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On my first day back as a senior school teacher in the East End of London, I felt like a new girl all over again. This was a classroom, after all. Everyone had a desk and there was a desk for me in the front and a blackboard. I wrote my name on the blackboard and hoped I’d learn theirs quickly.
That first day I had a lot of difficulty understanding their accents. I tried to get them to write some things about themselves. Most of the girls could write about half a page of fairly simple language.
I wrote to New Zealand and had a record of Māori songs sent over. I played it to the girls. They loved it. They particularly loved ‘Pokarekare Ana’. They begged the music teacher to play it again and again. One day there was a delay on the tube and I was late for school. To cover for me the music teacher had taken her class and mine into the hall where they were singing together. When I stepped into the school doors music was drifting down the stairs from the hall. Its familiarity made me catch my breath. A cold, grey London day in a damp concrete stairwell and the haunting strains of ‘Pokarekare Ana’. As I reached the top of the stairs I became aware of a different sound. The girls from the special secondary school in the East End of London were joining in. In a sort of way they too were singing ‘Pokarekare Ana’. The words might not have been perfect but the spirit was. Tears pricked the back of my eyes. I entered the hall. The music teacher looked at me over their heads and smiled.
Vicki was sixteen, a small, gnome-like girl. She worked laboriously, concentrating hard with her head bent over her book, her mouth open, straining with the intense effort. She could produce about four lines of writing at a time. A simple letter or a short little story would take her all afternoon.
I knew that she was from a very poor family. She never complained and had a quizzical smile that would occasionally light up her face as she peered up at you through her National Health glasses which were always smudged and clouded. She didn’t have a lot to smile about.
Vicki had a minder, a friend who was by her side most of the time. Lena was as large as Vicki was small. Much taller than me, broad and solid, she and Vicki made an incongruous couple. Vicki wore the same sort of clothes every day, a print frock winter and summer, with a large, well-washed, slightly shrunken, hand-knitted jersey or cardigan over it. She always had on thick woollen stockings – these were the days before pantyhose. But the item of clothing that never varied was her hat, a striped tea cosy-type, also hand knitted. She wore it all day, pulled right down over her forehead, her bespectacled, beady eyes peering out from under it like some strange, timid woodland creature always on the watch. I never asked her to take her hat off in class; it seemed so much part of her, those wispy strands of light brown hair straying out from under its edge.
One day Lena marched into the classroom after lunch, bristling with indignation.
‘Myra flushed Vicki’s hat down the toilet!’ she shouted.
I went out into the hall. Vicki was standing there, not crying, an abject bundle of misery huddled against the wall. Bewilderment was written all over her. She seemed naked and exposed without her hat.
I raced to the toilet. There was the hat lying on the floor in a puddle of water. Not pausing to wonder what the water might be I picked up the hat and rinsed it under the tap.
‘There!’ I announced, supposing I’d cured everything. ‘We’ll put it on the heater to dry and it will be as good as new.’
Lena looked vindicated. Myra was told by me not to be so mean and given the evil eye by the other girls and Vicki slunk, a humiliated little shadow, to her desk.
The next day, she came to school for the first time without her hat. She never wore it again.
Life was often a sort of battle ground for these girls. It was harder for them to learn than it was for most of their peers in the regular schools, but they were interested, they tried their hardest most of the time. Often they felt cold and miserable and hungry. Some of them suffered great deprivation at home yet turned up at school, day after day cheerful. Many of them had dark rings under their eyes. They had no gardens to play in, no beaches to walk on, their houses were grimy and surrounded by bombsites, traffic and noise. They had months of grey winter in inadequately heated houses, some of them ill clothed and poorly fed, but I never heard them complaining.
Later when I was back in New Zealand I received letters that said things like, ‘… the school was closed for three days because there was ice in the toilets and we couldn’t flush them. I hope the sun is shining where you are.’
In December we decided to take some of the senior girls to the West End in a hired bus to see the Christmas lights. It was barely two miles away but many of the girls had never been there and those who had were vague as to where it was, having only been by tube. I heard one girl knowledgeably tell another, ‘We’re going to Souff-End to see the lights.’ As Southend was some thirty miles away she was a little out!
It was a wonderful outing. It got dark early and the day was dull so even in the afternoon we could see the lights in all their splendour. It was spectacular for me too. We didn’t have Christmas lights like this in New Zealand. There was silence in the bus – just oohs and aahs and sighs of satisfaction as, with open mouths the girls took it all in.
It was an adventure. By the time we drove back to the school at least four of the girls were fast asleep.