Sunday 30 October 2011
My First History Teacher by Mary Hoffman
She had long dark hair, a purple silk shirtwaister dress and was my first form teacher at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich. But the most fascinating thing to me was that she was married, as so few of the teachers in this all girls independent school were. She was Mrs Grisbrooke and I thought she was absolutely beautiful. To this Scholarship Girl she was a romantic dream of what a grown-up woman might be.
She was also my History teacher but not Head of department; that was a white-haired "old" lady whose name was Miss Wren. But Mrs Grisbrooke taught us about Villeins and strip farming and the Feudal system. In fact, I now realise that she planted a seed of interest in the Middle Ages in me that - although slowly - grew into the abiding passion I have now. You might even stretch a point and say that I owe my career as a historical novelist to Mrs Grisbrooke.
I hardly had time for the terrible implications of my teacher's possible departure to sink in before Mrs Grisbrooke had answered cheerfully, "Oh, I'm not pregnant. I'm always this shape." I found out her name when I saw her obituary in the school magazine a few years ago. Maureen. She and her husband, who is also dead, never had any children. I do hope she didn't mind that mother's thoughtless remark too deeply.
I wonder who inherited that topaz ring? I hope Mrs Grisbrooke had a niece or a god-daughter who still swivels it round their finger.
But of course she did have children; she had Lower lVi and all the many other classes she must have taught, many of whom must have caught the History bug as I did. Is it too fanciful to think that my books are her grandchildren in a way?
There was only a delicious few years of History teaching by Mrs Grisbrooke and Miss Wren before a terrible choice was placed upon me. ( I must have been fifteen). I had to choose one subject from Chemistry, History and Art.
I had done Chemistry for a year and hated everything about it: the smell of the laboratory, the teacher, the fact that I couldn't understand it. So it was a relief to be able to step aside. Art was always going to be one of my A levels and indeed was. So it was History that had to go.
But, like English Literature, it is a subject you can return to as an adult and rediscover (unlike Chemistry - I'm afraid I blew my chances there). At least I had a good start from my first - and really only - History teacher. Thank you Mrs Grisbrooke.