My teachers at Primary school were a mixed bunch. I’ve described the first three over the last couple of days. Today we will end with Miss Hazel, the psychopathic and the one man, Mr Hole, the avuncular.
Miss Hazel was known as ‘Witch’ Hazel which, if you aren’t familiar with the same, is a medicinal product but, in our eyes, she was anything but soothing and restorative. In many ways she looked like my Gran – small, tightly packed white hair, puckered lips from less than well fitted false teeth. But while the chassis might seem the same, under the bonnets they were totally different vehicles. She was a rip roaring, snorting beast of a woman who terrified us even when she was looking down and we couldn’t see her eyes. If you’ve ever wondered what happened to medusa, well, she entered teacher training college in 1946 and ended up terrorising form 2 at Maple Road Primary.
Much like most pain, it is difficult to recall exactly how bad it was save by a comparison with every other teacher before or since – she set a new low, a personal best in egregious fear and loathing.
Miss Hazel loved loud noises. Mostly her voice, an instrument of delicious torture that had been honed as a template for the hands free phone; she could be heard miles away. But also, variously her ruler (on desks and hands), desk lids (slammed shut and be sure you got your fingers away because she wasn’t worried), classroom doors (ditto) and, somehow and don’t ask me how, closing an exercise book after she’d marked it.
I recall one poor soul – Angela something – caught talking to a friend across the gangway. Wholly innocent I suspect, but Senator Joseph McCarthy couldn’t have been more suspicious of Angela.
‘What is it, girl?’ The absence of a name was not a good sign, as if anonymizing the culprit rendered them expendable.
Angela was traumatised, instantly rendered both mute and the subject of uncontrollable muscle movements. For some that meant an unfortunate leakage but, and history doesn’t relate why, in Angela’s case she lost complete control of her left hand. That can be the only explanation because the next thing we knew, Angela was whimpering with her hand bent at a peculiar angle across the desk. Somehow – and no one could do this if they tried – she had jammed her pinky into the inkwell. Even back in the dark ages of my school days we had moved beyond quill pens and ink-in-wells but the desks remained those from a different generation and thus contained a now redundant ink well.
‘What are you doing, girl?’
Even if she could have spoken, articulating exactly what she had done was clearly beyond Angela.
Miss Hazel approached the ensnared pupil and, having carried out a comprehensive health and safety and risk assessment, grabbed her hand and tried to yank it free.
Now, pausing here momentarily, we should consider that, while Miss Hazel was probably in her fifties, she still retained the residual strength of her simian forebears. The entrapped pinky was made of sterner stuff and refused to budge.
It was difficult enough for her to both remain seated and have a finger embedded in a small china inkwell on the far edge of her desk – though standing up without permission was a crime no known punishment fitted so she had determined to remain seated at all costs.
‘All costs’, however, didn’t factor in the irresistible force of a psychopathic primary teacher with a fetish for free-to-view pinkies meeting the immovable object – viz the reluctant pinky. Two things gave at the same time. First Miss Hazel’s head tipped forward at speed and second, a beat behind, Angela’s bonce mirrored Miss Hazel’s. The clash was as inevitable as it was appalling. The sound outdid any created by Miss Hazel’s quotidian ill temper.
The two females flew apart, both holding the site of the impact, both moaning in a sort of cranial plain chant. The kerfuffle that followed involved other teachers, the school nurse and, proof there was a God, early break time.
It was almost as if the spark was knocked out of Miss Hazel in the impact. Memory suggests that she never quite regained her former stature as gorgon-in-tweed. But perhaps it was the knowledge that even the most challenging teacher could be brought low by a well timed head-butt.
Mr Hole – aka Holey – was a different kettle of shark entirely. He came from Dunstable, which, because he told us so often I assumed it had to be a sort of Valhalla – well until I visited it and realised it about as interesting as any suburban enclave. He wore wonky spectacles which he was always pushing up his nose, shirts that were congenitally untuckable, a string vest that appeared at tantalising intervals and the most infectious enthusiastic approach to learning I think I’ve ever had. Nothing seemed to be uninteresting. How windows opened, the contents of the bottom of Douglas Jeroboam’s satchel, a scientific comparison of knee cap scars, door mats and, most intriguing of all, the shape of drying puddles on the playground after rain.
He also got me writing. In his class I set up a form newspaper with three friends – the aforementioned Douglas, Christopher Grohmann and Paul Kirsch. We asked for copy and stuck the stories on large white sheets of paper – the Maple Road Times – which proudly hung from a small loop of string near the blackboard for its three or four editions before we ran out of material. And I wrote a series of plays – Sleepy Halt Junction, based loosely on ancient Will Hay films, especially Oh Mr Porter.
Ah me. Happy days. Sadly, while he fired our enthusiasm in many ways, Mr Hole didn’t prepare us for our Eleven Plus exams, a monstrous conceit that channeled children’s futures as effectively as a lottery. Somehow, through the intervention of a rather delightful bear, I secured a place at a grammar school and, academically, my future was safe. It could easily, might easily have been so different. If you want to read about my marmalade loving rescuer, click here.