Woodworker & Wordsmith: Goodbye Mr. Chips

From our undercover correspondent

Price of wood! You’d have thought it grew on trees, but it don’t! ... Do it lightly, in pencil! ... Your project is scrap! Get out!

For the last 17 years, pupils at St. Michael’s School have heard such words of exclamation, advice and rebuke from their beloved woodwork teacher, Alan Pettitt. But sadly not for much longer, as Mr. Pettitt is retiring at the end of the academic year.

Before he joined St. Michael’s in 1999, Mr. Pettitt taught at Park House School in Newbury. But earlier on he had worked in the defence industry; for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and for Marconi, building missiles at Portsmouth Dockyard.

That’s about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.

Asked about his time at St. Michael’s, Mr. Pettitt grins and comments, “You could write a book about this place.”

His career at Burghclere has certainly not been lacking in excitement. A few years ago, the floor of the workshop collapsed, depositing him in six feet of oily water. Luckily, one of the senior boys was on hand to pull him out. On another occasion, he was knocked down by a reversing lorry while carrying a box of spanners. Sometimes the “accidents” have been staged, however, like the time when a certain ashen-faced woodwork teacher rushed to the side of a boy covered in “blood” and yelling in “agony” on the floor of the workshop. Yes, it was red paint!

This is good, solid timber, this!

Outside work, Mr. Pettitt is known for restoring gliders (seven of them) and building glider trailers. The Glasgow-born teacher is a keen member of his local flying club and has recently reclaimed his Scottish heritage by taking up Scottish country dancing. He also had a kilt made for his daughter’s wedding in the Highlands, last August, and has worn it to just about every school function since.

There are far too many Pettitt-isms for one article, but others include:

Don’t just take the dust for a walk! ... You have to work; the clue is in the name, workshop! ... This isn’t a playground! ... That’s as useless as a chocolate teapot! ... I’ve had enough, I’m retiring!

That last saying was a familiar refrain, even though he will quietly admit to having enjoyed his time at Burghclere. But now it is finally coming true; Mr. Pettitt is retiring and St. Michael’s won’t be the same without him.

Goodbye, thank you and God bless you, Mr. Pettitt.

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