It’s a time of year to be cautious when out walking. The weather, mild as it is at the moment, can catch you unawares, as clouds cover the low sun all too quickly and the day becomes cold with little warning. It’s a hassle knowing what to wear. I set off in a fleece at 7.00 am as it feels cold but 20 minutes later it’s tied round my waist as I’m sweating profusely. And if it looks like rain I’ve already got my waterproof round my middle. The answer of course is usually to take the rucksack, but I’m generally only out for an hour on the daily walk, so it seems a bit like overkill. I already go armed with a walking pole, because the ground can be so tricky with the adverse camber (now there’s a great term!!) and roots sticking up, as well as muddy paths in the parts of the woods that never see much sun, that I feel the need of something to steady me. So you’d wonder why I ever bother going if it’s such a treacherous activity, wouldn’t you?
The thing is there is nothing quite like that feeling of freedom as the garage door lifts (we always start and finish in the garage – it’s not for cars, you know, it’s for drying off dogs, hanging damp gear and storing boots and other paraphernalia!!). I breathe in the morning air and look to the sky – whatever it’s like, we have to go – and we’re off. Following the path alongside the cemetery, dipping through the woods and down to the stream, where Billy gets his first paddle of the day. He just has to leap in and have a drink, whatever the temperature. These mornings it can sometimes be difficult to see him in the woods – him being so golden – against the brilliant red and orange colours of the fallen leaves.
The morning light, dappling on the floor of the woods is just beautiful. I suppose that’s why Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” sprang to mind today. It may sound naff to you, but I heard myself saying it out loud
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
What a rich and sumptuous a poem it is; ripe and plump with goodness, the words capture all the tawny shades of the season. I couldn’t recall much more of it – I’m not that brilliant at remembering poems – just bits of them. But I found myself leaving the autumn morning and flying down the years to when I was at secondary school. It was where I first heard and studied Keats. In English Lit. At Marple Hall County Grammar School for Girls. And I find myself stiffening, as though ready for another miserable day there. That school did me very few favours and very likely did me a lot of harm and I’m saddened to say I hated almost of every day I was there – certainly the first year.
One of only three girls from my primary school to pass the 11 plus and go to grammar school, I was so thrilled and my mum and dad were really proud. However, after only a couple of days, I was disheartened, disillusioned, disappointed and on my way to being disinterested and disaffected. The sheer hugeness of the building was of course an issue, but all children have to overcome that at transition I suppose. It was more that I was separated from the two girls I had gone with – and was with 27 I had absolutely nothing in common with at all. Now, I didn’t think I was shy – but suddenly I found myself almost socially inept. At my little church primary, I’d been quite important. I knew everyone. I was a monitor; well thought of by the headmaster and teachers. I loved that school. I loved the little playground; the iron steps that went up to the staffroom that was above the stage in the hall; the outside stinky toilets; the cloakrooms with wooden benches and pegs; the field that was surrounded by gardens of houses where people I knew lived and which had fences we climbed through to take short cuts. I loved the milk that came in crates; school dinners with pudding and lumpy custard; recorder lessons; singing in the choir; taking harvest festival parcels to the old people’s home; reading “Treasure Island” aloud in class.
Most of all I loved Miss Briggs, my last teacher there. She was about 92 – stick thin, with wispy grey hair on her head and her chin. She terrified most children and many a boy was whacked with the plimsoll she kept in her desk (a high one, because she never sat down – ever!!) But she was also deeply respected and loved and she adored me. I worked hard, was bright and loved reading – her ideal pupil! And she encouraged me greatly. As did Mr Thorpe, our headmaster: a bit stern, but a darling of a man. He assigned the older pupils tasks of great importance – like copying out lists while sitting in his warm study (he always had one of those little five-bar electric fires in there). I was someone there – a person who mattered. I believed I could have done anything, been whatever I wanted – wonderful things like write great novels or be an actress or a teacher. Well, Miss Briggs made it seem as though they weren’t wild dreams – she believed that with hard work and a respectful attitude you could achieve your ambitions.
Grammar school crushed me. It made me small. I was there weeks before I had a real conversation with any other girl. (The 14 boys who had been with me were in another school and I never really spoke to them again). I had to catch a bus and every minute of that journey was a trial. It was noisy and horrid and took me away from the lovely place where I lived to that nasty, great building with loads and loads of stairs. Every lesson was in a different room on a different floor and everywhere seemed to smell of disinfectant. All the girls in my new ‘form’ (we weren’t in classes any more, they had to be ‘forms’, which I had always thought were wooden things you sat on!) seemed to know one another. They talked differently to me and about different things and I very soon picked up that most of these girls slept in bedrooms by themselves and had mothers who were at home when they got in from school and fathers who went to work in suits, with briefcases.
What I was seeing was my first glimpse of social class difference. At St Mark’s we were all much the same, in terms of class. Most of my friends lived on the council estate like me; those who didn’t lived in terraced houses on a main road (which I thought were tiny) and a couple in semi-detached ones. To me though, I felt the luckiest of all – living opposite a dairy farm, surrounded by wonderful fields, hedged by blackberry bushes and close to woods, a river and a fabulous canal (a great place of adventure, where once we found a dead dog, complete with maggot filled mouth, floating!!). Suddenly I was thrown into a place where differences in class were not only apparent, but where some girls were afforded a higher status because of what their fathers did for a living or where they lived.
It wasn’t so much the girls themselves – it was something about the attitude and behaviour of the teachers. They were mostly a frightful bunch. Few of them could teach well – they shouted a lot, wrote on the blackboard and dictated much, but gave out little encouragement. I don’t recall any teacher asking me any questions about myself or my life outside of school. I was very unhappy in my first year and it was only really English and French lessons that I enjoyed at all. The scariest lesson of all was Geography. We had a witch of a teacher – she was truly frightening. And she hated me. Well, it was mutual. I started to avoid her lessons – making out I was having clarinet lessons! (Honestly, I would have been ready for the Halle the amount of lessons I said I was having!!) She eventually found me out – and that I hadn’t done a single homework assignment for the whole of the first term. (I hadn’t done much other homework either actually! I hated it all so much as soon as I got home I hid my school bag and tried to forget all about it). Did the witch make any attempt at all to find out what was wrong? Did she heck! My punishment was to have to spend every single lunch period in her form room, watched by a couple of senior girls, copying out everything I had missed over that first term. The witch and I remained committed enemies for the two years she taught us and even now the very thought of her sends shiver down my spine. (My mother admitted recently that when she met this demon at a parents’ evening, she too felt quite terrified!!)
I did eventually settle down and make some lovely friends though. I had a wonderful youth hostelling holiday with three of them –an adventure that awakened my love of walking and the outdoors. One of my saviours was a fabulous English teacher, Miss Snell, who established I was good at Drama, loved reading and really encouraged me. However, I didn’t leave school with any honours and just about managed to scrape together 6 ‘O’ levels, before I left to go to college and eventually into nursing. I don’t think any teacher held any great expectations of me. I recall a careers interview I had with a charmless, chinless lady with bouffant hair, too much perfume and foul pink lipstick and wearing a revolting blue knitted suit.
“Have you thought about what you will do when you leave school, Beverley?”
“Yes, I’d like to be a teacher, Miss”
“Oh, no, no, no. I really don’t think so, young lady. You’re simply not academically capable of such a career”.
Really? And of course, I had a personality, didn’t I, so that would certainly have precluded me, wouldn’t it? Old bat!!
Somehow, despite being ‘academically incapable’, I made it through nursing, hold a good first degree, a teaching qualification and a Masters. I’ve held clinical specialist posts, management positions (was Head of children’s nursing in fact), teaching posts, project management and government advisory roles. I used to dream of meeting this ‘careers expert’ and shoving my qualifications and curriculum vitae where they would never see the sun again! But you know what? I’m over it. I’ve let it go. I refused to let those few years of awful experiences define me for the rest of my life. I also let go of the feelings of wanting to ‘get back’ at those teachers a long time ago. I know who I am now and I am confident, not so much in myself or my own abilities, but in the One in who gave me life and in whom I placed my trust more than 20 years ago.
It won’t be the same for all kids though. So if you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, do think on the amount of influence you have on a developing individual. You’re in a privileged position and young people, despite an often tough exterior, are fragile beings and easily knocked. Don’t step on their dreams! I give thanks for the many friends I have who are teachers – all of them dedicated and passionate about education and getting the best out of their students. It’s a joy to know you are out there working with children, helping them to be the very best they can be. I salute you!