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We all have memories of our junior school days. Some of the lessons our teachers taught us stick with us well into adulthood.

When I was small, teachers were teachers; they were not wives, husbands, parents or people … They were just teachers who lived who knows where and, after school, did who knows what. Above all, teachers taught, nothing else.

It was only on the rare occasion that I found myself in the local supermarket face to face with an escaped member of the teaching profession. “Good afternoon, Miss Weaver,” I would blurt out, surprised that teachers even shopped for food, let alone ate it. Teachers had their place in this world and that was firmly within the school grounds, not roaming the supermarket.

But, teachers are people, teachers breathe, move, think and talk like just like the rest of us. But most importantly, teachers have the ability to imprint indelible lessons into the minds of their students.

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Remembering my junior school teachers

I can remember the name of every teacher from Standard 1 to Standard 5, and I can recount what they wore and which shoes they favoured. It’s all there in my memory – the cars in which they drove to school and the afternoon sports they took. In many cases, I can remember their handwriting – neat ribbons of red comments, tucked neatly into the margins of my exercise book. I don’t remember if they were engaged, married, divorced or widowed or if they had children. However, above all, I remember what it felt like to sit in their classroom and listen to them teach.

Here are some of the things that my teachers taught me.

Around the world in one grade

The one I remember more vividly than all the rest was Mrs Hounsel. She had dark eyes and her hair swung about her shoulders in a pretty bob. Her shoes were flat and her dresses sensible. The first time we walked into her Standard 2 class she announced that we would be taking a trip around the world.

We shuffled nervously over to our assigned desks and sat down. There was a map of the world up front and Mrs Hounsel announced that we would be split into groups and each group would visit a different country – this way we would learn about the world more quickly.

“Have you all got passports?” she asked. We thought we were a tough bunch and no-one was going to pipe up about missing mumsy. A whole term in Switzerland (which was where my group was headed), I wasn’t sure I would cope being so far from home for so long. Who would feed my hamster? I bit my quivering bottom lip and looked about for other quiverers.

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Exciting travel plans

Mrs Hounsel carried on, we would write to our parents every week; we would have to learn a new currency; we would have to find our way around the country on trains and buses and learn a new language. After we finally made it home, we would have a fair. Everyone would dress up in their country’s national costume and make food and crafts. We would man our stalls for the day and tell the rest of the school wonderful tales about our travels. Could she be for real? She hadn’t even asked my mother’s permission.

Just as I was about to raise my hand in objection to this imminent Swiss abduction, she turned to us and smiled warmly and told us how in the class she had taught the previous year one little boy had thought they were really going and burst into tears. Wow, what a relief to hear.

A fabulous journey

But, we went nevertheless. In our heads we travelled to far-off lands and wrote to our parents about the sights we saw. I shopped with Swiss francs and navigated Swiss train timetables. And at the end of it all, we arrived home with wonderful tales to tell.

Later, for our international fair, my mother was forced to fashion a Swiss national dress for me. Meanwhile I spent many an evening constructing a cuckoo clock from cardboard. In addition, much to my mother’s annoyance, I cut great big holes into a block of cheddar cheese in an effort to make some authentic-looking Swiss Emmenthal. Subsequently, years later, when I went to Switzerland for real, it felt like I had been there before.

Lessons that stick

It’s not only the remarkable teachers we remember, it’s often the sage advice of the more dour ones that sticks. It’s what those teachers taught that live on in my memory.

Of needles and thread

To this day I feel guilty when licking the end of a piece of cotton to thread it through the eye of a needle because, doing that, Mrs Bus told us, would rust the eye of the needle!

Ducks, gold-mining towns and King Harold

Recently, while on a recent road trip to Knysna, I was mulling all of this over. I turned to my mother, aged 70, and asked her if she had a teacher who stood out from the rest. “Oh yes!” she replied: “Mrs Lancaster-Smith taught me all I needed to know.”

“Which was what?” I asked.

“Ducks are from Aylesbury and stainless steel is from Sheffield. Bendigo and Ballarat are gold-mining towns in Australia. When you are at the North Pole, everything else is south. King Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow at the battle of Hastings,” she replied. I was amazed.

Never to be uttered again

Other than the Swiss trip, learning how to thread a needle properly and gaining an increased agility in writing and arithmetic, I can pull out one other piece of knowledge from my junior school days, which Mrs Kelly, my Standard 3 teacher, taught me when I asked to go to the loo one day.

“It’s the toilet, Donna,” she warned me sternly. “It’s never the loo!” As a result, from that day to this, I have never used the word again.

Donna Cobban

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