Thursday, 28 July 2011

My History Teacher by Adèle Geras

When I first started Tweeting as a History Girl, I needed a name in a hurry. I became a little confused, and thought somehow that the username had to be as cryptic as the password. I came up with DWUSKID and since that day, I've had many people wondering (a)why I didn't simply go by my real name and (b) why the mysterious DWUSKID?

Once this post has gone up, I'm going to try and change my profile on Twitter and become @adelegeras. But DWUSKID comes from DWU and DWU was my History Teacher for all the years that I was in the Senior School at Roedean. Dorothy Butcher was her real name but she was universally known as DWU, which I'm afraid was short for Death Warmed Up. She must have known this, I'm sure, but she never referred to it.

She was so called because she was extremely pale and skinny and always seemed old to us. In all the years I knew her, she never changed and indeed it was very hard to imagine her being young. She wore pale sage-coloured or grey or pale blue suits and pastel blouses in yellowish beige and cream and her hair, which I imagine must once upon a time have been a magnificent shade of red...that golden red verging on strawberry blonde...was now the colour of very pale straw. It was also wispy and there wasn't much of it. What there was she gathered into a kind of loose bun at the nape of her neck. She had big teeth and a slightly receding chin. She spoke quietly. She was the opposite of imposing - almost ghostlike in the way she drifted about the place and perhaps her nickname had something to do with her spectral aspect.

But the wafty langour hid a very sharp and clear intelligence and a real love of History. I know she was a good teacher because she made so many of us love her classes. I can't remember exactly how she taught, after all these years, which is odd. I can still do an imitation of my French teacher, and I could also reconstruct an English lesson taught by either Miss Sturgis or Miss Godfray, but DWU's shostly qualities seem to have spread over her classes and all I can remember is: I loved them and I was very fond of her.

One of the reasons I liked her so much was (and this is very common, I'm sure as a reason for pupils liking teachers) she liked me. She also liked what I wrote for her. There's nothing so encouraging for a pupil as a teacher's admiration and praise. I still recall a remark she once scribbled at the top of one of my exam papers. I was answering a question on Louis XIV's foreign policy (this must have been just before O levels, I imagine...maybe even Mock O levels). I obviously hadn't worked very hard on foreign policy, but by heck I knew tons about Versailles and the Sun King and so forth. I got a very good mark for the question. DWU wrote: You gain this mark for your understanding and love of the period. A few more facts about the foreign policy would not have come amiss.

I dropped History after O level and am still not good about 'the facts,' though I do still love the period atmosphere, the clothes, the art, the music: the feel of different times in the past. It was DWU who made me realize that there was more to history than treaties, Corn Laws, battles etc. There were people. There were, above all, STORIES.

I've tried to canvass Old Roedeanians about DWU. Messages asking for anecdotes have gone up on Old Roedeanian Facebook pages but with no result. I don't know why that is. Maybe because DWU left Roedean in the early 70s and most Facebookers won't have known her.

She died in 1990. She lives on in my memory. I am grateful to her for showing me how fascinating History is and I don't regret calling myself DWUSKID. But to make life easier, I'm now going to try and change my name on Twitter. Dorothy Butcher,rather belatedly, thank you for all you did for me.

17 comments:

Caroline Lawrence said...

I loved this post! A tender tribute to an inspiring teacher. I would love to hear other History Girls' tales of influential teachers and mentors! Thanks, Adele!

Sue Purkiss said...

Well, it's an obvious comment to make, but her story needs to be told! Very intriguing and beautifully spooky... I had the opposite experience of history teaching at school All I remember is table after table of facts relating to the Industrial and Agrarian Revolutions - nothing that took you into the impact on real lives. I dropped history as soon as I could, at the end of year nine/third year. Funny, that!

Cesca said...

As a history teacher I read this post and smiled. I hope pupils are able to say the same about me in years to come, that they see through the dry dates and the details to the drama and people. Great post, Cesca

Sally Prue said...

This reminds me of the marvellous Olive Kitteridge. Of course Adele's already written about a fictional Roedean from the children's point of view, but I'd love a novel about the teachers.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This was a wonderful tribute Adele. I had an inspired History teacher (a nun)who allowed 2 of us to choose our own option in the syllabus and study the influence of Dutch Architecture in the Cape. We had a wonderful time catching trains and buses all over Cape Town and Constantia sipping coffee in places called La Perla and Luigi's... (this was the 60's when to me this was the height of chic.. didn't I dream of being Sophia Loren!)It was my first venture alone into the big city. But I can still remember everything there is to know about Dutch gables and the sculptor Anton Anreith.
PS I rather like DWUSKID as I read it as Whizzkid!

Linda Sargent said...

Yes, I agree Sally. Would love a story about Dorothy...

Juliet said...

We had a wonderful history teacher in Bradford called Miss Adams. her catchphrase was "super!" She passed on her love for writers like Rosemary Sutcliff and Barbara Willard and I remember her very fondly.

nadia said...

Thank you for reminding me of DWU .
I actually asked her about her name and she told me.
My memory of her teaching is very vivid. She used to sit perched on her stool in front of the blackboard and would write with first the left hand then slightly twist herself and write with the left.
She was very tolerant and didn't mind my comment about it must be terrible to be burnt like a steak when she said burnt at the stake.
A small prayer for her hopefully to keep her memory warm for us.

nadia said...

I was at Roedean from 1964-1967 and took history for O-level. My comment was because I could not really speak English then.

nadia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rosalind Adam said...

I do hope DWU knew how much you admired her. I was a history teacher many years ago, before I retrained as a primary school teacher. My reason for retraining was because trying to teach history to GCSE students was destroying my love of the subject.

H.M. Castor said...

I love DWU's comment on your essay, Adele. What a marvellous attitude for a teacher to take. And what a lovely tribute to her it is that you still consider yourself 'DWU's kid'!

Emma Darwin said...

Lovely post! And yes, we all need teachers who don't teach to the test, but to the heart of the subject, and the pupil.

I had some very good History teachers, but, paradoxically, it was a very good teacher at A Level who actually made me realise that I didn't want to read it at University. She was young and very good at conveying what real, academic history was like in the 70s and 80s: shy of the grand narratives and explanations and personalities which since I was six had been my love, and keen on parliamentary division records and and economics. So I went off to read Drama instead.

Now, of course, History has moved back towards Big History. But even so, Schama's more constrained in his telling of the French Revolution than Hilary Mantel is, so I'm not sorry. Thank you, Dr Doran, for making it happen!

Louisa Young said...

Keith Lovell: 'Vikings! You know! The ones tihe horned helmets and wives who looked like Louisa!"
Miss McDonald: green tailored tweed suit, scarlet lipstick, black bob, Boston accent, perfect sarcasm.
Dick Woollett: taught from a small wooden throne with a knob in the back on which was blu-tacked a small toy Paddington Bear carrying a flag with written on it: HISTORY IS NOT BUNK. Let me off prayers in exchange for a donut and pot of coffee waiting for in his kitchen after them. Got me in to Cambridge.
Mr Seeley: 'What's that noise outside the window? Boy, go and look.' 'It's tourists sir!' 'Spit on them.'
Norman Stone: dear god were would you begin?

Bless them all. Thanks Adele for reminding me.

adele said...

Super to read all these comments! And esp. Nadia's. THANK YOU NADIA for reminding me of DWU'S amazing ambidextrousness. How could I have forgotten such a thing? It makes you wonder how selective our memories are all the time about everything. But now thanks to Nadia, it has come back to me...the stool and everything. Fantastic.

Judy said...

Your description of Dwu brought memories flooding back. Strange how one can forget the existence of someone one moment, and then recall them so clearly after a little prompting. I do remember her well - as I do you, Adele. I believe you were in House 4, weren't you? The teachers I remember best are Stooge (whom you also mention) and Miss O'Callaghan, who was truly inspiring.

Judy said...

I forgot to add, Adele, that I was at Roedean from 1957 to 1965 (first in the Junior House, then House 4).