Saturday, June 2, 2012

Maths Teachers in Jane Shaw

I wonder whether Jean Patrick had trouble with mathematics when she was at school. I say this because I've noticed that all of the most unpopular teachers in her stories are maths teachers. In the Caroline and Sara books and The Crew of the Belinda, we only see the characters during the holidays or on the last day of school, so we know little about their teachers. But starting in The Moochers and recurring in all the other school stories she ever wrote, the maths teachers are the ones who get the hardest deal. The Moochers mention that at their bankrupt co-educational school, Percie, they had a maths teacher called Mr. Williams, whom they describe as having a "lashing tongue". At Pendragon Manor, the most horrible teacher is Miss Perry, known to the girls as The Winkle. She is sarcastic and has an "acid voice"; the girls take an instant dislike to her and she to them. In the Northmead books, we do not actually get to meet the maths teacher, but we are told that her name is Miss Pratt-Paton, known as P-squared and described as "an old meanie". Later in the 1960s Jean Bell wrote A Girl with Ideas, set at Thornton Combe in Somerset. The dreaded maths teacher at this school is Miss Parker, whom the girls predictably nickname Nosy Parker. She is a nasty piece of work, never hesitating to tell the girls how useless and stupid they are and springing surprise tests on them out of the blue. At one point she even demands that the whole form should be expelled for cheating in their homework. However, when it comes to really horrible teachers, first prize has to go to Miss Ferrier (picture), the dreaded maths teacher at St. Ronan's, known to the girls as The Ferret. Susan, Midge and Tessa detest and fear this woman. She too has an acid tongue and indulges in cruel sarcasm. But there is more: she is apparently devoid of any redeeming qualities. In The Moochers and A Girl with Ideas, there are times when the reader feels sorry for the teachers or can at least sympathise with them. Miss Perry takes up with a crooked local councillor who just uses her to obtain inside information about the school so that he can force it to close and Miss Perry is let down because she believes this connving man actually wishes to marry her. Katherine and Fiona can't help thinking that this is more than even she deserves. Miss Parker is not 100% bad because the girls actually did cheat and she is quite right to be angry about it. But Miss Ferrier possesses no attributes that soften her character at all. She doesn't hesitate to punish the girls with extra maths even on a Saturday afternoon and is oblivious to their appeals that they should be playing hockey, even when it is a big match and the honour of the school is at stake. The only characters that come off worse than her are the Gascoignes.

So why is it that the maths teachers come across as such unlikeable people? I suspect that the author had some bad times with them at school. When I was growing up in Glasgow, I too had some awful experiences in maths classes. Most of the teachers of this subject that I came up against were sarcastic and seemed to adopt the attitude that if you couldn't understand maths that was just hard lines. I remember one teacher, whom we called Big Bob D or Bob the Slob. He would come in, scribble an equation on the board that always seemed to end with x=2 and tell us to "dae the exercise" while he stomped out of the room for a smoke. The only time I sought help from him while struggling with the bewildering maze of algebra he mockingly said with his unforgettable big cheesy grin "So ye cannae understand it? Aww..." Then, to add insult to injury, at a parents' meeting, he told my mother to tell me to "just ask him" when I found the going too tough! I did have one maths teacher who was nice, a Mr. Durkin. He did strange things like explaining, giving clear examples and even repeating if you didn't get it, something his peers seemed incapable of. But if I were to write a book about a school, the maths teacher would probably come out like one of Jane Shaw's.