Sunday, March 08, 2009


This blog will return soon. Right now I am posting some recollections I compiled as a contribution to remarks to be made at the next (and penultimate) meeting of the Enfield County Old Girls’ Association. The photo inserted in the earlier post identifies the subject of these remembrances. The pin shown here was our official Enfield County School pin, worn by us with much pride. You can also find more memories of our camping days here.

Miss F. Sharp—my memories

It’s the suit I remember first: brown and mustard tweed, with a straight skirt. She can’t have worn it every day, but it seems that way. When I look at the photos I have of the school prefects, I recall her “photo” suit. It was a lighter brown with a white stripe. And in summer wasn’t there a beige linen dress? But it is her everyday suit that made the biggest impression. There’s the iron grey bobbed hair, tucked behind the ear on one side, held back by a tortoiseshell clasp on the other. She completed the picture with lisle stockings and sturdy brown lace-up shoes.

There was so much we didn’t know about her: in those days we would never have dreamed of asking. Until Carol referred to her as F.E., I always assumed it was Effie. Where did she go to university? How old was she? Somehow we believed that she, like most of our teachers, was “old.” She first became my teacher in 1952 and it was much, much later, when I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, that I learned that women her age had had a hard time being admitted to degree programs, let alone in Latin and Greek. She knew her stuff and had kept up to date with teaching methods. She greeted us, the class of 2L, with a confusing “Salvete, discipulae,” leaving us convinced that not only was Latin a subject worth learning, but a language that could be spoken. Winston Churchill said “I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour and Greek as a treat.” There were a handful of us who enjoyed that treat, and our results in A and S level were an indication of her effectiveness as a teacher.

Her role, however, was not confined to teaching. As deputy head mistress she was charged with keeping discipline, and a summons to her little room outside the library left many students quaking in their shoes. Beneath her steely exterior was a kind and gracious woman. During a rehearsal for a school play I had managed to step on my glasses case, skid across the floor and break my ankle. My leg was put in a cast and I walked on crutches, and for my whole recuperation Miss Sharp made a huge detour from her home in Woodford Green to Freezywater to pick me up and drive me to school.

She drove a little black car. People who knew about cars said it was courting disaster to travel with her, but several of us willingly did so every year when we went to compete in the Classical Verse and Prose Speaking competition. She drove us across London to Dulwich College, knowing all the while that the prizes would be won by schools like Haberdashers' Aske's, but Miss Sharp trained us and gave us the confidence that we could compete with them. Fifty years later I can still recite the beginning of Clytemnestra’s speech from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

A few of us were privileged to know her in another role, that of Cadet Captain. We met once a week after school, although I can’t remember at all what we did at our meetings. I do remember we made tea before the meeting started and that, as we came closer to summer, we spent a lot of time sorting and repairing the camping equipment. There were Easter and Whitsun camps in places like Theydon Bois and Chigwell. Summer camp was the highlight of the year and I went to three camps, two in Scotland and one in Cornwall. We traveled by train and were met at the station by a farmer in his lorry. Somehow all our equipment had been loaded onto the train and transferred onto the lorry with us. With our teenage ignorance of logistics, we failed to realize how much work Miss Sharp and her trusty deputy, Miss Hodges, had put into finding a site, arranging transportation, ordering groceries and arranging for the digging of latrines. I have several hazy black and white photographs of our time in camp and I see Miss Sharp sitting on the ground with us to eat our meals and even paddling up to her knees in the sea in Cornwall. She organized the meals, including the famous summer pudding, and I will never forget how she admonished a girl who went to get a new pot of jam when there was just the smallest trace of jam in the old one. (Remember that rationing was not too far in the past.) These camps took us to many places that we, as suburban children still feeling the economic effects of the war, would not otherwise have visited. We did not pay an excessive amount and I wonder now if she found a way to subsidize the cost, not only of the camp but of the trips we made in the afternoons. My photo album bears witness to trips through the Trossachs, Holy Loch, the Kyles of Bute, St. Just-in-Roseland and Megavissey, among many others.

After I left school, Ms. Sharp wrote to me several times. I kept up the correspondence even after I moved to America, married and had children. It is one of my biggest regrets that I let my busy life stand in the way of the thoughtful letters she deserved. After a while, the letters stopped. I was convinced that marked her death, but I had no way of finding out.

In complete contrast to Miss Sharp, with her ramrod straight back and her no nonsense hair and suits, there was Mrs. Parker. She too taught Latin and Greek. I did not have her for many classes and I have no idea how they divided up the students. When I think of her I recall sausage curls, flowered dresses and pearl necklaces. But, sadly, I have no photos to jog my memory. Again, I know nothing of her background— with the single exception of her son, Michael. I don’t think there was a husband in the picture, but Michael was her pride and joy. Most students at the County School were smart enough to figure out if a teacher knew her subject, and the grandmotherly Mrs. Parker belied her appearance and taught us well.

These are my recollections of our Classics teachers. Maybe some of you who taught at the County School (Joan Hart?) want to jump up and say, “No, you got it wrong!” Maybe I did. If anyone can fill me in on the lives of these two fascinating women, please do so, but somehow I think my recollections are forever engraved on my memory and will never change