Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fifty years ago

This picture has nothing to do with anything. It's my plant table in the sitting room and behind it you see proof that I've swept up some more of the fallen leaves. Nothing particular has happened today but a comment about my piano teacher being like Miss Jean Brodie (she's NOT - she's lovely) made my mind spin back fifty years... .

Fifty years ago I was in my first senior year at an Edinburgh girls’ school - not unlike Marcia Blaine’s, as featured in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Our headmistress, Miss J, was tall and thin. She had masses of grey hair swept into a bun and she glared down her hooked nose at any girl who happened to wander in range. She was renowned for her snobbery. Once she stopped my friend Christine in the corridor – it was a hot day and Christine had the sleeves of her school shirt rolled up. “You look,” hissed Miss J, “like a washerwoman!

Another time – when we were moving to a new building - another friend, Mary, came in from the street where a van was being loaded. Miss J was standing inside, arms folded, supervising operations. Mary said timidly, “Miss J, a gentleman outside wants to talk to you.”

 Miss J sniffed. “Do you mean a gentleman?” she enquired frostily, “or a workman?”

We weren’t allowed to use the word “teacher”: Miss J insisted that we say “mistresses” or “masters” – though in fact there was only one master - surprisingly (in an all-girls school) the biology teacher. And we weren’t divided into “classes” – we had to use the word “forms”.

Almost all the mistresses were unmarried and unbelievably ancient – or so we thought. Now I realise that since they retired at 60, even the oldest must have been younger than I am now.

 A particularly memorable lady, Miss C, taught us history. She was known to us as “Granny C” though she was unmarried and we never imagined that she might have had any romantic life. She had a mat of suspiciously black (for one so ancient) hair. We thought it was a wig but maybe it just looked wig-like because it was bundled into a hairnet.

Miss C was always cold. She wore a thick tweed suit in all seasons and would come into the form room, ask someone to shut the windows and then settle herself facing the radiator, a rug over her knees. She would then proceed to teach us by dictating notes as she massaged lotion into her hands. We were extremely well-behaved. Years later, a teacher myself at a comprehensive school and trying to cope with classes of up to thirty-nine (very) lively pupils, I would fleetingly remember Miss C sitting in peace, rubbing her hands and murmuring meditatively, “Nelson won at Trafalgar because he had – remember, girls? – long range guns firing broadsides.”






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  2. You have unleashed similar memories. Our headmistress wished we were of a higher calibre and insisted on teaching us Ancient Greek, but then failed to make it to many of our lessons. I was severely upbraided for being seen out without my octagonal beret. Unfortunately she used to drive past me as I toiled up a very steep hill every day.We had mistresses and forms too,starting rather oddly with the Third form at age 11 and moving through upper and lower forms until 6B and 6A. Mystifying.

  3. Loved this. You write so well.

  4. Hope you don't mind, but your idea inspired me. Have credited you in my post!

  5. That sounds just like my (also all-girls school), except I had one tiny, secret joy, which I never shared.
    My headmistress had been taught, when she was a young girl, by my great aunt. My great aunt had disliked her, and would say disparagingly "She should never have been put in charge of pupils!"

  6. I am so relieved to read this post. I have been in agonies of guilt over stereotypical comments. I am also much intrigued by the rug and hand-cream. I can immediately think of classes where the shock factor of the rug and hand-cream might actually work. Yes. I think I shall pack some into my bag forthwith. The tweed suit is not so readily to hand (no weak pun intended).

  7. Teachers were all ancient in those days!

  8. We must be exactly the same age, and you have brought back many memories of my ancient unmarried " mistresses" at my girls' grammar school. The latin teacher was Miss Todd, and she wore tweed long straight skirts, twin set, flat lace up shoes, and had short, straight white hair. She was lovely, and I enjoyed learning latin. I am sure a knowledge of latin has helped more than all the weird maths. Logarithms comes to mind! I don't think I have ever used that knowledge, but latin has certainly helped more than once in pub quizzes etc!

  9. I always love your posts Isabelle! I really cam't speak to your school experience, as it was so different to mine, but I love hearing stories about your life. I'm also always amazed at your memory! I don't remember the fine details about my childhood like you do - only the big snippets!