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Woman for all seasons

She won't be heading home this Christmas, so one South African-born teacher will celebrate it her way - with a barbecue in the garden. Leo Bown reports

Happy Christmas, Mrs Kidson," shouts the small boy, palm outstretched with his seasonal offering for his teacher. A curried chicken foot. Well, it's different - and for Vanessa Kidson things will be very different this Christmas. She won't be going home to her native South Africa, and she's working out how to make the best of a British festive holiday this year.

Vanessa, 28, has been teaching English in London for almost three years. It's been an interesting transition from the Eastern Cape to Bishopshalt secondary school in the London borough of Hillingdon, where she works as learning intervention co-ordinator. Previously, all she knew about the area was that it was near Heathrow airport. Our Christmas traditions also came as a a shock. "I couldn't believe the number of curtains left open to show off people's Christmas trees. If you did that back home you'd almost certainly get your house burgled."

Vanessa's nickname in the English department is "Miss Honey", an affectionate reference to her mop of blonde hair and the way that she glides serenely around the classroom. Things haven't always been this calm, however.

For a start, there was the language. "I arrived on the first day of the summer term to be told by the head of PSHE to wait for the pips from the tannoy, and then go to her office," says Vanessa. "I'd never heard of a tannoy before, and thought she was talking about apple pips. I had no idea what a Biro was either. It didn't take the children long to work out that I wasn't from around here." She realised, equally quickly, that it was pointless trying to fool her pupils. "You just have to enjoy yourself, and all the differences that you bring to the classroom. You have to be adaptable and willing to let the kids correct you. They will probably ask you for things you've never even heard of; you need to laugh at yourself a lot."

Vanessa found herself surrounded by unfamiliar classroom materials - including the pens whose name she found so confusing at first. "All these resources are something I'd really miss if I went back to teaching in South Africa.

"It's also fantastic to get the chance to do all this subject-specific training. This wouldn't have been possible in South Africa as supply teachers are unheard of in the Eastern Cape. There just wouldn't have been anyone to take my lessons."

She's enjoying Christmas in England. "There have been so many things going on at school; it's something that definitely brightens up a dull time of the year." She's been busy creating a Christmas hamper with her Year 8 form for the Santa's grotto at Hillingdon hospital children's ward.

It is all very different from the kind of Christmas Vanessa used to have with her students back in South Africa. "The children would bring in whatever they could afford. It was a very mixed area, so a lot of the students came from very deprived backgrounds. The Xhosa people made up a large section of the local community, and the students brought in a lot of their tribal food at Christmas; it was delicious."

Vanessa and her husband, Dale, who works for the BBC, plan to be in the garden on Christmas Day enjoying a festive South African tradition, the braai (barbecue). "The weather is bound to be dreadful," says Vanessa. "We'll be fine though; we'll be tucking into a leg of lamb with rosemary and mint marinade."

And perhaps dreaming of a white sandy beach along the spectacular Eastern Cape coast.

Leo Bown is a former drama teacher

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