This morning, I received the sad news that my English teacher, Kathleen Gibson, died at the age of only 73. She taught me from year 9 through to A level at Broughton Hall Grammar School. She was always very kind to me and was extremely encouraging of my poetry. I think she saw something in the quiet, shy girl I was, as she gave me a great female lead part in her production of The Crucible in the sixth form. Perhaps she realised that despite my outward shyness, inside there was an actor full of confidence trying to escape. The Crucible was an odd choice for a girls’ grammar school production, but she pulled it off, and gave me some valuable directions for my part as Abigail. And she took it well when the first half on the first night, ended with an ignominious bout of giggling from some of the cast when one of the girls (now sadly no longer with us) fluffed her lines.
As an A level teacher, she took pains to enrich our knowledge of literature. We spent the first term reading around our subject and she organised two trips to Stratford on Avon to see that season’s plays. We saw Coriolanus, which I found fairly incomprehensible, sadly, and Richard II, the famous production with Ian Richardson. For a working class kid from Widnes, it was an amazing thing to go to Stratford and experience those two plays and I still love Richard II to this day. She gave us an extensive reading list and told us we should all be reading these books. I discovered many personal favourites because of her encouragement, but also concluded that life was too short to ever re-read the depressing Jude the Obscure or any more Graham Greene.
Kathleen, it turns out, was not much older than her students, though of course we treated her with respect and had no clue the age gap was so small. It makes sense now, because she was full of fun and once gave me a lift to her house after I missed my last bus after a school trip. As she only lived in Cronton, it wasn’t too far to get a lift home from my sister. I could even have walked it. The school choir sang at her wedding but I don’t think I was able to go, being a Widnes girl.
I admit I was a very curious student and read lots of critical works and asked a lot of questions. I really respected Kathleen because if she didn’t know something, she would always say so, and then offer to find out for me. I used that tack myself in my own teaching career. At the time, I did think I wanted to be an English teacher, mostly because of her, though it took me a while to get round to it.
I wrote this poem, which references her, in 2013. I wonder what she would have thought had she read it. After leaving school, I never saw her again but would have liked to have kept in touch. I shall always remember her earnest, smiling face and her passion for English, her encouragement of my poetry (with my fragile confidence, that certainly made a difference) and her heavy briefcase as she walked the corridors of school, no doubt full of books and our essays. I never once heard her complain as she seemed to love her work and her students.
Here’s the poem:
A Level Classes in the Seventies
I wish I’d never said I didn’t like Emma.
She was spoiled and silly, couldn’t see
what was under her nose. Miss Callaghan
wouldn’t choose me to read aloud from it,
thinking I’d meant the novel not the girl,
but worse, Sister Mary Columba’s idea
was that Emma and I were two of a kind.
Up till then I’d thought she liked me.
Handsome? Clever? Rich?
I wore glasses, struggled to keep up
with the brainy Oxbridge girls,
lived in a small semi in Widnes.
True, I’d learned to use my wits
to stop the bullies’ baiting
but I never would have used
my smart mouth on Miss Bates.
Jane Fairfax would be my best friend.
I’d never be taken in by Mr Elton
and would have itched to slap
Frank Churchill for that oily charm.
It’s true I introduced three couples
who later married, and happily
but that wasn’t twisting Harriet
to break it off with honest Mr Martin.
Emma? No not she. I’m Lizzie Bennet,
Like her I failed to practise the piano.
Her faults are all ones nobody minds,
enough to make her human but not
to ever be disliked except by Caroline.
She would be a better one for me
for I do dearly love a laugh
and love to prick pomposity.
This poem was first published in Advice on Proposals, edited by Angela Topping (2014 Like This Press £6) Currently available from Angela Topping.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of her, though I can see her in my mind’s eye, sitting on the classroom podium, smiling at us. So this book cover must stand for all she taught me. My love of literature has never diminished.
Update: Kathleen’s husband has been kind enough to send me a photo of her, which I have included. Of course when she taught me she was a young teacher, only 11 years older than us. I wish I could have been a friend to her, but in those days, one held one’s teacher on a pedestal, if they were teachers like her, and loved.