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How it all began.
I’ve been actively engaged in educational systems since I was three years old. That’s over 60 years now. It sounds funny writing it down like that. I suppose you could say I’ve never been out of education. It’s always been there – in my blood so to speak. I never wanted to be anything else other than a teacher. I wasn’t particularly bothered about the subject – it turned out mostly to be English, German, Psychology and Music in secondary schools in this country – it was people I wanted to work with, and more specifically, children.
I was a child with distinct gifts and talents and lacunae of deficits – musically precocious from an early age, linguistically active from the age of eight months and very determined to write things down: from the age of three I kept a notebook about the world around me; but having little or no mathematical ability, or spatial reasoning, my ‘intelligence’ was deemed odd by my teachers, my parents and myself, and I didn’t fit easily into the boxes created for me. I think that’s where it all began, my passion for education. I sometimes felt so frustrated and confused by the systems containing me, so I would dream in the classroom, pay little attention and always, until the age of sixteen, had school-reports that criticised my shortcomings and rarely praised my gifts. I felt abused, although it was instinctive rather than conscious. Many of my teachers were kind and sensitive and, looking back, I can see they did try to help me, but my lingering sense of my earlier education is of disappointment, both in the systems and in myself because I simply didn’t fit in.
I think that may be the background for my first story. The stories I am about to relate are not necessarily sequential, but the first one marks a beginning of sorts. And it’s not a story about me, it’s a story about the relationship I had with my brother, Ali, who was diagnosed as autistic (amongst other things) at the age of four.
I start from the premise that every human being is gifted and talented. That’s not a wishy-washy liberal wishful thinking, but my awareness and observation of the nature of being human. My brother is a case in point. Unable to talk until the age of five, he lived in a different reality. Labels like autistic, psychotic, morbidly withdrawn, were ricocheted around like a spray gun, sticking onto every interaction in his vulnerable little life. I think he was a genius. So far off the scale of gifted and talented that the words became meaningless. For those ‘silent’ years, he occupied a reality in which music lived as corporeally as the objects psychologists presented him with to measure his intelligence. How do I know? Well, that’s where my gifts and talents came in.
Alastair is eleven years younger than me. An unwanted third child, and a boy to boot – my father wanted girls who could wait on him, and my mother didn’t want another child at all: she was in her forties and life taxed her – my brother spent the first years of his life engaged in rituals to keep him safe. He retreated (emerged?) into another land in which the language was music, the landscape was audible, and his journey somewhere ineffable and yet substantive and fulfilling to him. Yes, of course, there was something awry about him. He wasn’t happy. This registered itself in what appeared to be autistic routines, rocking backwards and forwards listening to music for hours, exhibiting tantrums of terrifying proportions if his routines were disturbed, never making eye-contact and seeming most of the time to be oblivious of the presence of others. He built a fortress of music around him, drew up the ramparts, and lived inside, safe, untouchable and untouched.
I wanted to touch him. When I was thirteen and fourteen, I would come home from school and go straight up to his room, where he’d be listening to Bach and Mozart, Richard Strauss sometimes. Don Juan, Strauss’ tone-poem, was his favourite. He’d listen to it over and over again, working a record-player that no one had ever shown him how to use, sitting on the floor, vulnerable, alone, abandoned it seemed, rocking his little life away. I would stand in the doorway of his bedroom, his prison cell, and watch him. I could feel his abilities oozing through the silence. Everyone would talk about him as a misfit, as a weirdo. Best thing for him would be to go into a home where specialists could give him the proper care and attention, they said. My mother started to say it. My father was ashamed of his ‘retarded’ son and didn’t want the neighbours to know how he spent his days. When people came to visit, Alastair was just ‘upstairs’. He’d be down later. Of course, he never arrived.
People tinkered with my brother all the time. This test here. That test there. No one, it seemed to me in my adolescent certainty, spent any time trying to join him, trying to reach him. A battery of tests and the best doctors don’t equal cure. Love equals cure. And what was ‘the cure’ anyway? Everyone was assuming that he was dysfunctional, and that word described the whole of who he was. I knew, from such an early age, that this wasn’t fair. This wasn’t fully human. Alastair was far more than the sum of his apparently dysfunctional parts. He had this phenomenal gift. I saw and heard evidence of it everyday. He would listen to a Mozart symphony, for example, say the fortieth, that bastion of hope against life’s despair, and then sing it through, all twenty minutes of it, note by note in perfect timing and pitch. I once played him a Schubert symphony and after this first hearing, he sang it through afterwards, note for note. I’d never heard anything like it. He would sit under the keyboard of my piano as I picked out complex Bach fugues, and would sing the dominant voice, emphasizing how it ought to sound. My brother was a genius.
So, I started a regimen of love with him. It was purposive. It wasn’t a gushing of feeling that I had to expiate. Rather it was an insight into the nature and purpose of love itself. I channeled my love into reaching my brother in ways which didn’t violate his super-sensitive sense of space and boundaries. I sat with him hour after hour after hour listening to his music with him, not trying to get him to be outward about it, not trying to get him to do anything. I just wanted to become part of his world so that he could show me what it was like.
Alastair’s world was truly beautiful, graced by serenity and multi-dimensional realities. He rejected physical contact, but gradually, through the two years of this ‘programme’ he began to allow me to sit with my arm around him and would occasionally stop rocking during this contact. I would sometimes chat to him now, not expecting answers, not expecting anything, just showing him that I loved him unconditionally. His fortress was beginning to crumble, but I was acutely aware that with the dissolution of his fortress, erected from his life’s blood and sense of reality, he would have to have something else to replace it with otherwise he would knock down the walls to be with me, and might face a new reality that would destroy him. I didn’t know how I knew this, I just knew it. It made every action I performed with him seem acute to me. I was trying to build a bridge. This bridge, however, had to be one he was also building. This mutual effort would result in something durable, that would withstand him climbing out of his exile. I mustn’t simply try to get him to reject everything from his world but encourage him to bring the beautiful things with him. His musical talent, his gentleness, his innocence, his brilliant, enquiring mind, indeed his personhood - all those were strengths he would need in the world of others too. So, I set about making his world our world. For several months, I set up possibilities for him to listen to music in my bedroom not just in his. I had stacks of story-books in both rooms.
What struck me at the time was how certain I was, even at the ages of thirteen to fifteen, of the rightness of what I was doing. I KNEW I was right. This wasn’t arrogance, but a different kind of knowledge from the ones being used around me all the time. It was a knowledge borne of love, out of love, for the sake of love. I don’t mean I always felt this love as an emotion. Sometimes, like any teenager, I was selfish and wanted my own way and got impatient. I failed my own insights.
However, generally, this period of my life was to ground my future almost entirely. After such an experience, I could never again wholly commit myself to other people’s knowledge or scientific rigour not precipitated by personal experience and mediated through love. I felt I was right passionately. I experienced the nuances of changes in Alastair’s behaviour on a daily basis. One day, for example, after listening together to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, I clapped at the end. He joined in. It was a moment of pure revelation to me. And I caught him, surreptitiously, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I purposely didn’t grab the occasion, for fear of frightening him off in his foray into unknown territory but smiled gently and turned away with a beating heart. The next day, he looked at me for a couple of seconds and then he turned away smiling.
The greatest breakthrough came one evening when I was reading him our accustomed bed-time story. He was five years and seven months old. I was telling him a fairy-story and my custom was to tell the story and ask questions, which I would answer myself or just leave. Anyway, I asked him, ‘Who’s married to the king?’
‘Queen!’ he exclaimed, as if he’d been talking forever.
‘The Queen!’ he tried again, gently. He was looking at me now, his eyes wide and trusting and enquiring. He’d finished making his side of the bridge at last and had joined it onto mine. There was no flaw in the joining. We were brother and sister in the same reality. I could feel it. He was home.
When we talk about that time, Alastair tells me that my presence was felt as hope and happiness in his lonely world. He doesn’t remember much about the earlier months, but he remembers the later ones and the awakening during the story-time. He remembers my presence more than anything that happend. This only confirms my sense that the process and the outcome of his development were mediated through love.
This story has the power of myth to me. It exists both as a true story and as a source of personal epistemology and ontology. I am because he is. He is because I am. This reality has infused itself into everything I have ever done in the name of education and in the service of humanity. The lessons I learnt, the processes I underwent with Alastair were the blueprint, the real thing, not the shadows of Plato’s cave.
If I am talented or gifted, the quality – which is a kind of empathy I suppose – first came alive through its encouragement of my brother’s emergence into the world, and of my own emergence into my own humanity. It is this humanity I try to bring with me and through me into education. It underlies my passion for fairness, for empowerment, for people to speak for themselves about those things, which concern them. It explains my deep sense of discomfort when I see people shackled to their own sense of disempowerment, and when I see the people who would shackle them.
And by the way, today, my brother is happily married, with a full-time job, living on the east coast of England. He is 55 years old.
I first met Frau Rosen in the early autumn days of 1972 in Oxford at my German teacher’s home. I was studying German ‘A’ Level and had enjoyed growing into a new world that learning a language can offer. I already adored English Romantic poetry, Wordsworth and Keats, especially Keats with his autumn mists and mellow fruitfulness. I had no idea of real life and thought that the highest aspirations of my existence should be to sit in a warm room and gaze out on the apple trees and moss-cottag’d trees. I was in love with Wordsworth’s still sad music of humanity as well, believing then that true wisdom always derived from a kind of sweet melancholy. The part of Oxford Mrs. Rosen inhabited was poetically leafy and substantially English too, reminiscent of Betjeman’s suburban lyrics.
Mrs. Findley was our ‘A’ Level German teacher who had joined us for our first term in the upper sixth. Floridly enthusiastic about German poetry, her brisk and breathless manner turned her three disciples onto Schiller and Goethe and all manner of poetry, and her spirit cut swathes through the stuffy and antiquated education we enjoyed at this middle-class technical high school. Mrs. Findley played us Beethoven, Schumann and Schubert to show us something of the cultural backgrounds as well, and we drank it in, aware that these days were halcyon ones, so we had to make the most of them. Every lesson, every encounter with her was a pearl in the crusty oysters of our lives, and we knew it.
I was studying music as well for ‘A’ Level and loved reading a play like ‘Egmont’ by Goethe and listening to Beethoven’s overture of the play. Mrs. Findley opened a world to my spirited imagination. All three of us worshiped this teacher of Jewish German origins, who told us sporadically about her past, interleaving her rhapsodies about Goethe’s poetry with narratives about her memories of being rushed through Germany into Denmark as a young child, through hushed black skies, dropping her little doll and crying when her mother wouldn’t allow her to run back for it, crouching in safe-houses, watching the haloed moon through threadbare curtains and missing home. Always missing home.
Mrs. Findley’s lessons were less ‘A’ Level German than a spoken diary of other lives. We were hooked. Our youthful girlish imaginations (this was an all-girls state school) were galvanised by thoughts of our teacher being a child-heroine, coming through her trials and yearning for something better and fighting for self-determination against a backdrop of horrors. We wove all sorts of myths around and about her in break-times and over study-periods. As our love of her developed, we had her being jilted in love at a young age but persevering through it all; her presentation to us one afternoon of her clearly much-loved husband and tales of an adopted Black daughter Ginny debunked that particular myth and rather disappointed us. We didn’t like to think of her living a normal suburban life with normal suburban people, but I held out with thoughts of Ginny, though, and wanted to ask about her and how they came to adopt her and why. I imagined, knowing it was foolish but unable to help it, that Mr. and Mrs. Findley had rescued Ginny from a tribal king somewhere in Africa and brought the little princess home to a disappointing life in drizzly Oxford. Although now, this dark princess lived away in a home of her own somewhere else in Oxford.
During the lessons Mrs. Findley talked to us mostly in German and I had already demonstrated lower down the school a particular zeal and aptitude for spoken German, so much so that I was commandeered in my free lessons in the lower sixth form to give oral German classes to lower year-groups, which I enjoyed tremendously, as I felt it almost gave me equal status with my beloved teacher. I would find every opportunity to discuss with her all sorts of methodological dilemmas I was supposedly having, but actually wasn’t of course, because these were refined middle-class girls I was teaching and in mere clusters of two or three as well! I am sure now she must have seen right through me, but she always talked to me, to all of us, as equals and took us all seriously in our adolescent fervour and ignorance. Her belief in the absolute equality of all people was in every action and in everything we discussed. She talked vividly and memorably about this, and much else. She talked about how she knew at first-hand the evils of believing otherwise, how a beloved cousin had ended up at Sachsenhausen and another at Belsen, together with two aunts and an uncle at Auschwitz. Rosemary and Hazel, my two co-conspirators in impressing Mrs. Findley, would listen, hands supporting heads, eyes fixed on her face, tears in eyes, as she talked to us about what she had learned in her life.
It wasn’t that she burdened us with horrors we could not cope with as a way of unburdening herself, rather it was a narrative told by a heroine who does not see her own heroism, generously giving us the benefit of herself in her life-experiences, actions rare in a teacher. The reality of what she was doing did permeate my foolishly romantic mind and I felt myself the recipient of truths, of real pearls of wisdom that might never come my way again. Such experiences – escaping the Holocaust – and settling in two new countries – Denmark and England – had seared themselves into her with a desire to be a teacher so that these things could never happen again. We felt we were being woven into living history, so we listened with the zeal of disciples.
First-hand narratives of one of the key events in 20th century history were told to us in her elegant Hoch Deutsch or in her schooled Queen’s English, and all the while we were aware of her being right there amongst us in our classroom, her frizzled hair brushed aside when making a particularly cogent point, as if to clear her inner vision. We knew she wasn’t always looking at us, though, but at her past, in a bid, perhaps, to reclaim it, to force a different complexion on it. She had dark brown eyes, shrewd and kind, and a mouth that was generous and, we all thought, pretty, curved and plump. It wasn’t so much her physical person that impressed us as the glamour of a life so unutterably different from our own. We were stupid and ignorant enough to find her stories exciting and thrilling, because she talked of things of which we were entirely ignorant. We were safe in our classroom, but she was a wizard, magicking excitement and wonder out of her mind. We would sit breathless, hoping she might never stop, because once she stopped, our dull, programmatic lives, would intrude again.
We had winkled out of her when it was her birthday, as we were looking at a story in which horoscopes were detailed. She asked us for our star-signs and so we engineered the conversation around to discovering her birthday so we could buy her a present. We found her a first-edition copy of the collected poems of Schiller. It was a beautiful book: I remember it so clearly now, decades after the event. Bound in soft, shiny jade-green leather and gold-leafed, with a ribbed binding which we thought was so elegant, you opened the cover and were greeted by sharp Gothic script, pointed and dipped in gold announcing the complete poems; further in there were illustrations, or rather copies, of wood-engravings with each one covered with a film of light paper to protect it. Each poem began with a florid single capital letter in ancient script dipped in gold-leaf, with an integral picture that depicted something of the subject-matter of the poem.
The book hadn’t been easy to find, but Hazel’s father was luckily an antiquarian bookseller, and had located it. I don’t think he passed onto us the true price, as we only had to give a few pounds each, but we presented it to her, eyes shining, giggling like little girls in a conspiracy, which I suppose in fact we were. She opened it, lifting away the paper from the book, and, her face wreathing in lines and delight, she hugged each one of us, and we were all filled with immense joy at such a happy day. We would have rushed out and bought her a hundred such books if that moment could be relived, but I think we all realised how precious and unrepeatable it was because we never spoke of it, and if anything, we grew a little quieter now, a little less girlish and silly, a little more grown-up, leaving the silliness of childhood but not the sweetness of it, behind us.
She turned in her book to a particular page that it was obvious she wanted to find. Her mouth began moving to the words she was reading, and we looked at each other and grinned because she seemed to have forgotten us.
‘’Der Taucher’,’ she said eventually. ‘‘The Diver.’ It’s one of Schiller’s best. You’ve got it in your books. Have a look for it. Let’s have a read, eh.’
‘It’s not on the syllabus, is it?’ Rosemary asked. Rosemary was the least enthusiastic of the three of us about Mrs. Findley’s teaching methods. A tall and striking girl, Rosemary was the most down-to-earth with her spectacles, neat curls and immaculate uniform suggesting a greater conformity than Hazel and me. I was the untidiest of the three, always with socks curling up round my ankles and falling asleep, always being reminded to pull them up in both senses of the word, always doing most of my homework at the last minute – except the German, of course! I could be very disciplined when it was for something significant! Hazel stood between Rosemary and me in always being able to see both points of view – and acting as a peacemaker and arbitrator. She was the one who remembered quotations when they had faded from our minds. She was the one who had an uncanny knack of picking out the right idea for our homework, which we often did together for German and English, subjects we held in common. Rosemary was the one who remembered dates and times and deadlines, crucial skills in negotiating a successful sixth-form life.
And I? I’d like to say I chose the road less travelled by, but I seem to have memories of only floating through the sixth form on a series of romantic poems and melodies with my head in the clouds, believing that this was superior to real life, yet at the same time having a nagging suspicion that Mrs. Findley’s lived experiences weren’t simply history. She grounded my insights without ever knowing she was doing it. She allowed me my floating, rather whimsical approach to life and poetry and music. Indeed, she seemed to value me being away with the fairies at times. She was a rare adult in my world, because she always showed me she liked me as I was. As a confused and very unhappy adolescent she was a godsend.
So, we come to the reading of The Diver, otherwise Der Taucher, which is a thrilling poem, or at least it was when she taught it. Even reading round the class was something she’d make interesting. She took us into the big hall, where sound resonated. Our big hall was the place in which our beloved headmistress would regale us with our misdemeanours once a day together with appropriate hymns and meaningful readings.
Once, when one of the girls had gone for a swim out of lesson-times and unsupervised, the next day, our headteacher Miss B. had us all sing the hymn ‘for those in peril on the sea’. Another time a girl, Milly, in our house (each year group had ‘houses’ that competed against each other in a bid, no doubt, to bring out the excellence within) was building a stage-set for Noah’s Ark, a musical we were putting on – the story in modern times – and she sawed through a very expensive piece of wood in the wrong place trying to make a cross to set at the Ark’s helm. The next day in Assembly we all had to sing, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. Milly cried. We tried to reassure her it was a coincidence, but it probably wasn’t.
Anyway, we were in the hall with Mrs. Findley who was declaiming something by Heinrich Heine, probably ‘Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen’ knowing her – she was crazy about Heine. She told us to throw our voices, to become part of the words and sounds and our surroundings. We giggled a bit but respected her too much to make a mess of it and after a few minutes, we were declaming too, and it was all very exciting because we’d never done it properly before. The moment when the sounds and the spaces between the sounds and our abilities to make the sounds became one, was something I will never forget. She enabled us to inhabit the poem and for it to inhabit us. It is only genius that can bring such a quality to her teaching, and Mrs. Findley was a genius.
So, we read the poem, declaming it, although we never had read it before, but with her that didn’t seem to make a difference. She would make no allowances for our ignorance of a poem or a piece of text, expecting us to manage to produce sounds that haunted from a first reading. She expected it, demanded it, and thus it was. I have never quite understood how she managed to turn untried, uncertain and even untalented girls into actresses and artists, but that’s what she did. There was never a possibility that we were going to murder the text, crunch it into small pieces and spit out the remnants as we regularly did in our Shakespeare’s classes, turning Hamlet’s and his existential despair into a street-corner lout with attitude. We were going to produce poetry, being the bridge between the poet and immortality.
We read, then, absorbed entirely in the task as we always were in her lessons, becoming more and more fascinated by the story of an evil king who throws a golden goblet into an abyss as a challenge to his knights, daring them to retrieve it, promising them riches beyond their wildest imaginings. He reneges on the deal, though, and the poor peasant lad who has risen to the challenge dives down again into the deeps and is lost. After several readings, she asked us what it meant. We took her literally and told her an embellished narrative.
‘No, girls, its inner meanings. What does it really mean? What does it symbolise?’ We discussed it together after the lesson as the bell went at this exciting moment and until the next German class there were two days to languish in.
At the beginning of the next lesson, she spoke some lines from the poem, having opened her book but not attending to it.
‘What does it mean girls? Poetry works on every level that human beings work on. Its meanings stretch every part of us.’
‘Is it like a quest-story? Something that everyone has as stories when they’re small.’ I offered.
‘Yes, it’s about that, but what can you say about the characters in the story?’ She delved deeper and deeper, every meaning we evinced, the deeper she dug. It seemed limitless, this tale of psychological insight, of fear and cowardice, of betrayal and valour. It was a story to thrill the gods.
Then it was time to read it again, savour it. If I had been teaching it to impressionable girls I don’t think I could have withstood the temptation to take over in those moments when Schiller describes the waves, lines I have never forgotten to this day for their fearsome depiction of sound and fury:
Und es wallet und siedet und brauset und zischt,
Wie wenn Wasser mit Feuer sich mengt.
(And it boils and it roars, and it hisses and seethes,
The first line describes the movements of the water, but when read aloud the sounds of the words become what they are meant to be. Each of the first three verbs, wallet, siedet, brauset has two syllables and the last one, only one. Zischt. The sound is pure poetry. It is the crashing of water on rocks, or the hiss of boiling water in cold caves. This isn’t a simple use of onomatopoeia, it is, for me, the absolute standard. I always used to read ahead a little on these occasions, and I managed the lines when they fell to me, but only just. I almost came unstuck on the simple monosyllable ‘zischt’ but kept going because I had to. What could make me come unstuck on a word? But that is what happened, because it seared into me as hunters cutting through virgin forest and claiming fresh territory, are in fact claiming a new reality.
I emerged from that lesson changed. It sounds foolish to write such a thing, but it’s true. Afterwards, Mrs. Findley kept me behind, and before that day such an occurrence would have had me trembling with delight but now I felt jittery to the core and it wasn’t an entirely pleasant sensation. I felt unravelled. She praised my reading, and said it had truly moved her.
‘It moved me as well, Miss,’ I said, barely managing to control myself. I had had the experience, new to me, of poetry reading itself to me and not the other way round. She must have seen my emotion because she sent me away without another word.
Mrs. Findley regularly asked students to her home and early in that first term, she asked Rosemary, Hazel and me to visit her on a Saturday. We all lived in different towns and would need to travel on buses to Oxford, but we all agreed it was a treat not to be missed. We planned our arrival with the precision of a military mission. Armed with a suitable small gift, we all converged on Oxford from our different homes and arrived within minutes of each other at the station so that she wouldn’t have long to wait. It was, however, Mr. Findley who arrived to pick us up, however. We were a little disappointed, but he was a poet, so it still charmed us. I noticed Rosemary had a new silk scarf around her neck, pinned with a small cameo, which was old-fashioned even in those days. Hazel was wearing jeans and a woolly jumper, which I thought was a little casual. I was dressed in a new cardigan in a bright scarlet (my favourite colour) with a plaid skirt in a lilac and white check with a matching beret and scarf. I imagined I looked delightful.
We were fairly quiet in the car on the way to Mrs. Findley’s house. We weren’t used to speaking to men particularly, apart from brothers and fathers and this was the man who lived with Mrs. Findley, so we didn’t want to make a bad impression. We’d talked about what it would feel like to be met by her at the bus-station, yet in all our planning Mr. Findley hadn’t figured particularly. And it was Mrs. Findley’s house we were visiting. Mr. Findley lived there purely because he wrote poetry, which seemed to us a reasonable rent.
As we drew into the road we could see the façade of the house was promising: we were all sitting squashed in the back, not any of us wanting to sit up front and break the sisterly solidarity: it was a double-fronted structure, the house, with a gothic tower on one side. We were very impressed, which we communicated wordlessly to each other with nudges and small smiles. The tower would be a marvellous place in which to write poetry, or in my case, music. I could imagine a harpsichord in the middle of the room, from which the light of the heavens would pour in from all sides and inspire sonatas and preludes. All I’d have to do would be to sit there: the room and the heavens would do the rest. The house’s exterior had clearly been recently painted as it stood out from its neighbours in brighter white window-frames and sharper blacks. Mrs. Findley was at the door with a welcoming smile and we stood like a small gaggle of geese on the porch, none wanting to push in first.
‘Are you going to stand there all day?’ Mr. Findley asked unpoetically. We were disappointed. His prose seemed like anyone else’s. He’d asked us about our journeys that morning, whether we were hungry, and what else we studied apart from German. We must have sounded a chorus in the back, saying in unison: English, and then it all became a blur of Music, Art and Geography and then the awkwardness, of ‘you go first,’ ‘no, you!’ I noticed his smile when we got out of the car and I felt acutely embarrassed. I could see how immature we were, but there was nothing I could do about it. I would theorise to myself the chances I wouldn’t giggle, wouldn’t blush, wouldn’t sound intolerably ridiculous when asked the easiest question about myself, but when it all turned into practice I was a bumbling idiot.
Mrs. Findley was dressed casually as well, and I immediately felt out of place. Of course, it was silly of me to dress up for the occasion: I wasn’t going to meet the queen for heaven’s sake, but that’s just it. For me at that time, that’s how it felt. She was a queen and everything about her was special and everything in relationship to her was tinged with greatness. I took off my beret in awkward reverence and skulked inside.
The interior was fairly gloomy, reminiscent of gothic poetry and art, the musings of Catherine Norland from Northanger Abbey. This was encouraging at least. We exchanged happy looks. The hallway led into a kitchen that was chaotic, however. Breakfast things were evident on the table with toast crusts discarded on the floor. We exchanged glances again. Romance was all very well, but we disapproved of poor housekeeping and this was bordering on slovenly. However, where there was a spare slice of wall there were bookcases and we approved of this. Here was order and purpose, we discovered.
‘Just take a look around, girls, Mrs. Findley said, ‘and I’ll tidy up. Goethe out here for when housework becomes too ridiculous, and Schiller and the other German greats in the sitting room. Oh, and look out for some fairly avant-garde authors as well. House points for the first of you to discover the anomalies.’
We were off. This was exactly what we loved about her. She made the slightest moment memorable, gifted with possibility We set off to hunt the anomaly. We knew what she meant by ‘anomaly’, having spent some time in a lesson that week finding ‘anomalies’ in the symbolism of Goethe’s Faust.
‘Who’s Max Brod?’ asked Hazel wielding aloft a volume by someone I’d never heard of.
‘Something to do with Kafka I think,’ said Rosemary. ‘They were friends, or he was Kafka’s publisher, or something.’
‘I can’t stand Kafka!’ I said. ‘He writes awful stuff. Put him next to Schiller and there’s honestly no comparison.’
‘Why compare?’ Mrs. Findley asked, standing in the doorway.
I was stumped and startled as if I’d been discovered in a misdemeanour.
‘I don’t know, it’s just…’ I lacked an argument and knew it, so stopped.
‘Kafka’s a genius,’ she said simply.
‘Why do you say that?’ Hazel asked her. Hazel was the boldest of us, being prepared to say something when we two would rather keep silent.
Mrs. Findley wiped her hands on her drying-up cloth, discarded it on the sofa and sat down beside it, motioning us to sit as well. We did this eagerly, on various chairs strewn about the room, believing another lesson was about to start and we ate up her words like a good meal.
‘Kafka’s voice is unique.’
‘So is Stockhausen’s,’ I said pompously. ‘It doesn’t make it good.’
‘That’s a fine point, Moira,’ she said with a smile. ‘But Kafka can teach us about human beings at their worst and he does it with a rapier-like skill that lays bear all pretensions and slothful attitudes.’
‘But it’s so dark,’ I protested. I didn’t clearly know what I was fighting for, but I was fighting for something.
‘Darkness is a part of the human condition, Moira, and just as worthy of attention by poets and artists and music as any other aspects.’
‘But to dwell on it,’ I said, as if this clinched it.
‘Kafka was a Jew, Moira. He knew suffering from the inside out. His works are an epic ode to human suffering. His voice was unique and remains so.’
This sounded rather grand and I was silenced for the moment, although inside I was thinking that uniqueness doesn’t necessarily denote high quality.
Mr. Findley walked in on us at that moment.
‘Arguing about Kafka again I see,’ he said, bemused. The two exchanged smiles and I was warmed by their obvious mutual affection.
‘Mrs. Findley you see, adores Kafka beyond all reason,’ Mr. Findley said. ‘I, on the other hand, prefer greater rationality and other modernists.’
I didn’t know who or what modernists were but this didn’t prevent me from nodding my head in agreement.
‘Kafka argues from the inside of the situation, from its psychology, not that safe, clinical and sanitised view of the author creating marvellous structures in his imagination and then presenting to us as life.’ She scoffed with disdain, raised eyebrows and amusement. We were thrilled and looked from one to the other as an audience at a particularly exciting bout of tennis.
‘His psychology is a particular psychology,’ Mr. Findley said in measured tones.
‘A Jewish psychology perhaps.’ The tone of the discourse reached different heights, became tauter, less comfortable. We looked at each other now, wondering what was coming next.
‘Wer ist da, Rachel?’ (Who is there?) asked an unknown voice, as an elderly woman hobbled into the room on a stick. Her head was bound in a black scarf and she carried her not inconsiderable bulk awkwardly into the midst of us. We girls immediately leapt out of our seats. She took her stick away from its balancing act and waved it dangerously close to our faces in a dismissive gesture and Mrs. Findley asked us wordlessly to sit down. We obeyed. There was a moment’s silence.
‘Du besprichst Kafka!’ she announced, asking us if we were discussing that novelist.
‘Ja!’ (yes) I answered.
She turned her attention to me then, and looked at me closely, silently, for long moments as I tried to meet her dark, large eyes set in a wrinkled and slightly yellowy face, her mouth taut with some emotion I didn’t understand, her nose aquiline and sharp. I looked down.
‘And what do you make of him?’ she asked me, continuing to speak in German of course.
‘I don’t like him,’ I said fearfully in her language. ‘I think he’s horrible!’
‘Why on earth so?’ she exclaimed, darting her head back with scorn. I felt as if I had committed a capital error and my standing had immediately been reduced to nought.
‘And what poetry do you like?’ she asked me, talking to me as if no one else were in the room and if memory serves, I cannot remember anyone else being there either.
‘I love Schiller,’ I replied.
‘And Goethe too, I trust,’ she said eagerly.
‘Of course!’ I agreed happily. There was laughter in the room somewhere, but I heard it only distantly.
‘Come with me!’ she said, grinding herself to her feet.
I looked round at Mrs. Findley, who smiled at me, shrugging with perfect indifference. I was supposed to go with this lady, I hadn’t a clue where when I really wanted to stay in the sitting room, but I knew I couldn’t refuse, so I climbed unwillingly to my feet and left the room behind the stranger, looking back at the door to a group who seemed already to have forgotten me.
‘Komm, komm,’ she ordered me, heaving her way up the stairs, I gathered, to her own room. As we then started the stairs to climb to a new storey, I realised that she occupied the gothic turret we had noticed before. I was interested to see the room from the inside, but I wasn’t happy about being with this lady, who seemed, in the way she looked and moved and her eyes glowed and widened when piercing my adolescent mask, to be a little mad. The stairway to her domain was carpeted in a lush maroon velvety covering, plain but magisterial.
I was amazed to find a harpsichord in her round castle after all, which gave me quite a jolt, and each wall-surface similarly covered with books. A whole shelf was given to Schiller.
‘Sit down, sit down,’ she said, continuing to speak in German.
‘Thank you,’ I said in my best middle-class attitude, all folded hands, crossed ankles and attentive mind.
She hobbled over to a shelf to retrieve a book and I took the chance to study the room. As I said, each wall was covered with bookshelves. She had a sagging chair near one of the five windows looking out on Oxford’s leafy suburbs, a reading lamp placed on a nearby table. There was an old-fashioned typewriter on a desk strewn with papers and open books. Papers were lying about the floor in a parabola from the desk and it seemed therefore that she was a writer. I started to feel excited, but a little bewildered and hoping that my German was up to the task ahead.
‘Which is your favourite Schiller play?’ she asked suddenly, her tone sharp like a bird that pulls a worm mercilessly from the ground.
‘Um, ‘Maria Stuart’,’ I replied obediently.
‘Of course! It is the correct play for a girl to like. I liked Marie Stuart at your age.’
‘Did you?’ I answered, my German flawless so far, and adding, ‘oh, I see’.
‘Do you?’ she responded, looking at me again with that special attention that seemed to dissect me from the inside out. I felt both uncomfortable and exhilarated at the same time.
‘This one!’ she said, passing me a volume she’d chosen from the many around her. I looked at the title: ‘Schiller, Gesamte Werke, Band 5’. His poetry. This was reassuring. I wasn’t sure I wanted to act parts of ‘Marie Stuart’ in front of her: I was feeling foolish enough already.
‘Turn to Der Taucher’, she said and eased herself down opposite me onto an upright chair upholstered in tapestry like a throne. She sat bolt-upright now, her infirmity forgotten.
‘Read!’ she commanded me. ‘Read. Begin now!’
I gulped and began.
I read as well as I was able. I was shaking with nerves, but also with the poetry of it all and I don’t simply mean the words I was reading aloud. It was unreal and yet somehow the height of reality as I had ever known it, sitting in that circular room with a stranger ordering me to read Schiller. And me reading it and loving it and reliving it. Now and again, she would stop me impatiently, exhorting me to read with more feeling, with less ‘Bildung’ (education). She spat out the word like a bitter medicine. ‘Live it, you foolish girl. Stop thinking about it!’
And live it I did. I found myself overcome at moments, seeing meanings that had remained obscure before. And as I looked up at those moments when I was confident in the words and in my memory and in my growing sense of holding the poetry to my soul with love instead of learning, I saw tears in this stranger’s eyes, and a face that looked somewhere very far away from me and that room and that time.
And when I came to the end she said, ‘enough, enough,’ as if she were cutting me off prematurely, but I felt I understood. She had taken as much as she could and it was time to go. I stood up and she smiled up at me, tears leaking still out of her old eyes, and waved me away; and feeling a mixture of awe and embarrassment I went downstairs. Rosemary and Hazel were in conversation with Mr. Findley in the sitting-room and I went in search of my teacher, who was in the kitchen preparing some food.
‘How was it?’ she asked with a smile.
‘Um, fine!’ I replied politely.
‘Did she make you read aloud?’
‘What was it?’
‘Schiller. ‘Der Taucher’!’
‘I say, you are privileged,’ Mrs. Findley said, raising her eyebrows. ‘She must like you.’
‘She asked me my favourite Schiller play and I said Maria Stuart. I mean it’s the only one I know.’ (We were studying it for ‘A’ Level.)
‘It’s a trick question. If you answer anything after about 1860 she dismisses you as a simpleton. She likes it too, or rather doesn’t mind you being young enough to appreciate it.’
‘Oh, I see,’ I said, and didn’t.
‘And how much of it did you get through before she told you off?’ Mrs. Findley continued with a smirk.
‘I finished it all,’ I said, wondering if I were saying something in bad taste.
‘Really? Really!’ And suddenly, in German, she shouted out to her husband in the sitting-room of my triumph and he called back that he was very pleased to hear it.
‘Is she your mother?’ I asked.
‘Yes, of course. Why, did you think she was just some mad old lady in the attic?’
My face betrayed me and she threw back her head and laughed. ‘I’ll tell her that one. She’ll love it!’
‘Oh no, please don’t!’ I implored her.
‘Pass me the carrots,’ she ordered me, indicating a low tray of vegetables in a box of all different types. I bent down and retrieved a few. ‘Mother rarely lets anyone into her room and as far as I know no one has ever managed to read the whole poem without being dismissed from her presence.’
‘Well, she kept interrupting,’ I said, and Mrs. Findley laughed with pleasure again and I didn’t understand what was so funny.
‘And cried. I bet you, she cried!’
‘Yes,’ I said, turning my face away, because I’d cried too and didn’t want her to know: it seemed shameful and almost too intimate to share even with her. I realise now though, she knew quite well exactly what had happened and may have even engineered it.
‘Mrs. Findley,’ I ventured, captured in a moment of realism, ‘why does she look so sad?’
This was a monumental question and such questions can only be asked by the innocent, otherwise they are too devastating. If there are defining moments in a life, it was when Mrs. Findley replied to me, rather than in all the others I experienced around that wonderful woman.
She put her pot on the unlit stove, full of vegetables in preparation for a pie that would seem, from this moment on, to complete itself. She wiped her hands on a cloth in a gesture I see now as habitual and symbolic and looked at me. She took my hand, which I felt blessed it with purity.
‘She cannot understand how the country she loved, that produced Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, could produce Hitler, could desecrate Art and literature and music and what, for her, makes life worth living. How Germany was the enlightened country of the West and it caused the Holocaust. She cannot live with that dichotomy. It tears her apart every day.’
I half-nodded, caught in the moment, looking at her eyes and seeing a whole childhood of such moments with her mother. It seemed to me then no wonder that she could teach as she did. Mrs. Findley let go my hand.
‘She loves words, you see,’ Mrs. Findley said as if this were explanation enough. At the time, it was because through her I had lived such realities myself in the classroom with that single line ending in ‘zischt’.
‘She lost her brother, her father and mother, two sisters and cousin in the Holocaust. In the death camps, Moira.’ I was hooked on each syllable of her words and saw the deaths of children flickering in her eyes.
‘She escaped just in time. She wanted to go back to save her family on the evening she left, but her accomplice said there was no time. In that single decision that was forced on her she lost not only her family but her sense of reality.’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
‘Nothing. Well, except perhaps a few lines of Schiller and Goethe,’ she said smiling and turned back to preparing the lunch.
Mrs. Rosen came down for lunch and we sat in the alcove that acted as a meal-place. She took her place at the head of the table.
‘What part of Germany do you come from?’ she asked me as I helped her to a large portion of potatoes.
‘Oh, I don’t,’ I replied, laughing nervously looking, around for support. Hazel and Rosemary found this particularly funny and we reverted back for solidarity into our adolescent worst, laughing without being able to stop, using embarrassment as a shield and even a weapon to repel all-comers.
‘Don’t be silly, girl,’ she said, rapping the table with her knife and then waving it at me. I looked frantically at Mrs. Findley who shrugged her shoulders and then back at Mrs. Rosen so as not to appear impolite.
‘Well, we will speak this muddled-tongue if you insist,’ she said to the huge delight of my friends. Her voice was heavily accented, almost ostentatiously so and I felt guilty now that we were forced to speak in English.
‘How long have you been in this country?’ she asked me. Later I was to discover Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in which a character is grilled exactly in this way by the hero’s father and with much the same result. I doubt the intentions were the same though.
‘I live in Princes Risborough,’ I replied idiotically, hoping this would suffice.
‘Princes Risborough,’ she said, the s’s and r’s in her mouth being rolled around and tested and savoured like vintage port.
‘It has a romantic ring to it.’
‘It’s anything but romantic,’ I said.
‘You speak excellent English as well, child,’ she said, and I had to dig Hazel in the side with my elbow as she threatened to burst out into shocking laughter, which I knew would not go down well with this lady.
‘Pass the sprouts,’ said Mr. Findley prosaically.
‘And you have not had long to acquire it?’
‘I’m only seventeen,’ I replied, realising I was quagmiring myself in her reality.
‘Seventeen is no age, but for a language perhaps so.’
‘Carrots anyone?’ Mrs. Findley cut in. I took them gratefully and heaped them onto my plate before realising how many I’d taken and how little I liked half-cooked carrots.
‘What part of Germany do you come from?’ Hazel asked her in German.
‘Düsseldorf. Quite a nice accent. Does my daughter teach you?’
‘Yes, she teaches all of us,’ Hazel replied, indicating us.
‘This one perhaps,’ Mrs. Rosen said, pointing at Rosemary as if she were an exhibit in the zoo, ‘but not, I think, this one.’ She pointed at me with a bony finger. ‘She doesn’t need to teach this one,’ she added in German, then set upon her pie with a relish.
I shrugged my shoulders and decided simply not to worry about it. I suppose it meant I spoke the language reasonably well and I was not altruistic enough not to be gratified by this revelation and the sense of superiority it gave me over my friends. The rest of the meal passed without incident. Afterwards, we all offered to wash up the dishes, but Mrs. Findley wouldn’t hear of it. She told us to relax in the sitting room and perhaps I might like to go and play the harpsichord upstairs in her mother’s room. I would love to play the harpsichord upstairs but not necessarily with Mrs. Rosen in attendance. She might ask me to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto by heart or something and then finding I couldn’t, I would be reduced to idiot-status. I felt I had aspired as high as I possibly could in this particular lady’s esteem and anything else would be a come-down. Even if I did feel she was a little mad, it was intensely pleasant to occupy a unique status in her regard. I trooped up the stairs, though, fairly unwillingly, thinking that the real life of the place existed elsewhere and I was missing it. I found Frau Rosen sitting in wait for me.
‘Play, girl,’ she ordered me in German. And then: ‘What is your name?’
‘Moira,’ I answered.
‘No, no, no, no!’ she answered angrily. ‘Your proper German name.’
‘Um, er, Ursula. Uschi,’ I answered, frantically. It was the name of a heroine in a trashy romantic novel in German I’d found at the local library.
‘Speak up, girl. My hearing isn’t so good!’
My self-esteem crashed down. So much for me speaking authentic German.
‘Uschi,’ I repeated.
‘A fine name. My sister, one of my sisters, she was called Ursula, you know. She died in the war.’
‘Yes, your daughter told me.’
‘Yes, she died. I still remember her so clearly, you know. I can see her, you know. See her.’ And her eyes were clearly fixed on the girl, moving as she followed her movements into a distant memory. I was sitting on the piano-stool and had turned around to attend to her. She was sitting bolt-upright again, staring straight ahead.
‘So, play,’ she said.
‘What shall I play? I don’t really play the harpsichord,’ I said wanly.
‘Brahms. Brahms is good. You think so?’
‘Of course,’ I answered, feeling relatively safe, although it felt a little ridiculous playing Brahms on a harpsichord. I played his Opus 116, my particular favourite at the time. On the harpsichord, of course, they sounded unusual to my ears and I felt I couldn’t generate the dissonances that were so marked in that opus, but it was like playing them for the first time, and, like everything else that day, seemed to be part of the exuberance of it all.
When I had finished I was disappointed not to hear her acclaiming my performance. I turned to see her head dipped down heavily to her chest, giving her chin a roundness it didn’t have when she was alert. Her eyes were closed. I stood up.
‘Bach now,’ she snapped, her head jerking up. ‘Bach is the right composer for this place and this time.’
Who was I to disagree? I sat down again and wished I had not been so marked out. A whole day with my beloved teacher and I was stuck in this room with a weird woman. It was like a scene out of Jane Eyre, when the heroine is ordered to the library to play for Mr. Rochester only to be told that she played ‘a little’. I found the experience of gothic romance far less tantalising in the flesh then in my imagination.
‘You can play Bach, I trust.’ The woman was relentless.
‘Yes, he’s my favourite composer.’
‘I see. By heart?’
‘Good, girl. This is good. To play from the heart is always superior to playing from the notes.’
‘I think so too.’
‘So many people,’ she said, her face breaking into a smile for the first time in our acquaintance, ‘believe Bach has no feelings. They are fools.’ She spat out the word as she tended to do when roused, which seemed like most of the time. I was glad I was not in her line of sight.
‘Yes, I know,’ I said simply. She looked at me and held my gaze. I felt as if she had conferred a great prize on me and I flushed up, turning away.
‘What would you like me to play?’ I asked.
‘Please yourself. Please me by your choice.’
And now I felt as if I were facing the firing squad. I was bound to make the wrong choice. I started the Prelude in D from the first Book and heard a sigh of contentment behind me. I played it through and then the accompanying fugue. When I turned there were tears running down her cheeks again and I felt this was a tremendous applause.
‘Thank you,’ I said awkwardly.
‘You can go now, little one!’ she said, and as I passed her chair, she held out her hand and I took it. It was cold and veiny and I found that disturbing.
‘Yes, I am old,’ she said reading me so easily and looking up at me, gripping me with her bony fingers. ‘One day you too will be old. You will sit in a chair and if you are lucky, you will see youth believing itself immortal with hope and everything before it, bowing down to its charms. You are a beautiful sight, but you will not always be like this. Remember that. You will grow a different kind of beauty, one that doesn’t advertise itself. Remember that too.’
‘I will, I said, having not a notion of what she was saying, but never forgetting the words she spoke.
‘I am tired now. Please go.’
I walked slowly downstairs and stood outside the sitting-room for a few moments, hearing the chatter and laughter within, collecting my thoughts and feelings before I felt fit to join them again. I sat a little apart for the rest of the afternoon and on the journey home my head and heart reeled with the new impressions. I felt that what I had experienced that day was real and that everything else simply constituted attempts for Life to put it all together again, as if that day and my experiences with Mrs. Findley before and after that day were the completed jigsaw and the rest of my life only small pieces of it. It took many years for the sense of its significance to wear off and indeed, even in the writing of this, I look back and feel the immediacy of it, the significance of it all. The stories that family had to tell and the ways they had come to terms with what they experienced, were lived outside a class or a time or a place; they had something to tell of immortality if only I would listen.
In my life, I have known nothing finer than that.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Day One: Shakespeare with a Year Seven group. Well, there’s a little challenge for our bright, summer days at the end of a long, long year, with new-this and new-that all over the place. Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t exactly one of my favourite plays either. I don’t want to put them off Shakespeare for good. I love Shakespeare. I want them to love Shakespeare. He’s not just for intellectuals and academics and dry old sticks in ivory towers; he’s for people. Lin Yutang (Chinese philosopher) said: Shakespeare is a great writer because he wrote about what he saw; he didn’t write from his own quirks, but saw people as people and wrote about them, and then he had the good sense to leave the stage. Or words to that effect.
Shakespeare with this Year Seven group. Mm. That’ll be interesting. Let’s start with Kate. She always reminds me, with her strong, slightly nasal voice and curly fair hair, of the Hollywood actress Katherine Hepburn. Flamboyant and larger than life in ways which I find so endearing, but brittle too in ways I find out most unexpectedly as we tackle this unit of work.
I love these Year Seven kids. I get to school knowing I have to teach them that day feeling that God’s in his Heaven and everything’s all right. It isn’t, of course, because Robbie’s father’s in prison again, and Win’s elder brother’s been taken into custody for GBH, and Al’s cancer’s looking suspect again. And then there’s Molly, who sits in the corner of lessons and won’t talk even when spoken to really gently and kindly. They say she’s an ‘elective mute’, which means she could talk, but she chooses not to. Of course, Natalie’s fine as usual. Sitting at the front, actually next to Andy (whatever next?) and grinning for all the world as if it belongs to her. That kid is so loved: she just knows she’s precious without ever being arrogant. And because she’s so loved, she’s popular. She’d make a great Titania!
Al looks pale. Please God, don’t let it be the leukaemia back again! Win hates everyone, sitting there at the back, head-with-attitude resting on hand, glowering out of the window. He’d be fantastic as Oberon, but today might not be the best time to convince him of that. Kate’s late again. That girl just can’t get to school on time. Every time a different excuse. What’s it going to be today? Last month she told me this long, convoluted story about her father coming to visit and he had ‘flu and she wanted to wait until Mum got back off nights and her older sister Anne had to get into school early because they were going on a trip. Robbie’s sitting with Sam and Jason. Probably not the best combination in the world. If we were doing Macbeth they could be the three witches of course. On his own, Jason hatches enough plots for a coven!
I wish I could get Molly to talk. Oh, bless her, what does she think about, sitting there all silent and remote? Kate’s good with her. Treats her as if she’s the same as everyone else. Definitely a point to her. Ah, here’s Kate at last. Tears smeared on cheeks. Sits down, rests her head on her arms on the desk, and sobs.
Day Five: I’ve organised the frog toys in the walk-in-cupboard so that all the children can come in the classroom and just pick one up on the way in if they want to. (I had a walk-in cupboard with about 40 stuffed frogs in a range of sizes and colours for children to help themselves to when they arrived at the lessons. It was a standing joke that all frogs were called Reginald.)
And today Molly picks up the big one, Reginald. (They’re all called Reginald, but that’s another story). She emerges from the cupboard with this huge stuffed red-eyed tree frog under her arm and I swear she looks at me and smiles as she passes me on her way to her desk. I’ve got to talk to the year head about her. Why doesn’t she speak? What can I do for her? But today, because she’s picked up Reginald I feel as if someone’s given me the Nobel Prize for Education! Win hurls his bag through the door announcing his arrival so I have words with him about different ways of walking into a room and promise him we’ll try them out in Drama. ‘I get to go in first, Miss,’ he says, and thereby hangs a problem already!
Jason and Robbie are arguing with Sam, who seems to be ousted at the moment from the threesome. They sit at the back, hovering like the mafia. Kids can be cruel sometimes. Kate’s been on time every day since before. Her father’s not coming to visit for her birthday apparently. Poor kid. She acts as if all the stuffing’s gone out of her. I want to give her a big hug.
Anyway, let’s get on. Midsummer Night’s Dream auditions. Win’s going to be Oberon, so of course there’s loads of hilarity about who’s going to be married to him. Natalie would be good, but she doesn’t want to. I’m surprised when Kate says she wants to give it a go. We turn to the pages we’ve already been through a bit, so they know what’s going on, and Kate begins to read. It’s hesitant, but it’s promising. She’s voted in straightaway as Titania. Now for the Lovers. Oh God, the screaming laughter at that point makes me worry about getting told off by teachers in adjoining rooms. Except for Molly of course, who sits in her seat with Big Reginald in her lap. Silence personified. Her head is bent down over him, as a mother cuddles a child sitting on her lap, and it touches me to the core. There’s so much going on inside her. I just know it.
Al would be good for Lysander perhaps, but he’s not here again. Don’t know how long he’s going to be away. I don’t even know if he’ll come back this time. They thought they’d caught the cancer last time. He’s such a great kid.
‘Who’s going to play Bottom, then?’ I ask, heart sinking. Why did Shakespeare have to call a character Bottom, for heaven’s sake?
‘Yeah, yeah, very funny! Now, who’s wants to be Bottom?’
‘He’s got some funny lines, Miss,’ says Andy.
‘Yeah, well, he would, wouldn’t he?’ Jason says. ‘Can you imagine your bottom talking?’
‘Wonder what it would say?’ said Alex, mirthfully.
‘A lot of crap, I imagine!’ Jason responds, thinking his reposte the funniest sentence in the English language. Oh no, it’s going to be like this all lesson.
‘That’ll do!’ I say, trying to cut that sort of creativity off at the pass.
In another corner of the room, Natalie and Andy are using frogs as puppets:
Reginald, Reginald, wherefore art thou, Reginald? yelps one.
‘Wrong play!’ I holler. ‘Can we get on please?’ (They’re bright kids, this lot!) This isn’t a classroom, it’s a circus, but sometimes, just sometimes, out of chaos comes something fantastic. I can feel it in the air and it’s stretching us all out to the bounds of our possibilities. This could be an amazing production. Stop thinking about it like a year seven play and think of it as Real Theatre.
‘So, we’re going to do these scenes,’ pointing to the blackboard. ‘And we’ve got a narrator. Let’s hear it for Chloe!’ and everyone claps and cheers. It doesn’t take much for this class to be a unit. They’re fantastic! ‘With costumes and props. Peter, you’re in charge of…’
‘Costumes!’ shouts Sam. ‘Who’s a poofter, then, Pete?’
‘Props!’ I say, throwing Sam a very strict look, who pretends to look abashed, but is clearly anything but. This is a gamble. Peter’s about as organised as a traffic accident, but he’s a good lad and he ought to be able to rise to the occasion. Fingers crossed.
Details sorted. It’s coming together. Kate’s mum’s making her costume. She knows Natalie’s mum and they’ll get together and help with some of the others’ ones too.
‘Miss, Andy’s sitting on my head!’ comes the muffled tones of a boy at the back.
‘No comment, Robbie!’ I say with a grin.
Molly is sitting at the front and watching my face and cuddling the frog as I talk, and we set up the desks and chairs to have a stage in the middle. She doesn’t look remote today. She’s not talking, but it’s not only because she can’t or won’t, somehow, it’s because she’s content not talking. She’s having therapy, apparently. I wonder what happens in therapy with a child who won’t speak. Kate’s learnt her lines and is declaming all round the room. I wish she’d shut up! Win and Kate have to practise their scene together today, but after that incident with Kate tearing his homework up yesterday, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. They really are so talented, both of them, but Win’s not a happy boy. He keeps asking me to read through his letters to his brother in prison, and he sends them, but his brother doesn’t write back. Break your heart, wouldn’t it?
I’ve asked Mr. R. if we can ask the parents to come in and watch the final play. If the weather’s really good, we can do it outside. I think it’d be better than having an assembly indoors. I want this to be real theatre, as it might have been in Shakespeare’s time. People coming from all places and all walks of life. People from the community. And we’ve got all these gorgeous grounds here and I know we’re not supposed to go outside –health and safety and all that – but we’ll manage it somehow. We could do the scene where Titania goes to sleep on the edge of the woods. That’d really work well.
‘We still need to decide on Puck, though,’ Natalie says. ‘He’s a he, isn’t he?’
‘And there’s a Peaseblossom,’ says Andrea. ‘What’s a peasblossom?’
‘It’s one of the fairies,’ I reply. ‘She doesn’t speak, she just has a lovely costume. Anyone want to?’
Oh God, no, I shouldn’t have said that.
‘Molly should do it. She doesn’t speak!’ Hannah’s voice is sharp, but gratifyingly, no one laughs. No one at all! I look at Molly sitting gravely in front of me and her face registers nothing. I smile at her.
‘Anyone want to be Peaseblossom?’ I can ask now more safely.
And Reginald’s large, red hand is raised in the air by Molly and my heart misses a beat.
‘Wow!’ I exclaim, and the class erupts in spontaneous applause. Molly is going to be in the play. I wonder who we should make the costume for? Molly or Reginald?
Today’s the day. We organised a letter to parents and family-friends and there are about twenty parents coming. Kate’s dad hasn’t even replied to his letter, and Kate’s been really depressed about it. She keeps threatening to quit, but I don’t think she will. David’s going to be excellent as Puck. He’s been coming to lessons for the last week in his costume, much to the annoyance of some of the other teachers! He’s got this cheeky ability. No one can be bored with a David like that in the class. Win’s doing better. He’s not so hot on his lines, but he lives the part and that’s what matters. I just hope he and Kate don’t have one of their Oberon/Titania rows for real ‘on’stage’. They’re like an old married couple, those two.
Molly’s in her costume pirouetting around the classroom. Her wings are as light as gossamer. I don’t know how Mrs. M. has made them. They’re gorgeous. She’s got this handkerchief dress on, all colours of the rainbow. She’s still carrying Reginald around; at first, I foolishly suggested she shouldn’t have him, but then I realise that was insensitive. She needs him. When she doesn’t need him anymore, she’ll forget about him. She looks like an angel and she’s smiling all the time. She’s said a few words too, according to some of the other teachers. I haven’t heard her say anything, but she’s one of the group now. Natalie’s mum’s arrived early and is standing at the back looking a bit awkward. It’s a glorious day outside. I go over to her and suggest she have a walk around as the class gets ready. A few teachers on free lessons have come to watch and help. Mr. L. always gets on with the kids. It’s kids first, second, middle and last with him. He’s just gorgeous and all the kids love him. He’s strict, but always scrupulously fair. Last term he accused a kid of something it turned out the kid hadn’t done – there was really good reasons for accusing him. But he owned up to his mistake in the front of the whole year assembly and I call that really fair, cos he’d accused the kid in front of the class. That sort of behaviour really matters to kids. It matters to me too…
Al’s here. Thank you God! And Molly’s made him a cap, would you credit it? It’s a jester’s cap because I ask her. ‘Jester’s cap,’ she says very, very quietly. These are the first words she’s spoken to me this term. I hug her (after all I’ve been wanting to do that for weeks). She tolerates it! ‘Glad you’re here, Al,’ I say, patting him on the shoulder. His mum is standing next to him and she’s so proud Molly’s made something for him and he’s part of the play. I’ll have to find out how he’s doing at breaktime. Win is positively regal as Oberon. He’s got this laurel-wreathe in tin-foil around his head like a crown, and he’s walking around like God’s gift, nose in the air and he’s reciting his lines. This is incredible!
These eleven-year old kids are reciting Shakespeare; they’re actors at the Globe Theatre preparing to go on to earn their living and delight the crowds. We’ve been watching programmes on Shakespeare’s times. Of course, they like all the details about where people pee or where parents have sex and stuff like that. Plus ca change! Kate’s looking nervous. I go up to her and whisper that I’m really proud of her and she’s going to be the belle of the ball! She doesn’t really hear me. She wants her dad here and he’s not coming, apparently. We’re videoing it, but it’s not the same. Natalie is running round, making sure all the props are ready. Must remember to thank Mrs. M. and all the other mums for the costumes. We had a meeting at Mrs. M’s house a few weeks ago in the evening and they came and we talked for ages and they brought designs and clothes and it was really lovely. I learnt more about their kids in those couple of hours than I’d learnt all year, which means I have to develop ways of seeing more.
Sam and Jason have been surprisingly helpful now that we’ve made them prompters. Jason knows quite a lot of Oberon’s parts. I think he now regrets not auditioning for it. Oh well, next year they can do bits of The Tempest. I can just see him as Caliban!
Mr. L. is chatting to the parents. They’re nearly all here now and the kids are costumed and chirruping about this and that and it all seems hectic and chaotic, but there’s this lovely feeling of anticipation of doing something really worthwhile. I look around at their faces, all eager and involved. There isn’t anyone on the fringes anymore. It’s what makes teaching so fantastic – when it works, it’s the best job in the world. Kate’s Mum’s arrived and Kate shyly waves at her and then turns away. I can see the disappointment in the bend of her head. I wish I could wave a magic wand for her. Al’s chatting to Andy. Molly’s fixing Win’s cloak, which is all crumpled at the back. Jon’s playing Bottom. He’s a bit wooden, but he’s word-perfect and actually, the character isn’t supposed to be intellectually brilliant anyway, so J’s acting will probably suit really well. Hannah’s brushing Kate’s hair. Kids are milling around in or out of costume. There is a group of four boys out near the wood, picking up litter, so parents will think we live in a litter-free school! I’m sure The Globe was never like this.
There are so many marvellous moments in the parts of the play we showed that day that made me realise that my original aim of getting the students to enjoy Shakespeare wasn’t the only goal at all. They were fantastically great kids and seemed to get the point really quickly about the fact that although he was old and dead and from a time they’d never really heard of, once we started rehearsing and working out the practical details, Shakespeare was just another writer, someone who was even funny at times. But that wasn’t it. That’s not what sticks in my memory. What stays in my mind as a beacon of hope is what happened in the relationships during that process. Molly left Reginald in the classroom before coming out to take her place by Kate (as Titania) on our rural ‘stage’. Kate’s father turned up. And even better than that? She saw him, smiled, really quickly at him, but never lost her fluency as Titania once. It was so important to her to get it right, that she was able to hold her character at a time like that. The maturity of that! The wonder of it! I saw in her then the talented woman she would become, and it was heart-warming. She charmed us all.
When everyone cheered at the end, parents, children, teachers, there was Molly shouting with them all. Natalie’s dad’s come, taken time off work especially. That’s so moving. No wonder the kid’s so confident and bubbly. Win was kingly in his role and since then, Drama is what he lives for. Peter found an ability to organise himself in the organisation of others. He drew up lists for everything. Every one of the six scenes we did, he had written out in his exercise book in the original Shakespearean English. I told him he should have it photocopied to save him time, but no. He wanted to copy it out. He wanted to make it his, I suppose. Squiggly writing in blue for the script and props’ information in red. David went to Al at the end and they did a high five! Beaming from ear to ear. Mums wiping eyes and laughing at their ‘fond foolishness’, fathers glowing with pride. Robbie’s mum’s here. I must ask her how things are going.
Afterwards, when things were beginning to break up and back into friendship or family groups again, Kate’s parents came up to me with Kate still in her costume, standing between them looking up from one to the other, and the adults press my hands in theirs, the mum touched to tears. ‘I had no idea she was so brilliant!’ she said. I laughed, looking down fondly at the child she didn’t know as well before. ‘Thank you!’ her father says, smiling, moved. Mr. L. dragoons some of the kids to move props and chairs and so on back into the classroom, and gradually, people drift away. Peter’s chasing up props to see who’s got what and where it needs to go. Sam and Jason are stacking the chairs – without being told. Miracles will never cease.
‘Nice day today!’ says Molly, as I pass her on the way into the classroom. I nod wordlessly. I don’t think I can speak now. How nice for her to have the last word.
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