The kind and the truly sadistic

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Everyone remembers their teachers, says Margaret Franklin.

Do you remember your teachers? Surprisingly, most of us do. Or is it surprising? Love them or loathe them, they dominated our childhoods and often moulded our careers by precedence, persuasion or defiance.

Distance may lead to disenchantment. That willowy woman whose earrings jiggled so endearingly during music lessons is seen in retrospect as vain and tone-deaf. The bleak mistress who bellowed PE instructions on chilly mornings when we were 12 appears, now we are 45, to have been a sad victim of circumstances - her fiance was killed on the Somme and she cared for her ageing parents until they died, leaving her a barn of a house and only her teacher's salary. On those wintry mornings in our blue regulation knickers and our rosy futures, we couldn't understand Miss R's frustration.

My first teachers were nuns. Brides of Christ, they stalked the gloomy convent corridors in long black habits, each with a silver crucifix. Most were kind, some sadistic. Mother Wilson smiled sweetly under her wimple, Mother Fox glowered under hers. The Order, convent and pupils were ruled by stern Mother McAllister. What were we taught behind those grim walls? Music, needlework and poetry - and that African babies supported by our pennies climbed up to heaven.

Their lack of interest in mathematics and English led to my being whisked away to a crammer as the dreaded 11-Plus exam loomed. There the ageing, bottle-blonde assistant teacher instilled the rudiments of grammar and frightened us every morning with mental arithmetic.

With hindsight, she was a genius because I made it to grammar school. There I met another clutch of single women, many of whom had lost their loved ones in the First World War.

The girls developed crushes on their favourites. Cynthia adored the gym mistress, Anita happily carried books ad a torch for the French teacher, and I fell in love with Miss H, the enigmatic maths expert who played the piano divinely and helped set me on the road to literature and life.

I can still name most of the other dedicated women who, for seven years, directed, admonished or inspired me daily. Long-gone now, but never forgotten.

Boys in the other building across the green were a world away, but I imagine they too remember their masters. There were stories about the language teacher who gave them a simple grammatical rule followed by two pages of exceptions.

"Miggins, my study at break!" went the stentorian headmaster.

But then there were those exhilarating moments on the pitch when Sir inspired that winning goal against St Saviour's. Those were the days, my ladsI Get out the old school tie and remember scruffy Mr D with his leather-patched jacket and old Mr J and that dew-drop on the end of his nose - would it or wouldn't it as he turned the pages of Latin grammar?

The list goes on through piano teachers, games instructors, university lecturers. My mother in her seventies still fondly recalled a certain Miss Haybittle of an Edwardian classroom 60 years earlier.

Have things changed much? Surely our sons and daughters will remember the leather mini-skirted young woman who leaned over a desk to mark their homework, or the thick-set chap who bullied them into line for a scrum. Teachers are the plumb-line of our lives.

Eventually, I climbed over the academic fence and became one of them. I think that some of the 6,000-odd pupils who have passed through my classes over 30 years will remember me, for good or ill.

Maybe a chance remark or an irritating habit of mine has steered someone to glory. Perhaps I have even influenced a future prime minister. I can only hope so.

Margaret Franklin recently retired as an English teacher

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