Friday, April 19, 2013

A fond farewell to my old school

In 1979 I went to high school. My local school was Eastwood High - an upper secondary grammar school that had just been converted the previous year to a normal six year high school. I had been bored rigid for seven years at primary, spending many hours staring out the window which resulted in report after report telling my parents I was working hard but was average in every way. The problem was I wasn't - working hard that is. In fact the only thing I was working hard at was staying awake! 

Tantalizingly close, I could see the high school across the road from my primary and longed to leave. On the induction day, my first impressions were very positive. It was big, I was suddenly small again. The building was tall - three whole floors, five or six different buildings. Each class was over too soon and I was swept along to corridors in a sea of big, noisy kids all chatting happily. It felt very much alive and I was determined to start anew. I went into the French class and was greeted a small woman with dark, elfin hair. She had a foreign accent! She told us she was going to teach us ten words in French and that she would test us on our first day in August to check if we'd been paying attention. She went round the class naming pieces of furniture and parts of the room - la table, les fenêtres etc But when she said 'le mur' something changed in me. I can pinpoint the exact moment, the exact word that shaped my entire future. It was May '79 (no, unlike everything else this week, this is not about Margaret Thatcher)  and a French woman said the word 'le mur' and I woke up. The quality of the vowel sound played with my ear. I had never heard a 'u' sound pronounced like that. In an instant I realized there were other languages out there and they sounded different. I was mentally transported beyond my small world. I was only 11 and I had never been abroad. I had never heard foreigners speak. I had no idea whether I was going to be good at language-learning but I was thrilled at the prospect.

By the end of my first year, my hard work in French resulted in my being streamed into the top second year class which came with the exciting prize of getting to learn a second foreign language, German. Second floor left - I lived along that corridor. I have special memories of every language teacher I had. Highlights included Miss Blair stopping in the middle of one of my oral exams with the surprising statement - This is pointless, we might as well stop here, your German is faultless! That fair boosted the moral of the little girl who'd heard she was average all those years. I loved walking into Mrs Callaghan's class at the age of 12, listening to her chanting German adjective endings and threatening to say them behind the curtain on This is your Life, should any of us become famous one day. The lovable and terribly camp Mr Sutherland's accounts of his year abroad in Paris's Latin Quarter made me float to a new realm. I suddenly realized I too could do that one day, and I did. A slight man, I still remember him asking one day if any of the large 18 year old boys in the class could lend him a pair of size 6 (39) rugby boots for a charity match! How we laughed. Mr Ogg taught us CSYS French. I loved us all sitting in a circle drinking coffee and discussing French literature, art, politics and history in a university-like fashion. He sent me on a study weekend in 1985 where I was placed in a group with a French native speaker helper - one André - much as our divorce twenty years later was acrimonious, I adore the kids that relationship gave me, so Mr Ogg truly changed my life. But there were two teachers who really influenced me way beyond the others. Mr McBirnie - one of most learned men I have ever met - should have taught at university, not school but I was lucky enough to be his only CSYS German pupil. We read Thomas Mann together, we studied the Holocaust, the birth of the East German State and its politics, we dabbled with Kurt Weill in our spare time. He made the worst coffee I have tasted in my life and I was so in awe of him, I never did dare to tell him! A traditional gentleman, he still wore his graduation robes every day to teach and the younger kids made his life a nightmare calling him batman and trying to spear the goldfish in the pond two floors below his classroom window, but I hope I made his last year of teaching bearable. He retired the day I left. And then there was Mrs Guy. She came back to teaching in my last year and I was given her for the other half of my German course. I felt a little apprehensive as I knew all the staff well and she was unknown to me. That could be awkward with only her and I together in a large cupboard discussing translation, and poetry in German. I walked in the first day and suggested coffee. We bought two mugs and a jar of instant coffee and started to chat about German, then kids, then life. She gave me tips and life advice as well as university-type tutorials. She shaped me more than any other teacher I ever had. We talked and talked and never stopped. She had two boys - a young one and a disabled older one. When I left to go to uni she asked if I wanted to be her babysitter so we stayed in touch for years. Eventually I moved a few times and we lost touch until a year ago when I came across her again. We agreed to meet for a coffee - would it be awkward and full of difficult pauses? I walked up to her in the café where we'd arranged to meet, neither of us had changed overly. We started to talk and couldn't stop - now retired, she's learning Italian and rings me for help and advice - the teacher has become the pupil, the pupil the teacher - funny how life works out! We're having coffee this week!

Anyway all this was because last night my old high school invited back its former pupils for one last look before the building is demolished in the summer, replaced by a new state of the art building. I nearly didn't go - why bother - but I'm glad I did. So many memories came back. I went into Mrs Findlay (with a 'd')'s class and remembered her little cupboard back-left where young girls were forced to remove their nail varnish as it wasn't ladylike! I went into the library and found two magazines I'd helped edit! In the Home Economics classes I remembered making apple crumble - where I'd stood and all. The little flat the used to use back then to teach us girls how to iron in and tidy up(!) was no longer, I am relieved to say! I'd forgotten how I felt about the staircases too... There were the Boys' stairs and the Girls' stairs! By middle school we were allowed on both as that concept was being phased out but I suddenly remembered how slippy they felt under foot, with a herd of big boys thundering down at my back I often feared I wouldn't make it through to sixth year with my front teeth intact!

I'm sad I was in such a rush I forgot my camera. Fortunately Lots brought her phone - hence the one shot above. But in summing up, that place made me who I am. The love of language I got there resulted in a degree, two husbands, five kids, many séjours abroad and friends for life. It gave me back the self esteem primary school had effaced. I won prizes for Modern Languages, Maths, History, Chemistry. Miss Average worked her way up into the top four or five girls in the school academically and for that I can never underestimate its worth. I loved my six years at Eastwood and am sad that that building will be gone by this summer, but in a way it will never be gone because it lives on in me.


Unknown said...

Great stuff....Was I in your class...I remember Mr Sutherland as a teacher.think I left around 1981..Stuart Rorrison

Unknown said...

I remember Sutherland as a teacher ..were you in you in my class? Think I left late 1980s

Phyl said...

Not sure - I had him in 80-81 and again in 83-84