The Dragon

She was the sort of teacher everyone fears and dreads.  A veritable dragon!

I wonder if teachers like her still exist?  I doubt it.

It was a Grammar school – a convent, actually.  But she wasn’t the Headmistress, she was some sort of sidekick or deputy.  She certainly had the authority though – the authority to make children’s lives a misery.

She was a ‘Miss’ not a ‘Mrs’, so presumably a spinster.  She was quite elderly when I knew her, with grey hair and glasses worn on a chain, but not so elderly that she didn’t have plenty of energy to stalk about the corridors looking for troublemakers and spreading terror!

We had regular etiquette lessons from her.  I can’t imagine that happens these days, unless it’s in some private Swiss finishing school!  We learned how to use a knife and fork properly, and I must admit I am influenced by her teaching to this day.  I totally agree that the ends of the knife and the fork should be hidden in the palm of the hand – a piece of cutlery should not be held like a pencil!  It’s a question of doing things properly!  Also, if turning a fork the other way, for example to eat peas, one should pass the fork from one’s left to one’s right hand.  I can’t help it, I still do this!  Think of all the people scooping peas into their mouths with the wrong hand and not even realising how outrageously wrong that is!

Another thing we learned, I have to say was less useful.  I suppose these old rules of etiquette lapse at slightly different times in society, and this one had already had its day.  It was the instruction that a lady should always back out of a room – you should keep facing the people you are talking to and back towards the door, before turning to leave.  We all had to practise it, one by one!  Maybe we retain a bit of that in formal business meetings or interviews, certainly to the extent of not turning your back on someone too soon.  But really, can you imagine what the poor woman would have made of today’s complete lack of etiquette – for example with mobile phone use?  Not only do people take calls in meetings and at work, talk loudly to their friends on the train, and ignore notices not to use mobiles in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, but apparently children all use mobiles in the classroom, texting and sending rude messages to their mates under their teacher’s nose!  They wouldn’t have got away with it in her class!

We had very formal eating arrangements in that school.  You didn’t go up to a counter of any sort, like in a café.  We sat in tables of about ten children with one ‘Head of Table’ who served up the main dish for everyone else, and the positions to the left and right of the Head helping with serving the potatoes and vegetables.  Everyone except the Head moved round one place every day so that everyone took a turn helping with the serving.  The person at the other end of the table had to clear up – in other words, everyone took their turn at this.  Very fair.

I must have been judged sufficiently responsible to be a Head of Table, because I remember clearly the sense of responsibility of serving others their food.  You learned a strange sort of selflessness, because if you got the portion sizes wrong and dished out too much to the other nine, there wouldn’t be enough meat left for yourself, and there would be nothing you could do about it except graciously accept the consequences of your mistake.  (I particularly remember this happening with a bowl of red jelly – I never got any!)  Of course you couldn’t possibly have taken too much for yourself, it would be too obvious.

The Dragon must have been responsible for the Dinner Room, because she would patrol it, controlling the timings, saying Grace, occasionally calling a halt to the proceedings (ie the eating of dinner, or lunch as we’d all call it now) to issue some instruction or reprimand.

She was adamant about waste.  Throwing food away was not to be tolerated!

The incident which is burned in my mind from all those years ago (I would say I was about 11 or 12 at the time) was the incident of the boiled egg.  (To be honest I’m only 99% sure it was an egg.  Just possibly it was a tomato.)

She banged on a table (or possibly rang a bell) to get our attention, then hoisted aloft, between thumb and forefinger, a complete hard-boiled egg which she had discovered and fished out from the food waste bin at the top of the room.

“What is this?” she glowered at us poor children, sitting with food in front of us, keen to continue consuming.

“Who is responsible for throwing away this egg?”  She spun around so everyone could see the object in question.

Silence.

A protracted lecture on wastefulness followed.

“I am not going to let you continue, or indeed leave this room, until someone has owned up to throwing this perfectly good egg into the waste bin.”

I remember the sense of annoyance and embarrassment and frustration at the situation.  I was innocent, and so was everyone at my table!  Obviously only one poor soul in the room must have been shaking with guilt and testing their resolve in the lying department.  Everyone else just sat there absorbing The Dragon’s anger and dreading the possible consequences for all of us.

I’m afraid I can’t remember whether anyone owned up, or whether she eventually gave up and let us carry on eating.  But the incident of the wasted egg must be burned into a few other minds somewhere, too – especially that of the guilty party!

I don’t think I was a naughty child, but I once played some sort of silly prank on a friend, leaving her satchel outside The Dragon’s office and telling her that she had been summoned.  Of course this backfired when the friend actually knocked on the dreaded door, and it was me who ended up sitting quaking in front of The Dragon’s desk, full of remorse and apology.

When I look back now, I wonder if the woman was fair.  As children, we might have feared her strict approach, but that surely is what many feel is lacking from schools and from society these days.  Was she overly strict?  Was she innately nasty?  A bully who enjoyed terrorising people?

I think the answer must be no.  In later years, we warmed to her and grew to respect her, and as a sixth former, I recall visiting her at home after she had retired – getting offered tea and cakes and reminiscing about the old school (which had by this time been demolished and lives on – with its echoing corridors, fascinating garden, and secret chapel – only in my mind).  By that time she was a sort of Mr Chips character – loved and respected by all her ex-pupils, no longer a Dragon in anyone’s eyes.

I suppose I could look up when she died, even find where she was buried, but I guess I didn’t know, or love, her quite enough for that.

But she lives on, because I think of her often (well, occasionally) whilst I am eating peas!  And if she’s looking down on me, I’m sure she would approve, because I don’t believe I’ve ever thrown away a whole boiled egg!

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