I can’t believe I will never see this wonderful woman again. Her funeral was this morning, St George’s Day. It’s also Shakespeare’s birthday – and she loved Shakespeare. Olga was a Maths teacher at Upton Hall School, but she was a renaissance woman, loving art, music and poetry. She was fond of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. She adored her two daughters and three grandchildren, and we had many chats about them while we were sitting at adjacent staffroom desks, marking or preparing lessons.
Olga came into my life when I started at Upton Hall in January 1999. I was given a desk near hers in the staffroom, and though I wasn’t supposed to be having a form (I wanted one but there were no spaces), I was asked to register a year 9 form because their teacher was absent. I found myself registering different year 9 forms during the first two weeks, as two of the team were absent. Olga always asked me if I minded. Then she had a favour to ask: one of the form teachers had gone on long term sickness, and she asked me to step in for the duration. I was pleased to have a form, but their form room was what Olga called ‘down the garden’, in some temporary classrooms. The form ‘needed some structure’, she said, and suggested I did a weekly assembly with them, which she attended as a special guest every Thursday. It gave them focus and pride in themselves after a difficult term. Olga also registered each of our forms once a week, and we had a year group assembly once a week too. She was brilliant to work for, really supportive, and her firm belief was that it was a teacher’s job to find the good in every child.
I was to be on her team for three years and her support never wavered. She worked hard and had no time for laziness, either in the girls or staff. She expected people to work to the same standard. But she was a peacemaker, sorting out friendship problems with kindness and firmness. We remained close even when I moved to the sixth form team, because we always had desks close together.
Olga loved Maths, described it as ‘a nice subject’. I observed one of her lessons once, and saw how she managed the class. Expectations were crystal clear, there was a purposeful atmosphere and she had hundreds of ways of explaining things. She even helped me with my Maths – when I had to pass the on-line Maths test she gave me tuition and I could see why the pupils suddenly found they could ‘do’ Maths. I think she enjoyed the logic and patterns in her subject. She was passionate about faciliating learning.
She was a really kind person and I think most of her colleagues could recount a thousand little kindnesses. I know I can. She did these things quietly, without fuss. I remember once the headteacher was observing me, so Olga said she would not only register my form to save me time, but would make sure they were perfectly behaved and there on time. Another time when I was ill, she said I couldn’t teach like that, SHE would take my class and I should go and get some fresh air.
Olga was usually the first person to say hello to me in the morning and she always had a smile on her face. She kept working right up to her cancer, because she genuinely felt teaching was the most important job. and she still had something to contribute. She must have made a difference to thousands of girls’ lives in her teaching career.
Olga was a lady, in the sense of being gracious and well-mannered. She was always beautifully turned out, her hair always immaculate. She was tall with perfect posture. She knew how things were done and they were always done efficiently and in just the right way. To me, she is an example of a life well lived. Her family was paramount. She was very self-sufficient, with a strong practical streak. When her grandchildren arrived she was inordinately proud of them, was always telling me little things they had done or said.
Travel was her other love. She was invited on so many school trips, often in the holidays, because she was so brilliant at helping to run them. Girls always behaved impeccably for her though she never raised her voice. Just the thought of letting her down was enough motivation. I was lucky enough to go to Spain with her on such a trip, and she said to me, ‘Angela, these children are on their holidays. We want to make it as fun for them as possible.’ She understood their need to go shopping and balanced it perfectly with the culture they were seeing. When she wasn’t committed with school (and with school she went to China, Russia, France, Spain…) she travelled all over in the breaks, and wasn’t able to meet up because she was off on safari or going to visit an African village. They weren’t soft option holidays! She told me once that she’d a had a proposal of marriage from a chief who said she would be his ‘number one wife’. She would have been a prize!
I miss lots of my former colleagues, and not living near the school means I don’t bump into them in everyday life. But Olga did make the effort to keep in touch. We met up a few times for lunch and emailed, chatted on the phone and sent Christmas cards and letters. She was a very special person and I am going to miss her. It is rare to have known someone like her, someone who lived according to her deeply held beliefs and ethics. I am grateful to have been a small part of her life. I can still hear her voice, see her radiant smile.