Jess Phillips: ‘Mrs Firman was a vivid peacock’

The Labour MP recalls an infants teacher who was like a fairy godmother in a world of potatoes and gravy

Jess Phillips, MP

It was 1984-85: the era when austere teaching was no longer in vogue. But my primary school still had an old guard: teachers who used to cane pupils. It was a very Victorian primary school, with separate entrances for boys and girls. From the outside, it looks exactly as you’d imagine a Victorian school to look.

Chris Firman was a woman in her thirties, who made all her own clothes. They were wild and colourful. She was a very, very strident woman. She said, “You can do anything. You can be anything.”

I just think of her as a peacock. This was a school of potatoes and gravy, and she was this vivid peacock. 

A fairy godmother

She was my Reception teacher and what would now be Year 1 – the first year of infants – teacher, at Colmore Junior and Infants School in Birmingham.

I come from pretty bolshie stock, as it was, but she was like a fairy godmother. That’s how she appears in my head when I think about her.

Mrs Firman had been born on the day of Indian partition, and she was obsessed with India. So we’d be doing a play of Rama and Sita, and making candles and learning Hindi songs. Today, you’d expect that in schools. But, back then, the lifecycle of a frog was the most exciting thing you’d think about doing. 

Mrs Firman obviously took a shine to me. She made me feel like the cleverest person in the room. She always put me forwards for things. I don’t think I was special – she just made me feel special. She made everyone feel like that.

A vivid imagination

I used to lie to try and impress her, the way that children do. I told her that my mum had the same dress as her. That’s how I found out she made all her own clothes.

My school backed on to a big council estate, and quite a lot of people who I went to school with had chaotic lives. I remember lying to her, and saying my parents were divorced, because I thought it would be quite cool to have divorced parents. She said: “I’m in the Labour Party with both of your parents – I see them at meetings.”

She never made me feel bad for lying. I think she just thought I had a very vivid imagination. 

I’ve got all these books – mainly Roald Dahl books, but also Janet and Allan Ahlberg books. And I forget, but then I open them up, and they all say, “Chris Firman, 1982” inside. When schools were having a hard time, and you had to share everything, she’d go out and buy these amazing things to give to us.

She was someone who would give books, and then the book becomes more about the person who gave it to you. I have a copy of Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, and it was the last book my mother gave me before she died. And, for me, that book is more connected to my mother than to Caitlin Moran.

Brilliant feminist women

At the time, Mrs Firman seemed like a fish out of water. But I’ve met lots more Chris Firmans since. She was part of a collective of brilliant feminist women who were trying to change the system they were part of, whether it was education or the NHS or politics. They were trying to make progress in a once-austere environment. 

I get drunk with her sometimes still, and she’s just a vivid character – a vivid person. You know sometimes when you’re a child and you think someone is the prettiest person in the world, and then you see them later as an adult and, oh dear. Well, Chris Firman has not waned in her glamour. She’s an utterly glamorous person. My impression of her hasn’t changed – she’s still one of a kind." 

Jess Phillips, MP will be hosting an event called Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on BS, at Toppings bookshop in Bath, at 8pm on 5 October.

This event is part of the inaugural Bookshop Day, which will showcase and celebrate the vital role of high-street bookshops, with talks around the country by authors and public figures. Visit the Bookshop Day website for more information.

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