One of my first and best role models for dealing with difficult situations was my primary school teacher. She was Yugoslavian. Well, she started off as a Yugoslavian, by the time we graduated to high school she wasn’t. She grew up in Srebrenica.
She was a good teacher, but quite eccentric, not like all the other adults who I only remember as being beige.
She had big, thick, curly, black hair that she piled on top of her head so she looked like Medusa, and she wore clothes with big patterns in garish colours. She spoke loudly and quickly, and her words were always accompanied by big, dramatic hand gestures.
The kids in the other class were all a bit scared of her. This combined with the snakes that she bought us as class pets, meant that none of them would deliver messages to our classroom from the other teachers.
In addition to the snakes there were stick insects, gerbils, and a couple of rabbits. We also had a hen each, which we’d watched as eggs in an incubator and then hand-reared once they emerged. The classroom often resembled a farm-yard as Mrs Medusa tried to pass on her love of nature and teach us about responsibility.
Mrs M is the reason I love history, and especially knights and castles. She herself was obsessed with Boadicea, we had to study her for a whole term. She told us she wanted us all to be like Boadicea. I’m not sure which hoards she had in mind for us to overthrow, perhaps she was thinking of home, but I can still remember everything she taught us.
When the war in Yugoslavia started we had a special assembly, were the head teacher explained that there was a war going on the country that Mrs M came from, that her mother and brothers were still living there, and that we should all make an extra effort to be nice to her because she was quite upset by it.
After that we would have supply teachers from time to time because, we were told, Mrs M was visiting her mother back home. I was, and still am, confused by this. Even at age nine we understood that they don’t run regular flights into war zones. It would have made far more sense for the mother to have just moved here.
Other than that she carried on teaching us as normal, although she became pretty moody. I suppose she probably couldn’t afford not to. Or her family back home couldn’t afford for her not to.
She was in school teaching the day she heard her family had been killed. She went into the head teachers office for a really long time, and when she came back we could see she’d been crying, lots.
Then she took us outside for break like nothing had happened.
Ten minutes later the combination of the news and being surrounded by a hundred and fifty screaming kids triggered a breakdown and she just lost it.
There was a big, heavy bell that was rung to sound the beginning and end of every break. She grabbed that and it rang, and rang, and rang.
Then when everyone was stood still staring at her she started ranting, and raving, and screaming, telling us all what bad, thoughtless children we were. She reduced half of the school yard to tears. Then she sent us all back inside, wondering what on earth we had done wrong.
She went home after that, and we were all given a note to take home to our parents, explaining what had happened and why. We never saw her again.
For weeks and months afterwards this episode was the talk of the area, among the staff and parents as well as the pupils. The adults, despite knowing what had happened to Mrs Medusa’s family, openly talked of her as ‘the crazy woman’ and a ‘mental case’. Dozens of complaints were sent to the school about them ever having employed this person in the first place.
It’s one of the reasons I no longer live there.
Most of the kids who went to that school grew up to be just as ignorant as their parents.
I remember a few years later, after we’d moved up to high school, when I was about fifteen, I watched a programme on the Srebrenica massacre. The next day I told a girl in my class about it, and how that must have been what happened to our primary school teacher’s family. She replied that she would be glad if that was what had happened, and that the woman deserved it for being crazy, and foreign, and because she scared her.
It really depresses me that that repulsive girl now has her own, equally repulsive, offspring.
But I try to think now, that Mrs M managed to carry on teaching thirty boisterous under-tens for three and a half years. And teaching them well, while half the people she loved were being shot at and most of the adults she had to work with were racist.
Kinda puts a lot of my problems into perspective…
photo from Wikipedia.