The People Who Teach Us

08 May The People Who Teach Us

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly – cover date 1.5.23


My daughter is on her way to becoming a school teacher and, don’t let on for goodness sake, but I could have told her when she was a kid it was what she would do eventually, and I am thrilled.

This is despite knowing that right now teachers all around the motu are exhausted and underpaid. We do what we always do with teachers (see also nurses and mothers) and say we value them but fail to do it in the way we usually value things, which is with money.

I still think about the teachers who made a difference to me. Miss Slater in English, Mr Marsh in Drama, Mr Dreaver in History and Mr Gelston in French. Miss Slater is the reason I never misspell ‘separate’. “It’s ‘a rat’!” she’d bellow, banging a yardstick at the three letters in the middle of the word she’d chalked on the board.

It totally worked. She taught us other stuff, too, but good spelling is invaluable and helps people take you seriously, I feel. Certainly, the opposite is true.

I had a brief flirtation with wanting to be a teacher around age twelve. This is after wanting to be singer, then a hairdresser, and before dreaming of writing and being on the stage.

I pictured myself wearing tweed, sitting in a leather armchair in a book-lined room, doling out the perfect tome from my collection to eager students, like a doctor prescribing appropriate medication.

I don’t know why I thought tweed and leather and a mahogany desk complete with a stand for my cob pipe. Given this was the 1970s and I was growing up in Levin, I should have been picturing brown corduroy and orange floral wallpaper. It must have been something I was reading at the time.

I was a small girl in a small town, a year younger than most of my classmates. Too short for netball, too serious for Bay City Rollers posters, too chatty to be mysterious, and too uncool for Levis and Bata Bullets.

Nerd, then, before nerd was in vogue, and living in a town so tiny it was hard to find enough people to form a tribe. Which made me search books for people I recognise.

Luckily, I had people who encouraged this – my mother, those teachers and also our local librarian, Miss Pickens.

Miss Pickens sounds like I made her up, and I had to check with my mother a few years ago that I didn’t. She looked like a librarian should and led me skilfully, when the time came, from Children’s Fiction to Young Adult Fiction and then to the real grown up stuff.

On Friday nights when the other kids were doing whatever they did (no idea) I’d be at the library to pick up a fresh stack of books that Miss Pickens had recommended.

That library was – and is – a vibrant place, a humming community hub. Most are now, I find – I do this weird thing of visiting public libraries when I’m travelling and can attest they are no longer places where librarians say “shush”.

I strongly suspect my daughter will be her own kind of a Miss Pickens or Miss Slater – one of those people who believe in someone, who makes them think they are smart and can do good things, and so they will. And there is a richness in that. Though imagine if we gave them the kind of riches you could take to the bank.