A Foreign Land – Kath


When I first started teaching, I lived in Sheffield and worked in Rotherham.   As a young woman from a sheltered upbringing in East Anglia it was almost like entering a foreign land.  My flat mate and I went on the bus everyday through the dark satanic mills, where we caught occasional dramatic glimpses of flaring furnaces.  On and off the bus came tough looking men who exuded a strange metallic smell.  We imagined that we were, momentarily, in a D H Lawrence novel.

On the way to my school there was a very small shop which sold only ducks’ eggs and udder.  The children in my class ate spice, wore ganzies and people were always having to mend their fires.   I knew that the area was disadvantaged, but I was amazed how openly people announced that they were flitting.   In the south this means a doing a moonlight flit, secretly in the middle of the night to leave your debts behind.  What could be going on?   Of course in time, once I learned the language, I discovered that Rotherham was not very different from anywhere else.

I never took to my headteacher.  She seemed to do as little as possible.  In those days we did not have supply teachers and heads often covered for absent staff.  Not Miss B; she would arrive at your class room door at about ten past nine bringing your share of your absent colleague’s class, even though your room was already completely full.  Her main activity was vigilantly guarding the resources cupboard.  In order to get more of the thin kitchen paper from the large roll kept there  you had to show her that all the paper you had already been given had been used on both sides.  Once kitchen paper has been painted on it becomes crinkly, splotchy and very uninviting, so I very quickly learned to paint on the backs of each sheet once the children had gone home.  My lack of any artistic talent meant that she never for a moment suspected that these pictures had not been done by a five year old.   There was no danger of being caught in the act, because Miss B. always left at 3.30pm on the dot leading the children out of the school with her handbag on her arm.

Of course, the best aspect of the job was the children.  Four and five year olds are particularly rewarding.  There was Neil, a natural sceptic.  One day he asked me if the ‘debil’ lived under the ground.  I attempted a non committal reply, not wanting to challenge too openly what he might have been told by his parents.  He looked at me scornfully, ‘Well I digged and digged in my garden but I couldn’t find him.’

Then there was Carol, whose mother had a baby, her eighth, in the summer term.  The local hospital consultant would not sterilize mothers until they reached that number and the pill was too recent to have had any impact.  At first Carol was delighted but this soon wore off.  One day she carefully painted a picture of ‘our babby’, then found the pot of black paint and methodically covered over every inch of the page.  She always came to school in rather shapeless trousers and jumpers but one day the door was flung open and she came slowly and dramatically into the room.  She was wearing a new knitted skirt and short sleeved jumper in a rather taxing violet colour.  Realising what was required of me I said, ‘Carol, you look lovely.  Is that new?’

‘Yes’ she replied proudly, ‘my Nannan done it for me’.

Michael was a plump little boy who did not take easily to school.  What seemed like every few minutes he would ask me, ‘Is it ploddin on haef past three?’   One day I noticed he seemed to be even more unhappy than usual.  He had drawn a series of wriggly shapes on some paper and was holding his head in his hands and sighing heavily.

Whatever’s the matter, Michael?’ I asked.

‘Oh’ he said, ‘I’ve drawn this jigsaw but I just can’t do it’.

I have yet to find a better metaphor for life.

Read more about Kath


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