How often do you look back with fondness when you remember your time at school?
The comedian Paul Merton once observed: “My school days were the happiest days of my life; which should give you some indication of the misery I’ve endured over the past 25 years!”
I never really enjoyed my time at school; it wasn’t because I was bullied or had any particularly bad experiences, but I just never saw the point of a lot of what I did.
One of the happiest memories of my teenage years was the moment I completed my final A-level examination and said goodbye to my school days.
However, as I recall, there was one subject I looked forward to, particularly in my third year of senior school; it was French.
It wasn’t because I enjoyed learning the language - I failed my O-level exam miserably - but rather it was because our teacher Mr Aldridge couldn’t control the class.
We used to mess around and play practical jokes most of the time, and I enjoyed French lessons four days every week.
I look back with acute embarrassment now when I think of how we, arrogant teenagers, treated our French teacher, and when years later I saw him in the distance at a united church service, I couldn’t pluck up the courage to go and introduce myself to him; I was sure the last thing he would have wanted to see was the face of one of his former pupils that had made part of his teaching experience so unpleasant.
Like most teachers who taught me, I didn’t know very much about Mr Aldridge’s life outside of school or before he’d become a teacher, other than it was known that he had flown in the RAF during the Second World War.
Perhaps if I’d realised in my school days, what I discovered many years later, my horrible attitude and behaviour towards him would have been different.
Although I didn’t know it until very recently, Arthur Aldridge is one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met.
In 2013, along with fellow squadron member Bill Carroll, Mr Aldridge documented his wartime combat experiences in the book, The Last Torpedo Flyers.
One chapter, entitled ‘British Kamikaze’ accurately documents the acute mortal danger these brave airmen were placed in.
Describing his thoughts as he sat on the runway preparing for take-off on what became an aborted mission, Aldridge writes: “It’s true that I pretty much knew I was going to die, along with the entire squadron, when we were preparing to attack the battleship Tirpitz. If we weren’t shot down, we would fly into the mountains between Norway and Sweden, or freeze to death in the North Sea.”
When, after one particularly dangerous but successful mission in 1941 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the citation concluded that Mr Aldridge, then aged just 20, had ‘shown great courage, combined with rare skill and judgment’.
Although the majority of the young men Wing Commander Arthur Aldridge flew with died during the war, he was one of the few that survived to tell his and their story. He passed away in December 2015 aged 95.
Like many of you, I have done what is our custom at this time of year, and stood in silent remembrance and gratitude for the deeds of a multitude of people, most of whom, unlike Arthur Aldridge, remain anonymous to me but whose sacrifices I continue to benefit from.
And in the silence, God speaks to me, reminding me of the words of Jesus to his friends in John 15:12 & 13: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”