In primary school, I devoured the School Readers and repeatedly asked if I could borrow from the school library. But alas! This room was only for high school students – that is, until I reached high school. Then it was apparently only for the use of the boarders, who couldn’t ‘get to the town library’.
I was frustrated by the assumption that anyone not cosseted at the school was free to go where they wanted, and could therefore get their own books. This was definitely not the case in my family.
Further frustration crowded my high school days when I realised our English teacher was never going to be available. She was the principal and therefore very busy.
Every English lesson for four years went like this…
We settled in class, the principal came into the room and said, ‘Open your Using English books on Page 38 and do Unit 13 and Unit 14′ (for instance). She put some folders on the teacher’s desk and left the room. Many students wrote notes to each other, whispered, or drew pictures in their exercise books. Very few even opened Using English, let alone attempt the work, because Sister never took the time to check what we’d done – unless there was too much noise and she had to drag herself away from her office to calm us.
I often did some of the work, not because I was a goody-goody (I was far from that!) but because I liked English. Sometimes I wrote poetry – especially as I got older and had a boyfriend. There is nothing like first love to get the poetry pen flowing.
At the end of class, the principal returned, collected her folders from the desk and said, ‘Finish the unit you’re working on for homework’. Then she was gone, and so were we.
We were deprived of discussions about the classics, and my memory is that Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, was the set text for four years in a row.
We found our own way through the subject and either passed or failed on our own merit. I was lucky that my mother’s teaching persona meant she spoke well and I seemed to automatically pick up the rules of English which got me a reasonable pass. Some others were not so lucky.
In my last year of school, a group of us wanted to learn to type and I volunteered to convince the principal that the school was responsible for offering such a course. She eventually agreed to us using the library for one hour after school each afternoon. It would be up to us, she said in no uncertain terms, to make the most of the time. All she could do was sell us the necessary books and set us up with metal shields to cover our hands so we couldn’t see the typewriter keys.
We took the opportunity seriously. To this day, I am grateful for those dreaded keyboard covers, the teacher’s understanding and my friends’ commitment, all of which contributed to a lifetime of touch-typing.
My three friends and I spent many hours typing aaaa bbbb cccc and so on, and completed all the tasks in the text books while seated at the long wooden tables in the mysterious library. But we never held or read one book from the shelves of the cabinets. They were locked behind glass doors and there were no keys to be found.
What role did your teachers play in your development as a writer?
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