There’s something about your second year at high school that’s neither one thing nor the other. As a first year, you seem to be wrapped in some kind of a protective cocoon, as you’ve suddenly become no longer the oldest, but the youngest in the school. That can be a bit of a shock to the ego and the system, but it has its compensations. And once you go into the third year, well, that’s as good as half way through the passage into adulthood. But the second year? A trivial point, but at my school (which was over-subscribed and had more pupils than space) second years went to the back of the queue for lunch in the dining hall. I hasten to add we always had enough time to eat a reasonably adequate meal in a reasonably civilised manner, if we so chose, but we were neither cosseted children nor almost – well, almost almost - adults.
But so far as I was concerned, there was one massive compensation – in the form of Miss Vickers. In the first year we had only studied “Science” and it hadn’t been that different from the nature tables and experiments of junior school. Now it suddenly split into three branches. Miss Vickers was our biology teacher.
Just to elucidate: I was, to put it mildly, no scientific prodigy! I was bright enough, but had decided, even at not yet in my teens (and was to be proven right) that such gifts as I had lay in the arts. English, languages, history (as long as nobody went on too much about the Corn Laws) etc.
But to please Miss Vickers I would have spent every waking hour of the day (and most of the sleeping ones) learning all I needed to know and considerably more about photosynthesis. At that stage, by the way, though it was tacitly assumed most of us knew babies weren’t brought by storks or found behind gooseberry bushes, biology was not of the human variety!
Miss Vickers was the only person I had met outside the confines of a school story who could be described as willowy. I had met people who were tall, of course – my own father was very tall, and I was above average height myself. I had met people who were elegant, but somehow, most of them were small. Miss Vickers combined both. She had beautiful long dark brown hair that I would have said she wore in a ponytail, but that was entirely too undignified and childish a word for Miss Vickers. Its very severity and simplicity made me immediately decide I must grow my own hair again, though I’d been glad enough to have it cut as it was the kind of hair that could go from smooth to a mass of tangles in five minutes in a room with no breath of wind. Miss Vickers favoured mid-calf length skirts in dark or neutral colours, often wearing boots, but sometimes she allowed herself a splash of colour with her blouse or jumper, and favoured shades of green. Quite suitable for a biology teacher!
Look, I’m not going to say that I was above being charmed merely by striking good looks. I had already decided that when I grew up (which wasn’t that far off) I would look like Miss Vickers (after all, I was already tall for my age, and didn’t mind it at all now) and dress like Miss Vickers. But it went further than that. She had a lovely voice – it carried, even across the labs that were bigger than the normal classrooms, without her ever needing to even appear to raise it, let alone shout – and she never seemed to splutter and stutter the way some teachers did. It pained me that my English teacher Miss Carlton did, even though what she was saying was interesting! She didn’t stand stock still the way some teachers did, but didn’t constantly pace restively back and forth the way others did. She moved with grace, when it was necessary. And she could explain things so well! She was patient, and unflustered. She wasn’t what I called a smiley teacher. Oh, we had plenty of those! You know the kind I mean – they think the way to prove that they are approachable and fun and on your side is to look as if they perpetually have a coathanger stuck in their mouth. If female (and it afflicts women more than men) this is often accompanied by the punctuation of a high-pitched giggle. In repose – to use a phrase I had read and liked – Miss Vickers had quite a serious expression. Not exactly dreamy – it was more focused than that, and I was sure she was always thinking about something. But when she did smile, it was a real smile, a sincere smile, and her face and the room seemed to light up. Without having any actual concrete evidence of it I was sure that if anyone confided their problems to Miss Vickers she would take them seriously and do her best to help, but without being showy and expecting anything in return.
We didn’t have one of those wise and compassionate school story type headmistresses at our school. Miss Lawrence was okay – I didn’t dislike her. But she seemed to be distant and shallow at the same time and never conferred much dignity on assemblies, even on the big occasions like the beginning and end of term, or the last one before Christmas, or Remembrance Day.
Miss Vickers would make a much better headmistress, I decided, but she was too devoted to her subject. That opinion was mine, by the way, but I was confident she shared it.
I had convinced myself that of course she didn’t have favourites, but if she did, I would be one of them. She appreciated the fact that I tried my best and always looked at her with such rapt attention. I had been treated to one of her rare and meaningful smiles after all! You know what? Now, I can’t even remember what for. But I remember the glow. Hers, and mine.
There were certain rules of self-preservation, of course. We didn’t have a particular bullying problem, but a girl who developed a “thing” about a particular teacher could be teased. That was the word we used – a thing. We knew the old-fashioned terms like crush or pash, but a thing was much the same. So I tried to keep it low-key and even to add a touch of adolescent irony, though I didn’t hesitate to defend her if anyone criticised her – which they rarely did. Now here’s the contradiction – I wanted others to worship at the shrine of Miss Vickers (a phrase I only used in my thoughts, of course, and even that not often, because it sounded as if it ought to be ironic) because she deserved it and it was an eminently wise thing to do, but also wanted to be unique and special in my devotion. And of course, I couldn’t have it both ways! I did once come close to crossing a boundary when I thought that Miss Vickers seemed to have a particularly heavy armful of books and offered to help her carry them. She was very kind, but said in her quiet and economical way, “Thank you for offering, Denise, but your next class is French, isn’t it, and that’s on the other side of the school. Anyway, I have quite strong arms, you know!” Ah – that’s jogged my memory – that was one occasion where I got the reward of the smile. Unfortunately it was – no, I won’t say spoilt, but tempered, by Wendy Harrison sneering – when Miss Vickers was out of earshot, of course - “Oh, Miss Vickers, let me lick your boots, they do taste good!” I treated such a remark with the contempt they deserved, thinking that Wendy’s mindset hadn’t advanced much beyond junior school, let alone the first year. She was probably only jealous.
As you may have gathered, one of my favourite words at the time was ironic and I was aware of the irony of Miss Vickers NOT accepting my offer of a favour, but Mrs Cromwell, our history teacher (but her lessons on the English Civil War were entirely impartial, despite the name!) asked me to do her one. Still, I was fond enough of Mrs Cromwell. She was nice, in an ordinary kind of way, and I didn’t mind when she asked me if I’d be so good as to drop in on the staff room, as I was headed that way in any case, and ask Mrs Hope if she’d cover for her afternoon classes as she had what she termed a domestic emergency. She didn’t confide the details of it to me, but I wasn’t overcome by curiosity and didn’t feel especially deprived. A trip to the staffroom was both a pain and a privilege. Smoking was allowed in it then, and a considerable number of our teachers did smoke. I was sure Miss Vickers didn’t. It was like stepping into a fug and feeling a bit like an alien. But it also gave us the pleasant frisson of encroaching on their territory and pointing out to them (without saying so, of course!) that it wasn’t the schoolgirl-free sanctum they liked to think it was. I barely knew Mrs Hope, who taught mainly in the senior school. I could recognise her, as she had rather distinctive hair, but not in a good way, like Miss Vickers – it was a strange shade of pinkish-orange, and something of a puzzle. Nobody’s natural hair could be that colour, surely, but then again, nobody would choose to dye it that colour, would they? To be frank, it seemed that was the only interesting thing about her, though I’d had no experience of her teaching.
Now show me the person who’s never given into the temptation of eavesdropping, and I’ll show you someone who’s either lying, too saintly for their own good, or wholly lacking in healthy curiosity. But it’s a fact that it’s more often a bad idea than a good one. The staffroom door wasn’t that substantial, though I don’t know if I really could smell the smoke through it or only imagined I did. But I could certainly hear the conversation going on beyond the sign saying, “Please always knock and only enter when requested to.” Credit where it’s due, they did say please, though it was plain it was only aimed at the pupils. I paused before I knocked. And I heard Miss Vickers’ familiar voice, that voice that carried without any effort, and without any squawking or rasping or spluttering. I would have dearly loved to think that maybe it wasn’t her voice, but it was.
“God, this has been one of those days! Why did I ever become a teacher?” I just knew, instinctively, that the pause was to inhale her cigarette. “Well, I know why, of course, because I didn’t have the money to go into research, and so here I am, pretending I’m interested in knocking the basic facts about photosynthesis into the heads of a pack of tedious boneheads!”
“Oh, come on, Maureen, they’re not that bad!” I recognised Miss Carlton’s unlovely voice.
“You have the patience of a saint, Julia, not to mention a genuine vocation,” but something in the way she said it told me it was not meant as a compliment, and whilst I wasn’t especially bothered by Miss Carlton not being complimented, I felt as if I were having a crisis of faith. I knew what one felt like, even before I knew what it was – our RE classes didn’t tend to be about the more introspective elements of religion!
It was also the first time I’d heard her laugh – and I didn’t like that laugh. Oh, the actual surface sound of it was fine, but not the tone of it. In that instant I felt both older and younger. I felt as if I had grown up in an instant, and as if I were a very silly little girl. Like an automaton, I knocked on the door, and delivered the message to Mrs Hope, who nodded and thanked me. Only two minutes before I would have been desperate to catch Miss Vickers’ eye and see perhaps the hint of a smile. Now I was “glad” she was apparently deep in conversation with the physics teacher and didn’t even seem to notice I was there. I put the word “glad” in quote marks because I felt sure I would never be glad about anything at all, ever again.
I never told anyone, of course. And it goes without saying I tried the denial and explanation tactics. She was just going along with what others had said. It wasn’t what she really thought. She was having a temporary aberration – another phrase I liked. She was feeling ill or had some domestic emergency of her own.
I wanted to make it better, and I wanted not to care. I still worked hard in my biology classes, but had no especial interest in them. With childish resilience (or perhaps shallowness, or both) it became bearable, and the physical jolt of betrayal abated. But at one and the same time I still craved Miss Vickers’ smile and constantly saw the feet of clay inside those smart leather boots. Wendy had been nasty, but had been right. I might as well have licked them. Sometimes I dreaded biology classes as they reminded me of my Paradise Lost, at other times, I just saw them as something to be endured.
Oddly, the nearest I came to experiencing fellow-feeling was from my Dad – and it came unknowingly because, as I’ve said, I never mentioned it to anyone. He was a big football fan, and one day – it must have been three or four months later – it turned out that one of his favourite players had been involved in a drug-dealing scandal. He sighed, and said, “I know we can all do daft things, and nobody’s perfect, but I doubt I’ll ever see him in the same light again. Well, it tells you something about my slewed perspectives that I would have preferred Miss Vickers had been caught in drug dealing (I just about knew what it was) than revealing that she was anything but a devoted and wonderful teacher. But I could see what he meant.
It dawned on me that it could have been worse – she could have been talking about me in particular, rather than teaching in general. Maybe she did, before or after, but I never knew, and never wanted to know.
Well, decades have passed, and I’m a teacher now, an English teacher. I think I’m pretty competent and reasonably well-liked. But I don’t have a great vocation either, and perhaps, at last, I understand Miss Vickers and the wound has healed, more or less. There’s no smoke in the staffroom now, though it still doesn’t suit some people. But there will still be children who pause by the door and hear things they don’t want to hear.