemed to regard report writing and parent/teacher contact as an exercise in public relations rather than intrinsic to the learning process. I have no recollection of any formal parent/teacher interviews during the year I was there, and I was only required to write brief reports on the boys in my classes that he had either nominated as being dilatory and requiring some admonishment, or those deserving of praise, for efforts above and beyond what was expected of them. I was more than a little surprised at the accuracy of these nominations. There was no favouritism from the Headmaster, and he knew the level of academic commitment of every boy. This from a man who at times seemed aloof and not much given to outward displays of emotion - in fact I came to the view that though he was unsentimental, he was a man of genuine sentiment.
His school assemblies were memorable for their brevity. He was a man of very few words. There were the usual religious rituals, sporting results summarised without fanfare, one or two announcements and then it was over and boys and staff were free to enjoy their lunch break.
That this is an epoch of self-promotion and self-regard can hardly be debated, especially with all the technical aids for doing so, which makes it hard not to think fondly of the Des Thompsons of this world. More than ever, the people who seek the spotlight seem to be the Hollow Men that T. S. Eliot wrote about - with so many outer layers which when removed one at a time reveal little more than nothing. With Des Thompson the opposite was true, the more you knew the man the more you understood and appreciated the symmetry between the outward composure and dignity and the inner person.
Not long after he retired from DHS he toured Australia, and while in Melbourne my wife and I had an opportunity to share a restaurant meal with him. What I remember of that evening was that every positive impression that I had formed while working at his school was affirmed. The only unfortunate result of having known and worked with Des Thompson was that I was doomed to be disappointed, even in some small way,  with any subsequent headmasters - and there have been many.
John Mason.
RE: Des Thompson
Posted Sunday, March 13, 2016 01:10 PM

What a moving and beautifully written tribute John. I never knew him well, but I could sense his strength and integrity