Saturday, 27 October 2012

Apple for the teacher

My mum liked to regale my sister and me with a tale of how she got into trouble at school once for a piece she wrote for her English class.  Given free rein to come up with something as imaginative as possible, she composed a gory and explicit horror story about a girl who accidentally swallowed an apple pip.  The pip germinated in the girl’s stomach and slowly grew into a tree inside her, eventually killing its host in a particularly agonising and gruesome way (I think it was when the branches started to poke their way out of her ears and eye sockets that it got especially grisly).   My mum told us that she took great relish in describing this as vividly  as possible – as requested in the teacher’s brief - and it sounds like something Roald Dahl could have come up with for ‘Tales Of The Unexpected’.  However, the teacher didn’t see it in such a positive light and gave her 14-year old pupil a severe reprimand, as well as having words with my grandparents expressing concern about the “inappropriately” unpleasant subject matter.  It was as if she had committed some cardinal sin.

We used to laugh at this reminiscence, my mum’s eyes gleaming mischievously as she explained the reaction her teenage story had provoked, which was clearly still very memorable to her.  Luckily it didn’t put her off writing, and as an adult she used her imagination and gift for words whenever she could; perhaps she would have blogged if this medium had been around while she was alive.  But her experience set me thinking about the effects that teachers can have – how some can absolutely bring out the best in you and be an inspiration, but others can really set you back.

My first English teacher at secondary school fell into the latter category.  I’d come out of primary school with a real love of reading and creative writing, getting good marks and being eager to learn more.  So when I started nervously at the big school with its long corridors and scary timetables and even scarier teachers, I hoped I would at least be within my comfort zone when it came to English.

Unfortunately Miss B seemed to have it in for me from the start.  She wasn’t a likeable person, with a cold, hard air about her which accentuated her extremely unfeminine presence.  I can picture her now: steely grey cropped hair, shapeless red trousers and chunky knitted patterned cardigans, sitting on the edge of the desk with her legs apart (thank god for the red trousers), looking out at her class of 12-year-old girls.  She was unable to meet the eyes of any one of us, even less able to turn the corners of her mouth up into something remotely resembling a smile.

She was American, and seemed fixated on cowboy stories.  So when she taught us grammar, the examples she gave were always along the lines of, "The cowboy (subject) rode (verb) his brown (adjective) horse (object)".  Always.  Whenever I hear the word 'posse' (not often, I grant you) I see Miss B in her red trousers chalking stick-drawings of cowboys on the blackboard. She loved that word.

I tackled each English assignment with gusto but my efforts were frequently met with humiliation.  Maybe I deserved the low marks she gave me - or perhaps it was my lack of reference to cowboys - but there was never any guidance or positivity to go with them.    And it’s one thing to encourage a reserved child to speak in front of the class to help them overcome their shyness, quite another to pick on them time and time again and then draw attention to their discomfort.  I started to dread English lessons.  I kept trying to prove myself to Miss B but it felt as if I was battling against the odds; she was never going to like nor nurture me.  Looking back I just feel disdain for her.  I know teaching isn't an easy profession but... I wasn't a troublesome pupil.  She didn't need to make me feel like crap.

Thank god, then, that she left after my second year (possibly under a cloud) and the lovely, young, warm-hearted Miss McM took her place.  Under her empathetic and inspiring mentorship I regained some confidence; English became a subject to enjoy again and I looked forward to each opportunity to write.  It didn’t matter what about – ghost stories or politics or what we did at the weekend, but never cowboys - every composition was marked with care and included encouraging comments offering constructive advice.  Thank you, Miss McM. I have a feeling you would have loved my mum’s tale of the apple pip girl. 

Beware of the pips


  1. It fills me with sadness that my parents (both still with us) never embraced email and all things digital. Dad could have kept in touch with his only grandson when he was away at Uni and would, like your mother, love blogging.

    1. Indeed, it's amazing how much we take it for granted...

  2. Your Mother...I swear...what an woman she must have been. That is genius.

    Ms. B must have been a dissaster if she could make Cowboys boring and dreadful.

    I have no heartwarming stories like Ms McM...and it caused me trouble later in life. I had an interview for a teaching position at a swanky Prep shcool. I came highly recommended by the right people...had a great interview with the Head Master...then, I was interviewed by a couple of teachers.

    They kept asking me about how I'd relate to the kids...for a anecdote about a teacher that had changed my life. I had none. I didn't have any horror stories (maybe Mr. Doodong but that was more funny than anything) or warm and fuzzy moments. I wasn't engaged enough during high school to have any significant episodes with teachers.

    My reference was genuine academics and my promise to teach these kids the craft of hammer them into passible amature historians...didn't go over at all. I shouldn't have said hammer should I? HA...I thought those people were serious.

    Too bad I didn't have a Ms McM.

    1. Thanks, e.f. My mum had a profound influence on me. Later on in school life I DID get into trouble - but only for the way I looked (punk rearing its spiky-haired head) and she stood up for me for all the right reasons (i.e. she defended the fact that I wasn't actually *doing* anything bad, like stealing or bullying or skiving - I just embarrassed them by looking a certain way - hardly a crime!) Anyway Miss McM let me express my 15-year-old punk self in English at least, and I'll always have fond memories of her.

      Teachers can be such a mixed bunch... your tale of Mr Doodong did partly inspire this post too by the way. I'm sure you could have taught kids a lot - to have a passionate interest in the subject you're teaching, like you do, has to be the best quality you can share. I was so useless at History at school and yet I am really quite interested in it now and how it makes us what we are - unfortunately it was taught in such a boring way - lists of dates and Acts dictated to us in a monotone voice - and I failed miserably... Could have done with a hammer then.

    2. I couldn't help but think of you a little earlier this evening.

      We have an All Saints party at Church every year and it was today...the kids where their costumes and play games, etc.

      One young girls costume included blue hair..and an older lady at the Church, kinda fiesty (she drives a giant pick up truck with a bumper sticker that says I'm not a Redneck just a Southerner with an Attitude) turns to her friend and says..."Look a' dhat HA...she looks lak one of dem Phunk Rawkers." ahahaha

      Good on your Momma...really.

      Glad I could be a small part of producing this post.

      I reckon I wouldn't have hammered 'em too bad but, I'll know better if I find myself in that situation again...I'll tell 'em about Miss McM and how she encouraged me to express myself in English class. :)

    3. Brilliant. I love that bumper sticker! And you're v welcome to use 'Miss McM' for your inspiring teacher, any time...

  3. Your mum obviously passed on her love of language and storytelling to you. Hoorah for that. I too had a mixture of the nurturing and the humiliating, in the English teachers I encountered - one berated the twelve-year old me for having a 'too relaxed and colloquial style' (ie, she thought I was common), and I was terribly hurt because I liked her a lot and wanted to impress her. When she left she was replaced by a very clever but very prickly teacher who was not loved by most of the other girls, but who made no secret of the fact that she liked my writing - 'very alive and interesting' was one of her comments.

    It put me in a very odd position as it wasn't cool to like this teacher at all, so being her 'pet' brought me nothing but scorn from my peers... but I was so grateful to her...

    1. Thanks, Kolley - and whatever the different experiences you went through with your English teachers, they've obviously paid off...

  4. You always remember your favourite teachers. Mr Molly my geography teacher was mine. I was 11 years old and we were being taught about the wonders of Mesopotamia. One morning he told the class that an archeological find of some magnitude had been located on the school premises. Excited that we were going to discover some Mesopotamic artefacts (i lived in Saudia Arabia, so fairly believeable) and probably more so for the fact we were going to spend the lesson outside, we set off to this location. The site fulfilled it's promise as we found various pieces of wood and dubious bits of crockery but we felt we were part of something special. On returning to the classroom an hour later, he told us he had prepared the site early in the morning smashing old plates with his wife's permission. He then gave the whole class a Snickers bar, we weren't at all disappointed that we had sort of been duped as for 45 mins we felt like Indiana Jones...

    1. That's a great story, I can just imagine your excitement! Mr Molly doesn't work behind the scenes for Time Team now by any chance, does he? While his wife wonders why their crockery keeps disappearing? ;-)


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