Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A guest at my table - Mrs M

I am looking at a salt and pepper grinder in John Lewis. One click and there is pepper, turn it round and pure white sea salt is dispersed with a second click. People are like this, sometimes; like politicians appealing to every denomination and social strata they click and turn, click and turn. I want my pepper mill to grind pepper, my salt mill salt. They are different heights, different weights and I can see them on a dark night with the lights turned down low without having to squint. They are comfortably permanently the same. This is how I want them to remain.

It is the Autumn of 1981 and a new term at a new college has begun. There is a river of oil on water as the products of two diametrically opposed educational systems seek to merge, or spar. This is the Conservative heartland of Henley-on-Thames. George Harrison is ensconced next door and the local MP has too much make-up on his face from too many television appointments. He is Michael Hesseltine. He thinks in coming here to this little sixth form college in his own backyard that he will have an easy ride. He is wrong. There is a battle going on between the plummy debs and the backyard Stanleys and the lines have been drawn. This is a state school still, but infiltrated en masse by a lobby of partly-educated private and public school adolescents whose parents seek to skim the cream off a state education beacon of excellence. We don't recognise it as such - the plebs without another place to go - it is our nearest and only college within miles of this warren of tiny villages we all inhabit.

The stage is set for a pageant. The principle arrives in flowing robes and a special song is installed in us and reverberates. We state school pupils role our eyes and look for the exits. And there, standing on the stage in the line up of performing clowns is Mrs M. She looks bemused and alert as she gazes from face to face, checking out what the winter winds have blown in for her to sculpt.

The building is a Victorian Gothic fantasy, much like Harrison's, but half way down the drive, hidden by trees and a mountain of rhododendron bushes are a couple of seedy old portacabins - much like any well-thumbed state school - where a cauldron of discontent and future subversives is brewing. This is where the Politics and Sociology classes have been ousted to; to be tolerated at a distance. Mrs M roars up in her sports car and parks it round the back. Her hair is expensively maintained and immaculate. She is bright, articulate with red nails and a Bank Manager husband heading the large fort back home. She talks of equality and an education system for all before collecting her own sons from boarding school for the weekend. She has seen both sides of the street and decided for herself which one to stand on. This is easy for she is pretty and shiny whilst emitting with passion ideals formed in the hot bed of the LSE. We love her for her passion. We tolerate her dichotomy in a world she seeks to change by engaging minds and sowing seeds.

There is a gradual melding of two social systems as we try to become more alike. Toffee-nosed airs are ripped down and grungy clothing is ubiquitously the order of the day. A uniform of  black is taking over in the politics block. CND badges replace the old school blazer laudatum and enquiring minds are put to work uncovering the blinkers and the legacy of social backgrounds. There is anger, there is hunger and a thirst for new ideas and political ideals. Reality does not intervene with all its mundane certainty as Mrs M keeps court. Back to the hall for the week's drill of gowns and flamboyant lecturing. Back to the Nissan hut for a quick roll up and decoding of the subversive indoctrination we've all been party to. One system seeks to neutralise the other. It is ping pong and we are the vacuous white balls in play.

I am putting the dish of Chicken and Spelt on the table as my guest comes flying in on a wave of energy, her eyes darting everywhere, the light in them flickering as she surveys the room. I am wanting to know how the intervening years have mellowed her; whether her ideals have faded at the edges as the will to fight ebbs; or whether the energy to cultivate young minds is as fresh as it ever was. A good teacher carries her pupils along on a wave of passion and discovery. Mrs M was born to teach.

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