Monday, September 29, 2008

Dux Michael

I've just travelled in time.

Well ok, no I haven't, but yesterday I went back to my old school for the first time in fifteen years, and I did rather feel like I'd gone into a time warp.

My alma mater is a school in North London called St Michael's (as an old girl I am charmingly known as a SMOG) and today it is 100 years old.

St Micks was a funny old place when I was there. It's a catholic (very very catholic) grammar school and the order of nuns who founded it were still teaching (just) when I started, though they handed over control to the diocese in 1980. The ethos was therefore a mixture of Christianity and doing good works, and working your socks off to achieve the best you could. You were expected to become a good wife and mother at some point, but the hope I think was that you'd do something intellectual and academic first.

In my time these ambitions weren't always achieved. There were six pregnancies in the sixth form alone (mind you as someone I knew there once said, that's because catholic girls are so naive they have sex, feel guilty, don't take contraception and then accept the inevitable event as punishment. It's a funny old religion, catholicism, for making you feel so guilty about everything and yet it can also be incredibly inspiring and bring the best out of people.)

I'd also say that in my day the teaching could be patchy. My father who taught in a rough East London comp used to be very frustrated with some of the teachers (particularly on the science side) whom he felt had the cream of the crop but didn't always appreciate it.

Luckily for me, I suppose, I was rubbish at science so that wasn't an issue for me. And the arts teaching was in the main very good. Actually what am I talking about? In places it was brilliant.

I have to say I have pretty mixed memories from my time at St Mick's. Being a geeky kid with national health specs did nothing for my self confidence, and looking back, rather assuming I wasn't going to be popular I just skulked around at the edges of the class. I did make friends, but there were a lot of people I didn't even bother to get to know because bizarrely I assumed (on little or no evidence) that they wouldn't like me. This I regret now, as most of the people in the class were really great, very funny, quirky and interesting. And I'd love to see them again and find out what they're up to.

My fondest memories from school are of our English lessons, where thanks to a brilliantly inspirational teacher we were encouraged to think, discuss, analyse in a way that has stood me in good stead all my life.

That English teacher has a lot to answer for actually. Books was always my thing, but he drew out the best of me, and introduced me to stuff I'd probably never otherwise have read. He had us studying (and enjoying) Shakespeare at 12/13 - I can still remember the wonderful Macbeth starring Ian McKellern and Judi Dench which he showed us on the school's brand new state of the art VHS recorder.

We also read poetry - Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, neither of which I appreciated at the time, but I now have Heaney's translations of The Burial at Thebes/Beowulf by my bedside, as well as Hughes' translation of Ovid, and his fantastically moving love letters to Sylvia Plath.

My teacher was very different to the middle class, (and in the main, conservative)teachers at the school, coming as he did from a northern working class background. It was like a breath of fresh air, being taught by him. He made me look at things in a completely different way, and question the values I was being taught. I didn't always agree with him, mind... But that didn't matter either, as he wanted us to think for ourselves, and encouraged us to have our own opinions about things.

The other poetry which he brought me too was the First World War poets. Again, he introduced them to us when we were quite young, but he wanted us to know and understand the "pity of war" - Wilfred Owen's marvellous Strange Meeting and Dulce et Decorum Est remain firm favourites.

I've just written a piece on a favourite book for Norman Geras' Writer's Choice, and it took me a heartbeat to decide which book to write about. It's To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I studied it for O level and it will be my favourite book till the day I die (I'll post the link here when Norm puts it up so you can find out why then). Along with Lord of the Flies, which my teacher also made us read, it remains a seminal book.

To top it all, I wouldn't have gone into publishing at all without my teacher. When I went back to see him while I was a student, he begged me not to become a teacher (my dad was saying the same thing), and suggested I try publishing instead. So I did. And here I am.

In the sixth form I was disappointed that he didn't teach me for A Level, but I needn't have been because I then had the privilege of being taught by another fantastic teacher who introduced me to Hardy, Eliot, Anthony and Cleopatra, Ben Jonson, Tennyson (see previous post vis a vis the Arthurian legend). She too was inspirational and gave me a much needed boost when I was wavering about studying English. I'd got a better grade for History and was panicking I wasn't good enough to study my favourite subject. At the time I was going back to school to sit Oxbridge, and she persuaded me that I should stick with my heart, which I did. Again, she brought me to writers I wouldn't have otherwise found: Sylvia Plath, Matthew Arnold (one of my favourite poems is Dover Beach), more Shakespeare - including Hamlet which I didn't understand for years until I saw it. She was funny, tolerant and wise and treated me like a grown up when I certainly didn't feel like one. Her influence over my life has been enormous.

As readers of this blog are no doubt boringly aware, History is a bit of a passion of mine. The seeds were sown when I was young thanks to reading the incomparable RJ Unstead, but History O level hadn't exactly set me alight, and I gave it up at A level. But my chosen subject of Biology bored me rigid and after half a term I found myself giving it up and going back to History. My teacher wasn't exactly encouraging to begin with, stressing that I'd missed a lot of work and it was going to take some time to catch up, but within a week of being in her class I knew I'd made the right decision. She was right, it took me till Christmas to catch up, and I have to confess my knowledge of The Italian Wars and Henry VII was never very sound, but once she took us into 16th Century European History I was completely enthralled. I'd gleaned some knowledge of the period from Jean Plaidy, but my teacher brought the courts of Charles V and Francis I, and later Philip II and Catherine de Medici alive. Many many years later I found myself in the Alhambra and was thrilled to be in the place that Charles V retired to, and in so many places in Germany I've been delighted to find a connection with Martin Luther (who remains one of my all time historical heroes).

It isn't possible necessarily to see the effect that a teacher has had on you at the time, but I recognise that my lifelong love of history was fostered 27 years ago at St Michael's, and it's a wonderful gift to have been given. (Mind you no 1 doesn't think so, as she wouldn't have to go to so many castles if I didn't like history so much. )

Going back yesterday was actually rather emotional. The school is thriving under the inspirational management of my old history teacher who's now the head teacher - I suspect it's a much better school then it was in my time. The girls seemed enthusiastic and rather charming, the school buildings hadn't changed at all, and I heard the school song and it sent shivers up my spine. And I was immensely struck seeing a group of the older teachers behind me at the celebration mass, how many dedicated single women taught us. They gave everything to that school, and they're still there in their seventies and eighties, devoted to it.

I was delighted to meet two out of three of my inspirational teachers again, and have the chance to tell them how much they did for me.

But more then anything, I realised that actually(for all my sneering about it at the time) it was rather a privilege having gone to the school.

And I'm pretty damned proud of being a SMOG.

O heros invincibilis,
Dux Michael.
Adesto nostris praeliis, ora pro nobis.
Pugna pro nobis, pugna pro nobis,
Dux Michael
That's the first verse of our school song - can't remember what it all means but it's along the lines of St Michael being an invicible hero and fighting for us (more then he prays for us apparently). You probably had to be there, but I do find it immensely stirring. Though it was quite funny singing it with nos 1&4 who accompanied me, no 1 not learning Latin at her school and no 4 having never come across it before...


Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Golly, what a great piece - really evocative. Good teachers make such a difference: passionate and informed - and crucially able to teach (the middle element certainly doesn't guarantee good teaching!)

I look forward to your Mockingbird piece at Normblog (such honours!) and empathised with your remarks about history at school. I dropped it after O level as well - advised that all the kings and queens of 16th century Europe probably wouldn't set me alight in the way that the history I had loved to that point had done. Sadly I didn't go back (not sure I read enough Plaidy to carry me) - but I still voraciously on history.

I did chuckle at your kids struggling with the Latin - definitely wasn't on my school curricular (English was barely managed to be honest: not for nothing were we at one point second joint worse school in the country...)

Jane Henry said...

Oh thanks Lisa. To be honest I was quite amazed at the strength of my reaction.
Yes I was hugely honoured by the Normblog request and as TKAM is my favourite book it was a joy to do.

Ah whoever told you the 16th century wouldn't set you alight was so so wrong. It's my favourite period - if you haven't read it Plaidy's Madame Serpent trilogy about Catherine de Medici is fantastic (and has completely fired up the twelve year old in the same way). Also the two Mary Queen of Scots books - keep thinking I should be Philippa Gregory's new book on MQS,but can I bear to read a version that's different from Royal Road to Fotheringhay? Thanks to the inspirational teacher was absolutely fascinated with the Reformation and Wars of Religion, which I didn't think would rock my boat at all....

Latin, now there was a subject I didn't do justice to. Being the youngest of five girls at the school I couldn't hack being told by my Latin teacher I should do it because my sisters were. Wrong wrong thing to say to this pigheaded child. I can remember the joy of throwing my Latin books into the school pond (which is still there, hurrah!!!) when I gave it up...

Anonymous said...

I think the translation is

O invincible hero, leader Michael,
Be there at our side(?)pray for us,
fight for us, fight for us. pray for us Leader Michael
or summat
(from a sister that did Latin)

Thanks for this. You're right it was a privilege. The two English teachers (who I think you should name), Mrs Hudson, Biology teacher incomparable, who died in 1993 & my Maths teacher were particular inspirations for me.

Mad Twinx