Monday, 5 September 2011

My First History Teacher by K. M. Grant


My first history teacher was my grandfather, not just because he loved the past and took me to Hadrian’s Wall, but because he had history embedded in his face. Though barely of age, he fought in the First World War and, through bravery and mischance, a piece of casing from a Mills bomb ripped into his cheek. It was thought he would die, but he did not, though the bomb casing was never removed and such was the damage to his facial nerves that forever afterwards his cheek sweated when he ate so the flow of history was quite visible, as it were. I often wondered about this wound, but with the stupidity of the young never asked my grandfather much about it. It wasn’t that I thought it dull: I thought it too personal.

(A small aside. In a curious twist, since 1990 the right hand side of my face has also sweated when I eat. The reason, I’m afraid, is not nearly so poignant as my grandfather’s. My nerves were damaged during a parotidectomy (don’t look it up or you’ll think you need one too). If only my grandfather had lived longer, we might have shared the red spotted handkerchief with which he dealt with this irritation.)

I remember no history being taught at my Catholic primary school, but at my convent boarding school, history was taught with violent enthusiasm by Sister Mark. It is she who ranks as my first history teacher because she was the first teacher of history I had come across for whom history was a thrill. Nor did she feel any need to disguise this thrill just because teaching history to schoolgirls is a serious business. Far from it. She ended each lesson on a cliff-hanger, her favourite adjective was ‘devastating’ and her account of the Crimea left me open-mouthed with horror and pity. We learned a great deal about Gladstone and Disraeli, and so infected did I become with the former’s style that Sister Mark warned me, tongue only half in cheek, against becoming ‘inebriated with the exuberance of [my] own verbosity’. It was useful advice.

Sister Mark also introduced our class to a history textbook whose dry facts were occasionally relieved by flashes of imagination. ‘The Socialists wanted real power, not lollipops’ sticks in my mind, though I’m afraid I can’t remember to which socialists the lollipops had been given. That was my introduction to historiography, since only then did it strike me that history textbooks were written by real people, not fact-checking robots. That particular book was written by one M. L. R. Isaac, headmaster of Latymer Upper School. Though I never met Mr. Isaac, I still think of him as one of my first teachers because he taught me the value of surprise.


At a convent school, nuns all consider themselves history teachers of a sort. Our school was no different. The Forty Martyrs were often invoked as figures of veneration, though Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was never mentioned, our headmistress taking a pretty dim view of Protestants. Nevertheless, Sister Mark did an excellent job ad maiorem Dei gloriam, as befitted her vocation.

K.M. Grant has written nine historical novels, the most recent of which is Belle's Song. Find out more about her and her books at kmgrant.org

7 comments:

Caroline Lawrence said...

So your first "history teacher" doesn't actually have to be a history teacher? Brilliant! You've now inspired me to go blog about my first history teacher, Mary Renault!

See? That's what good writing does. It inspires creativity in others. :-)

Katherine Langrish said...

Ooh yes! Mary Renault rocks.
Fascinating post, Katie! It never occurred to me as a child that history books could in any way be biased or 'wrong'...

H.M. Castor said...

I love your description of Sister Mark teaching history "with violent enthusiasm" - it conveys so much, so wonderfully! What a marvellous post all round. Your mirroring (for such a different reason) of your grandfather's cheek 'irritation' is such a poignant detail. For what it's worth I don't think you were 'stupid', incidentally, not to've asked about his wound on account of it being, you thought, too personal... It's easy to think, in retrospect, that asking the question would have been easy if only you'd seized the chance... and perhaps it might have been. But sometimes people genuinely don't want to talk about things - and sometimes we sense that by instinct, even as children.

Book Maven said...

Lovely post and it made me gulp a bit because, if Mary Renault is a history teacher (which she clearly is) then all of us writers of historical fiction are too! Big responsibility.

adele said...

Terrific post! About to go over and google Parotidectomy....

michelle lovric said...

DON'T DO IT, ADELE!

Great post. I was taught Latin by a nun as, after a certain level, my college didn't offer it but I was determined to continue. So I used to take a ferry across Sydney Harbour to a convent, where the nun and I struggled to maintain propriety while translating meaty Catullus and fleshy Ovid one-on-one. She was a kind person, and little deserves the evil nuns I've written since. I wonder if anyone else has a sense of betrayal about their first history teacher?

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Wonderful post! And like, Carolyn, I was a huge Mary Renault fan as a kid. Also the teacher with a "violent enthusiasm" for history sounds like an amazing person. How much of leaving each lecture as a cliff-hanger, I wonder, infused your work as novelist?