A Tribute to Kathleen Gibson, nee Callaghan, my English Teacher

Kathleen (002)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.

 

Angela Topping

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.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “A Tribute to Kathleen Gibson, nee Callaghan, my English Teacher

  1. Tina Threlfall

    She taught me all the 7 years I was at Broughton and was also form tutor for some of that time. I last saw her (in about the mid 1990s?) at the Playhouse Theatre. She was with a group of her A level students from St John Bosco and I was with a group of my A level students from LCC. I recognised her right away and went to say hello, thinking that she wouldn’t remember me, but she did. She wasn’t just being polite, she actually remembered my name! (Perhaps because she still had nightmares about my performance as Reverend Hale in “The Crucible” in 1972!)

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  2. Caitriona Hanrahan

    I shared accommodation with Kathleen for our 3 years at University in Cork. We corresponded annually at Christmas and it was wonderful to maintain the friendship. We celebrated 50 years of graduation in 2015 and spent a lovely day meeting former colleagues at our Alma Mater. Her vivacity and love of life were infectious. She “introduced” us to the Beatles telling us of their early days in “The Cavern”.
    It was wonderful to read of her great work as an English teacher which she modestly wouldn’t admit to.

    • She possibly didn’t realise the impact she had on me and my classmates. I wish I had been able to contact her or see her since we left school. I would have liked to have let her know. I had looked for her on line but never found anything. She was an encouraging and gentle teacher, who never shouted.

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