The wonderful ways of Mrs White

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Mrs White, who taught in a bright, airy "temporary" hut, was my favourite primary teacher. She was also the least fair and at times the least rational. When wee Brian Swan was discovered to have started every entry in his daily story book with the word "damni" she hauled him off to the headmaster, her age-mottled face red with anger.

Had she paused to question him she might have found the innocent truth: Brian couldn't spell "diary". One day I came in with a simple torch I had made myself. Mrs White praised me for it and invited me to meet her husband. Mr White taught science at the local secondary and would show me how to wire up other circuits, she said.

Rather shy at the thought of meeting a strange adult, I stammered that I might have a book that would show me how. Mrs White failed to interpret my motives for saying this and, on what seemed like countless occasions but was probably only twice, berated me in front of the class for being so superior that I'd prefer to read a book than to have a person explain something.

Another of my apparent faults was that I watched ITV. Mrs White hated the adverts but made an exception to her aversion when the commercial channel adapted Ivanhoe. Did I watch Ivanhoe? No. Oh, did I find Sir Walter Scott a bit beneath me? Mr White didn't.

To the fore in Mrs White's armoury were a string of wonderful old Scots insults. Galoot and gomeril (she never wrote them, so excuse the spelling) seemed to be favourites. She was the only teacher who felt free to comment on our personal hygiene. "Someone in here does not smell exactly like a sweet lily!" she would boom, her nostrils twitching delicately.

But that was a relatively small part of her story. Mrs White retired after teaching my primary 5 class and on the day she left my mother wrote to her. The letter did not berate Mrs White for her stormtrooper assaults on my self-concepts. We didn't have self-concepts when I was a lad. Rather, it thanked her for feeding my interest in science. She certainly encouraged me.

She may well have been the only primary teacher I had who had any significant scientific knowledge. In primary 5 I wrote a "When I grow up" story that had me as a science teacher (a head of department, no less). Other aspects of the essay were wider of the mark. My wife is not called Elsie and I am unlikely ever to father twins, own a dog or run a Mercedes-Benz.

Mrs White read to us with humour and feeling every Friday afternoon. She tried to instil an interest in nature, though here she would often revert to hectoring. "Has anyone noticed that the coltsfoot is in bloom? Does anyone know what a coltsfoot looks like?" Perhaps we had been too busy watching ITV, galoots that we were.

Mrs White would be in her late 80s if she is still alive. I met her after I started teaching and I like to think that she was pleased with my career choice. I should have told her that I did read most of the book on the young Walter Scott she gave me when I was 10, although I have yet to tackle Ivanhoe.

Mrs White was flawed - who isn't? - and it is easier to tell anecdotes illustrating these flaws than it is to put into words what was so good about her. She was a sweet old lady who turned into a wolf every now and again but I always knew she'd turn back before she bit me.

Gregor Steele Gregor Steele's "When I grow up" story predicted that his favourite television programme would be Paul Temple. Who?

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