Death of a truly great man

I have just learned that a truly wonderful man died a couple of weeks ago. He was my secondary school maths teacher. Harry Smith, known by all as Brab, was 86, and had been a maths teacher at the Burton Grammar School, in Burton-on-Trent, where I grew up.

A report is to be found at the Burton Mail that is is fine for the facts. ( Though I think that the dates may not be perfectly accurate )

What is known by all that knew him was that he had the ability to get the very best out of all of his pupils. With a mix of Shakespeare quotations, gentle mocking and insistence on precision in maths and English, Brab changed us all through brilliant teaching, humanity and erudition.

If we muttered an answer through lack of confidence, we were made to stand up and say in our best stentorian tones ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ or ‘A man has come to iron the billiard table’.

If we didn’t manage to get a solution immediately, he consoled us with ‘the impossible we do at once, miracles take a little longer’.

He taught so well that the whole of our class ( some 32 pupils iirc ) achieved the top classification at O level. He did it with style and aplomb, with a special sense of humour. He set the most evil exam questions for the Welsh schools examination board, and drilled us relentlessly in mental arithmetic.

But that was the stuff most people know.

What they did not witness was the day he came into our class after his wife had died in a car crash – a car which he was driving. So committed to his job and his boys was Brab, that two days after the accident, he arrived in our classroom for his first lesson. He was a middle-aged man, we were 13 year old kids.

We were amazed to see him, as were expecting another free period to waste. He wanted normality. He start to teach us, and managed for a while, but the strain was clear. We suggested that he go home, but as I remember he continued until he could take no more, and broke down.

Like most kids that age, we didn’t owe him anything. But we knew from that day we would never forget Harry Smith. We learnt respect. We learnt understanding. We saw love.

That was the day that we all changed, and from then on, whatever Harry did, we still loved him for it. He continued to be our maths teacher for between 4 and 6 years depending if we took A level maths.

He really was a great man and it was a real pleasure to have known him.


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