Richard Hoyes delivers a posthumous bouquet

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Anne, Brenda, Coreen, John, Gordon, Edna, Janet and Mary. Yes, I've remembered them, the whole family, and their mother, Dilys, a primary head, even though it must be 30 years since I last saw any of them. Well it was 30 years until this summer when John (he's the boy in the middle, with three girls ranked in age and alphabetical order on his left, three girls and a boy on his right) read one of my columns in Friday magazine and sent me an email.

John, his seven brothers and sisters and his inspirational mother. And his deeply thoughtful, gently spoken father, who turned down the volume on his hearing aid when the family talk became too pedagogical. I was at school with John. I was quite sweet on one of his sisters when I was 17. But it was his mother I fell in love with.

Dilys was organised and wildly creative. A less imaginative teacher, having started with Anne, Brenda and Coreen, would have called the next child Derek not John. Would have made Gordon change places with Edna, for the sake of the alphabet. But Dilys knew when to abandon order, and replace reason with her own special brand of romanticism.

Dilys introduced me to Tennyson's poetry. She recited it: "The long brook falling thro' the clov'n ravine In cataract after cataract to the sea." Something in me still goes twang when I read that. I think it's the 17-year-old buried deep inside me. I remember writing my own poems and showing them to Dilys. My imagery was derivative and sentimental. But Dilys, ever the teacher, gave praise and then raised issues. She suggested that, instead of using words just for their sound, I should use them to form pictures and make the ordinary appear extraordinary. Words have power, she said, but sometimes pictures have more. I could imagine her in the classroom, filling children's heads with pictures. And I came to see how powerful and persuasive this could be.

I remember when Dilys's mother died. At the funeral I sat at the back next to this Belgian woman, a friend of the family. She was an old-fashioned High Church Roman Catholic and went throughthe most amazing body language during the service, crossing herself, genuflecting, suddenly dropping to her knees when the vicar mentioned the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I was mightily impressed. I loved all these cluttered formalities as much as I loved the cadences and rhythms of "we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust". It was a bit like my own teenage poetry, I suppose - gloomy, and I liked the sound of it.

I remember just before the service, one of the younger children started playing up and refused to sit at the front near the altar. Dilys just looked at her and said: "But don't you want to be near God so he can see you?" There was a picture there - God, the child and the altar. For a moment I felt the breath of the Almighty shiver down my spine. I remembered what Dilys had said, that words had power but pictures had more. And the child sat still on the front pew, with her eye on God, while the Belgian woman crossed herself at the back and I sat beside her and listened. Dilys was a mixture of the utilitarian and the visionary. She knew about power and persuasion. She was, after all, a teacher.

Following his email I met up with John and his family again just before he went to live in Greece to grow food for a Bulgarian orphanage. For the past 25 years he has taught rural studies in Lincolnshire while supplying Harvey Nick's with his own brand of honey and being the founder-editor of the Beekeeper's Quarterly. His sister is an assistant professor in a Turkish university. I think they've inherited their mother's complexities. The sad thing for me is that Dilys died four years ago and will never read this. Does this magazine's Friday Hero column (with a bunch of flowers dedicated to some heart-of-gold member of staff) take posthumous tributes? If so here's one from me. Or maybe flowers, kindly supplied by Marks and Spencer, along with a weekly copy of The TES, is what teachers end up with in Heaven.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham College, Surrey. Email:

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