The year I turned 15 was a pretty big year for me. It was the year that little round breasts finally sprouted from my underweight pubescent body, and boys gradually began to notice me, namely my first boyfriend, mentioned previously, who caught my eye in my Standard Grade Biology class and convinced me once and for all that I probably wasn’t a lesbian. It was the year I started wearing eyeliner, velvet tops with elaborate sleeves and baggy jeans (from Tammy Girl, because I was too little to fit in the adult sized ones my friends bought from Flip in the city centre). It was the year I tried (and got tipsy on) my first Bacardi Breezer at a family party and felt oh so grown-up. It was also the year I really learned to love English, and it is this learning experience that I have chosen to write about today.
Mrs S was built like a rake, with cropped dark hair, high cheekbones, a pale Scottish complexion, and long manicured nails with slightly yellowed ends that tapped against your paper when she was explaining a point to you. She wore black tailored suits with simple chic white blouses and constantly effused the comforting scent of strong black coffee and cigarettes, radiating a kind of natural Parisian glamour that, as a short, curvaceous pixie girl with a slightly too long nose, I can only ever dream of imitating. Mrs S was my first real idol who wasn’t a pop star or a girl in my class. She was the first ordinary working woman that I ever looked at and thought, ‘I would like to be like her someday.’
Previously to being taught by Mrs S, I struggled to reach my full potential in English class. Although I loved to read and write, I my grades were just above average before I was first placed in that classroom at the age of 15. As I sat in class that year, listening to Mrs S speak with so much passion, enthusiasm or cynicism about classic texts I had previously thought not nearly as interesting as my enormous collection of ‘Babysitters Club’ books, something changed within me, and I fell in love with the written word; with Charlotte Brontë’s winding and confessional narrative in ‘Jane Eyre’; the exquisitely poetic descriptions of the American Deep South in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’; and the gruesome villainous sisters of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’.
As I have previously mentioned, I did not enjoy High School, and while a double period of English on a Monday morning might sound like hell for some, it was the highlight of my week. The classes were both fascinating and challenging, not just to my mind but to my moral code and sense of self. When we read Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ in my 5th year of High School, I was chosen to read the part of Elizabeth Proctor. A transformation came over me when I became Elizabeth Proctor for forty minutes a day, as my teacher somehow made the Salem witch trials relevant and relatable to a moody teenage goth girl with bad spots and Bugs Bunny teeth. I never found myself gripped by Religious Education or Social Education – instead I found my morals in literature. After we’d finished reading ‘The Crucible’, Mrs S gave us a moral analogy, asking us to raise our hands if we would speak out against racist jokes, and when myself and a few others raised our hands, she told us that we were the John Proctors of the world. Mrs S didn’t just ‘teach’ us literature. She taught us who we were. At the age of 28, I’d still raise my hand and say that I am a John Proctor – a warrior for justice – and it was Mrs S who first discovered that trait within me.
Mrs S ignited a spark within me that previous teachers had missed, and within that first year in her class, I was achieving some of the top marks in the year for English. I went on to achieve the highest grades possible for both my Standard Grade (straight ‘1s’, for those who understand the Scottish education system) and Higher English (an A Band 1, which Mrs S revealed to me in a flurry of excitement, so proud of the work we had done together), followed by an Advanced Higher English, a 2.1 in English Literature and an MLitt Victorian Literature with Merit from the University of Glasgow as recently as last year. All of this happened because a teacher managed to find some time away from disciplining the uninterested kids and engaged with a shy teenage girl who loved reading and wanted to be a writer.
About a year ago, my sister (who was taught by Mrs S not long after me) passed on the news that Mrs S had terminal cancer. Despite not having seen my old English teacher in almost ten years, the news hit me hard. To this day I find it terribly unfair that someone who shaped and inspired the minds of others like my young self, should be losing a battle against her own body. For months I agonised over a choice of whether or not to send her a letter, telling her everything I’ve just told you, and thanking her, from the bottom of my heart for helping me to become the successful, ambitious, strong-willed, articulate and often fearless young woman I am today.
Probably rather predictably, the letter never got written, because as we all know, inaction is always so much easier than taking a challenging course of action, and the opportunity for sending it has now passed. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, a Google search for my old teacher showed that in 2011, Mrs S was rated at 100% on Rate My Teacher. I identify as a Buddhist, and, for those who are not familiar with Buddhist philosophy, it centres around the scientific theory that energy which has been created can never be destroyed. This thought brings me comfort at times of loss, as I can see it to be the case wherever I look. Mrs S doesn’t just live on in my memory; she lives on in the memory and spirit of all those whose minds she taught and inspired. She lives on as the part of me that remains angered by the mispronunciation of ‘hyperbole’ on television; as the part of me that will always secretly consider ‘Jane Eyre’ my favourite novel, despite having first read it at the age of 15 and possessing my third disintegrating copy of it; as the part of me that still occasionally finds comfort in the scent of cigarettes and strong black coffee, despite having quit smoking three years ago; and perhaps most importantly, she lives on reminding me to fight for what is right, like Miller’s John Proctor.
Our lives are very hurried, and it’s easy to get swept up in the rush and miss them. It’s easy to spend years pottering along without ever knowing if what you are doing is right or true as the universe intended it. It’s easy to forget the people who made us who we are. Mrs S, I know you’ll never read this, and I’ll never be able to tell you how much you inspired and shaped me as a person, but I do hope that your loved ones did a better job of articulating your brilliance than me, and that they were even half as grateful for it as I am today. I hope others chose action, where I fell back on inaction, so utterly self-involved with my own bullshit that I never told you how I felt. Most of all, I hope your loved ones have found peace and can see you live on as I do, in all of the spirits you inspired and sparks you ignited. And who knows, maybe, just maybe, if I can ever convince myself I’d do half as good a job as you, I’ll go and teach, so that I can help your influence to live on in the minds of those you never even met.
I have just arrived back from a mini-break in Durham. While I was away, I left an unfinished draft of this post saved in my WordPress account. On my first night in Durham, we went to a Pan-Asian restaurant, which was polished off with fortune cookies. This was my fortune:
Maybe this was a message from Mrs S, intended to remind me that I am a warrior. Thank you, Mrs S, for teaching me that it is honourable to stand up for what is right. I promise I’ll send that letter next time.
x L x