They're all Miss Honeys now;Back paige;Changing classrooms

16th April 1999 at 01:00
I CROUCHED, cowering, in my cinema seat - yet my nine-year-old sucked popcorn with blithe unconcern. Later, with her feet up, she calmly watched the house-chase scene on video as I backed away sweating with terror.

Why this generation gap...over Roald Dahl's tale of Matilda?

Hurling kids from windows, locking them in cupboards, sadistically force-feeding the fat and taunting the weak, ultra-butch Miss Trunchbull, the school heidie, was a brutal, violent, child-hating, javelin-hurling, murderous psychopath. Miss Honey, her tormented niece, who helped Matilda do extraordinary multiplications, was the gentlest, most wonderful teacher.

"That film terrified me as well," confessed another primary school mum, "yet my son didn't turn a hair. You know why? It's because everyone of us parents remembers a teacher like that. But they're all Miss Honeys now."

Could that be the reason? It seemed a riveting and perceptive explanation. My education began with German nursery school teachers whose Grimm's fairy tales made us scream all night, and while I can't say my primary years were littered with Miss Trunchbulls, there was certainly the trepidation that each teacher was about to turn into one.

On the other hand, I think it's far too complacent to imagine fright and humiliation have been banished from the classroom. I'm mightily relieved my kid and her generation are protected from being plucked by the ears, flung into stifling nail-studded cupboards, or forced to chop their plaits off by some bulging-eyed Miss T. I'm glad they'll never know the physical violence of the Lochgelly era, or the shoulder-shaking and hitting with rulers which was normal anger in some of my own primary teachers.

But sadly sarcasm, unfairness and verbal bullying among a minority of teachers still have young kids hiding under the bed and refusing to go to school, or literally being sick at the thought. The majority would condemn that, but I think it's harder to confront the impact of what tons of teachers do, which is to shout a few dozen times a day...or in some cases, all the time.

It's hard to bring this up, not least because parents are in the worst position to pontificate. In my house we celebrate at McDonald's if there hasn't actually been a screaming row for 24 hours. Neighbours set their clocks by the 8.30am battlefield explosions.

Besides, many teachers shout who are not nasty at all. They may do it from frustration, temporary annoyance, tiredness, force of habit, the wish to be heard above the din, or simply because they've got funny voices. But the odd thing is that a lot of children are actually upset and scared by it, more so than by their parents.

You slowly come to notice just how many times primary kids give "they shout" as the reason for not liking their teacher. "She's so shouty," said one friend's shy son. "With you, when we have a row, I know it's going to be all right later."

Interviewing 11-year-olds for an education research project, my friend asked one girl what she thought of when she set off for school in the morning. "What am I going to get shouted at for today?" she replied.

When you think about it, there is something very illogical in teachers shouting at kids not to make a noise. Definite case of mixed messages. At one Quaker primary, teacher and pupils share a silent time once a day, and apparently it's really valued and successful.

A positive stillness to replace the silence of terror at the impending heavy tread of Miss Trunchbull and her ilk? But what about those past figures who struck genuine awe as they stalked the corridors - fear yes, but mingled with respect and wonder, and the driving wish to win their approval by personal achievement?

Figures like Dr Dixon, legendary sixties heidie at Inverurie Academy, who knew every one of his 1,300 pupils by name, inspecting thousands of their humblest class tests, and stamped the page with that strong square blue-ink script I can see vividly in my mind today.

"Please see me," he wrote to encourage the high-achievers. "See me," he thundered to the wretched slapdash failures, who trod their woeful path to his door. Later as a teenager I had a very different heidie, a tiny bent old French nun of enormous intellect, mysterious aura and perceptive, humorous, penetrating eye.

But she had something of the same effect.

Sarah Nelson

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