I always wanted to be an English teacher, since I first started school, and I was one of the fortunate people who actually achieved her childhood ambition. As a child I played teacher -schoolchild games with myself over the summer holidays, marking my work, going through pages and pages of workbooks which my mother bought for me, and sad little person that I was, I really enjoyed it. For recreation I would play chess or draughts changing seats to opposite sides of the table and if I really had a lot of time, I would play Monopoly sitting on four chairs in turn. Never a dull moment. One of me would always win!
After primary school I was a boarder at a convent school in Ealing. I did not like it much at first, but I had some inspirational teachers – and some dreadful ones, if I am to be honest – but once I got to the sixth form I seemed to come into my own. I had friends, and time to read books and the freedom to do as I pleased in the afternoons and evenings, as eventually I became the only boarder.
I had a bedroom next to the library and my own bathroom. Bliss. My mother had to pay 1/6 (one shilling and sixpence) for every extra bath I took in the week – one was included in the fees, but I loved a little wallow after school and before tea. No other time was allowed, and I wasn’t permitted to wash my hair. Luckily, it was very short!
But I digress. As I say I wanted to be a teacher, and the nuns somehow knew this. One day in winter it was of course very cold. As a sixth former I had quite a few free periods and I think we were supposed to spend them studying in the sixth form common room, but I don’t remember that ever happening. We gossiped, ate toast, and drank enough coffee to keep Nescafe in business. But I was cold – my knees were blue (I still wore long socks); I didn’t possess a vest and the school cardigan was thin. I’d ditched my blazer some time ago – it was very uncomfortable even if made from Pure New Wool. So, I had a brain wave. I would go to my room and go to bed, nice and snug under my two quilts – one my father’s khaki army quilt which was ugly but warm, and my satin blue one which was left over from my toddler days.
And so, I did. I settled in quite comfortably -fully dressed of course – I think I may have taken my shoes off and began to read. I felt safe and secure and warm -ish. My book was a nonconfiscatable one (the nuns did a good line in borrowing what I brought in), but I was doing English A level and we had to read some unsuitable literature for that.
Anyway, I had just got to an interesting bit, when there was a peremptory rap at the door and Reverend Mother walked in.
“Oh, here you are, dear, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
I was getting redder and redder, thinking she had come to tell me off. No one had ever said I mustn’t use my room during the day, but even so….
I didn’t know whether to get out of bed and stand up or to apologise or what. But she didn’t give me a chance to say anything.
“I’m so glad I’ve found you,” she said. “You’re not ill, are you?”
“No…o…” I managed.
“Oh good, then get up now, dear, because one of the teachers is ill and I want you to take the class.”
And so, I did. Just like that. 17 years old, crumpled and untidy, I went to take a class of ten-year-olds and teach them English.
I loved it.
I did it several times after that – and no, I did not get paid.
But one of the little girls must have told her mother about it, who then contacted the school, and asked if I could come and teach her little brother after school.
Private tuition, half a crown an hour. Plus, some delicious minestrone soup. (The family was Italian!) I met the girl a couple of years ago – my goodness she had aged – but then again so have I, I suppose. These events happened fifty years ago, exactly.
Then another family found out about my skills and this time they were friends of my father. The daughter – who I am still in touch with – was a few years younger than me but I used to go and help her brother with his homework. Again, for half a crown an hour. BRILLIANT. After a half term or so I was able to go to Miss Selfridge and buy myself the most beautiful floor length black coat, which kept me oh so warm over the next few years. (It didn’t go down too well in Madrid where I went for my Christmas holiday. I was constantly being followed and pestered in the street by young lads who though it was hilarious to shout “cura” after me. Cura Cura Cura – eventually someone explained that I looked like a padre or a priest. I wasn’t used to being called after, but even more annoying, cura or Kura – the same pronunciation – means chicken in Polish. Not that they would have known that. But that’s what came to mind initially.
Happily, I left school with teaching and private tuition experience in place. Eventually I became a proper teacher, of sorts, and offered private tuition in addition, usually when we were very hard up. I had lots of fun and some weird and wonderful students. More of them perhaps another time.
But I just wanted to tell you about the photo at the top of the page.
When my two oldest children were at university, I did four or five slots a week after school. I used to go to one delightful family –Papa was French, and Mama was Polish. The children were little scamps but adorable. I would go after school to their ramshackle house in Acton, and endeavour to teach the children whilst talking to the mother and savouring the delicious food she gave me. I was always starving, and this particular family took this delightfully and heart-warmingly into account. They were always very complimentary about everything, and so I went week in and week out. The father was rarely there – he was a chef – hence the fantastic food, but one day as I was leaving, he had just come home. I was at the door, putting on my coat and hat, and he looked me up and down and said “Non. Non, non, non.”
I was a bit bemused until he pointed at my hat. “Take it off, please. It doesn’t suit you.” Then he rummaged in the hall cupboard, with no success. He called his wife and asked her to find something. She brought him a round velvet hat. He took mine from my hands and proceeded to adjust hers on my head. I was a bit non-plussed, but paralysed. Then he stood back, and said, “Much better, isn’t it?” to both me and his wife. We both had to agree.
I was in quite a state of shock – private tuition has never been the same since! But I kept the hat, as you can see – it has a lovely rim which keeps the rain from my glasses. And his wife reassured me the next time I went that she never wore it. So last week I dug it out. I can’t manage a mask and hearing aids and glasses and an umbrella all at the same time. The hat has come into its own.