Before the end of Friday school, Sylvia, my new ancillary helper pops in to see what she needs to bring when she starts her new job on Monday. Sylvia will work with me for five hours a week and help with the cleaning, washing and organising the food ingredients.
‘Hello Miss Whitney.’
As she enters the room she gives a nod to some of the boys.
‘Hello again, Sylvia. I’m very pleased to see you and do call me Jenny.’
I hear whispers of ‘Jenny, Jenny. Her name is Jenny.’
Learning a new teacher’s Christian name is the second most valuable piece of information to be passed around the school. Teachers are always called by their surnames. Mr Smith, Mrs Bates…. and the sad Miss Soandso’s who are destined for a solitary life in a rented room, spending their evenings sitting at home with their cats, marking school work. Somehow we teachers are not the same as other human beings, and the discovery that we have Christian names is met with giggles and whispering behind the palms of their hands.
‘Mr Smith’s name is Albert, and I heard someone call Mrs Bates, Deirdre.’ OOOh, fancy that.
I imagine they gather in corners, passing recently found Christian names to the chief Christian Name Collector who holds the school list and has just shouted to the rest of his team –
‘I’ve just got that new one! The baking teacher! She’s called Jenny!’
And they look up to the Chief Name Collector in awe and wonder.
The first and most highly prized information is finding out about their teacher’s private lives. They find married teachers rather boring with their husbands, wives and children. Well, boring until they start an affair with someone in the staffroom. But when new, single teachers arrive in school, the gossip scavengers are out in force.
‘Have you got a boyfriend, miss? What’s his name? Where does he live? Will we meet him if he comes to collect you from school?’
If you tell them you have no love interest, then they persist .
‘Why not, miss? You’re not that old!’
It is comforting that at twenty three they still think I stand a chance, but like the grubbiest of reporters from the News of the World, they are constantly on my case, checking for updates. I privately hope that with Sylvia’s help, I’ll have more free up my time to go on a manhunt and give the gossip mongers some fuel.
Back in the cookery room, the class is packing away their rock cakes, ready for hometime.
‘Would you like a cup of tea, Sylvia?’
‘I can see you are busy, Jenny. Let me make us one.’
Incredible. Amazing. Kindness, support and a cup of tea are coming. My simple prayers have been answered. This term has been so difficult teaching, keeping order and then managing to clean the ovens, equipment, and wash tea towels, dishcloths and aprons. After all this time running the room on my own, Sylvia is here. The marvellous, energetic, nothing-is-too-much-trouble, laughing Sylvia.
As the students begin to leave, Sylvia helps them pack up their cooking and notices a dirty baking tray lurking in a butler’s sink.
‘Do you want Terry and his friend to clear this up, Jenny. I think they must have forgotten.’
Terry glances at Sylvia, and returns to the sink to complete his clearing up. As soon as the room is empty of student , we sit down, and as I unbutton my pink nylon overall and crumple it onto a stool, I feel my responsibilities peel away. Sylvia is here. Help is at hand.
‘Sylvia, you seem to know some of the boys, like Terry.’
‘Oh, Jenny, I know lots of them. They’ve probably been round my house for tea. One of my children is at this school, and me girl is coming next year. We’ve lived round here for years since me mother and father moved here from the east end. They’re nice kids in this area. You won’t get any stick from them. If there’s trouble just have a word with their parents.But I really came to ask what would you like me to bring to wear for this job’
She glances at my tired, discarded overall.
‘I think an apron and some rubber gloves will be fine,’ I reply and shake her hand warmly.
Before leaving, Sylvia washes and puts away our tea cups.
My weekend stretches ahead and a walk on Hampstead Heath in the autumn sunshine will be perfect. Sylvia is coming on Monday, and I won’t be alone.