10 November 2010

A teacher from the Dawn of Time

As I was precocious and read a lot, when I was ten I was certainly as familiar with the pre-1945 world as someone born ten years earlier than I was. This was a very different world, qualitatively, from the post-1945 world. However, in spite of the apparent advantages of the pre-war world, the current ideology must have been incubating within it, and I did not get any support except from people who were a good deal older than I was, more like 40 years older than ten.
When I went to the Society for Psychical Research I was initially supported by Sir George Joy and Helen Verrall (Mrs Salter) in plans which others opposed on account of my lack of social status. And those who were most instrumental in my being promoted to the Lower Fifth when I was thirteen, a maths mistress called Miss Bookey and the Reverend Mother, were both something like 40 years older than I was. All three of us were living in a world view distinct from the current one, but the modern ideology was already active and soon asserted itself.
Celia Green with her parents,
William Green and Dorothy Green, c.1947
Miss Bookey enacted the role of the teacher who could see what opportunities would be good for her inexperienced pupil, and exerted herself to bring them about. You could call this paternalism in the old-fashioned sense. I never experienced anything like this attitude again.
Miss Bookey started to teach me when I was eleven at the start of the Lower Fourth year (second year of grammar school). She appeared to be enthused by my exceptionality and was quoted as having said admiring things about me (e.g. that I was ‘luminous with intelligence’). At the same time she appeared actively to like me.
I remember an incident which, subsequently, I took as an indication that she already had it in mind to get me into a higher form. I asked her for some information about geometry which was not provided by the thin and very introductory book used in that form. ‘It isn’t in your book,’ she said. ‘In the higher forms they use a much larger geometry textbook. Wouldn’t you like to be working from the larger book?’ She peered at me as if trying to read my mind. ‘Oh yes, I would,’ I said uncertainly, wondering what was the relevance of this. Was she going to offer to lend me one of these books?
Nothing appeared to come of this at the time, but some time later, probably about a year later, the Reverend Mother proposed to my father that I should be moved up a year, and when this had happened Miss Bookey (who did not teach the Lower Fifth which I had entered) came up to me in the playground looking very happy and pleased with herself, and asked me how I was getting on.
‘Oh, it’s wonderful,’ I said, ‘Everything is fine. I am just amazed that I am still getting As. I really thought that when I moved up I should be prepared to get Bs and Cs at first.’
‘Oh no!’ she said. ‘You could never get Cs.’ And we parted on that note of congratulatory admiration.
I remember also, as an incident that somehow expresses the outlook of a bygone age, that when I had been told I was going to be moved up a year I received a message from the Reverend Mother asking whether I had done any maths in advance of that which had been done by the form I was in.
I went to the Reverend Mother’s room and said that I was afraid I had not, and (a bit apprehensively) that I hoped this would not make any difference to my being moved up into the Lower Fifth. The Reverend Mother was, like Miss Bookey after the move, looking very happy and pleased with herself. ‘Oh no,’ she said laughingly, putting on an act to a teacher who was sitting in the room. ‘It won’t make any difference to that. But it might affect whether you move up to the Upper Fifth. I was wondering whether to move you up two years straight away.’
Actually I had constantly asked my father to help me get started on later chapters in the maths textbooks, as well as on topics that were completely beyond them, such as trigonometry and calculus, but he had always refused on some pretext or another, such as that I could not do calculus until I had done more algebra first.
In languages, my father had been unable to hold me up, as he could not prevent me from proceeding to more advanced reading. He had given me some initial help in visiting Foyle’s Bookshop to pick out the very easiest readers, although there were sometimes signs that he disapproved of what I chose to read.