Is it You, Miss?

I have been reading Robert Scholes Introduction to Protocols of Reading and I had intended to consider in this post his contention that

what we get from reading is precisely balanced by what we give.

I will come back and write that post at some point, because while I agree with him in general, I think I would like to suggest that there are instances when that isn’t always the case.  However, in one of those serendipitous moments that occur in the life of any reader I had at least one truth of what Scholes say brought forcible home to me this morning and I would like to share it with you.

I was over in Stratford having tea in the riverside cafe at the the theatre when a young woman came up to me, very tentatively (probably because I’d got my nose in a book) and said, “Excuse me, but it is Miss D—–, isn’t it?”

This is a moment every primary teacher dreads, because while it is flattering to think that you have changed so little that they can still recognise you, the same is never going to be true of them.  Fortunately, I had my reading glasses on which gave me the excuse to fumble just long enough for Katherine to identify herself.  We last met twenty-four years ago, when she was an eleven year old in my Year 6 class and now here she was with husband and two year old son in tow.  I think it made both of us feel old.

Pleasantries over Katherine sat herself down and declared, “I had to come and speak to you, you made such an impression on me.” An ambiguous statement if ever there was one.  I hastened to venture that I hoped it had been a good one, which is when she said this.

“Oh yes.  You taught me that reading could be fun.  You taught me to love poetry and to love putting my own stories into words.  And now I’m teaching him” nodding to her son, “because I want him to have the joy that I have had.”

Excuse me while I weep all over again because what greater accolade could any teacher ever have.  Whatever I gave her came back to me a thousand fold this morning.

In fact, I remembered Katherine very well.  She was the quieter, less confident of two sisters and a pleasure to have in class.  Marie, four years her elder, was very different indeed.  I will never forget the time a visiting academic offered to teach a creative writing lesson to her class of nine and ten year olds and completely misread the level at which they were working.  He (let’s call him Mr Atkinson) gave them a series of simple sentences and asked them to sequence them into a story.  Polite children as they were, they humoured him and did it in about one tenth of the time he had anticipated.  Panicking a bit, he floundered around and then suggested that they write their own version of the tale by embellishing the sentences he’d given them, one of which was The Hero arrived.  Marie wrote:

The hero’s name was Mr Atkinson and he was very rich, but he wasn’t very tall, he had short brown curly hair and wore glasses.

If you analyse that it’s actually very clever.  Marie knew all the fairy tale conventions well enough to subvert them and she had also read the situation well enough to realises that while Mr Atkinson clearly knew very little about nine and ten year olds he had got enough of a sense of humour to appreciate what she was doing.

Marie was a delight to teach in many ways too, although I never needed to convince her that reading and writing were good things.  However, we remember Katherine in this house for something else entirely because it was Katherine who introduced us to Christopher Bear and suggested that he might like to come and live with us.  As she stood up to leave this morning I said to her, “Please remember me to Marie and your parents and when I get home I will tell Christopher Bear I’ve seen you and he will be thrilled.”  I wish you could have seen her face as she realised that I still had the Bear she had given me, that he was still loved and still valued.  That was a gift in itself.

I will take these memories with me next week when I go into hospital.  I shouldn’t be away long, it’s only for tests this time, but things might be a bit quiet round here for a few days.  With luck I’ll be back at the type face by next weekend.

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18 thoughts on “Is it You, Miss?

  1. That’s a wonderful story, a real testament to the value of your teaching and sharing your love of reading! I think it is great that she seized the moment to come and tell you in person what you had meant to her. I am also very impressed by your memory! I’m glad you have these nice thoughts to take with you to the hospital (and I hope you will have a bear tucked in somewhere too).

    1. Thank you, Rohan, Toseland Bear is coming with me. You may remember, he is the Bear who wants to grow up to be a Herbearlist. I think modern methods might be a bit too much for him:)

  2. How wonderful to have had such a positive impact not just on this young woman, but now on her own child as well – a testament to your gifts as a teacher. I hope that your hospital stay goes well, and that you have some good books lined up for comfort and distraction.

    1. Thank you, Lisa. I have a couple of new crime novels I’ve been saving. I suspect that whatever is done to me there will be people in those going through far worse:)

  3. What a wonderul story. I often wish I’d gone into teaching instead of the madness which is the IT department I work in. Hope your tests go well and look forward to your next post.

    1. Thank you Nicola. And you know it’s never to late to think about becoming a teacher. One of the very best I was involved in training was in her fifties before she started. She had always wanted to teach but her husband was dead set against it. When he left her for a maths teacher (yes, really) she picked herself up and became an excellent primary teacher.

  4. What an affirming story about the importance of teaching – and how wonderful for your student that you still had Christopher Bear! I tried it for five years and it wasn’t for me – librarianship is a better fit – so I have the utmost respect for those who do it well and love it. Best of luck with all of the tests next week – I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

    1. If teaching isn’t for you then trying to make it work must be so hard. You definitely did the right thing, Naomi. And thanks for your good wishes.

  5. I hope all is going well with your tests and that you are back with us soon! What a great story. It testifies to what a legacy you have left with your students. And it’s one that will be passed on to a new generation!

  6. Alex, what a lovely encounter. I’m coming to this post late and see that everybody has said what I wanted to say, but you sound like the best possible teacher, and it’s wonderful that Katherine ran into you!

    I hope all your tests go well.

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