One afternoon last week I was at my mum’s flat, helping clear out cupboards of soft toys, Sylvanian Families and boardgames that – having left home a decade before – I felt just about ready to think about parting with at some of. In one of the cupboards was a box of cards and letters spanning my early childhood in Greenford and teenage years in Ealing. Among this box of treasure spanning the cripplingly embarrassing to the almost forgotten, was a letter written to Mum by the deputy head of Coston School, where I was a primary and secondary pupil.
I hadn’t known Mrs Stapells well – I’d been too shy to know many people well, particularly those I looked up to. But Mrs Stapells was the kind of teacher I knew even then I wanted to become. The kind that ‘got’ how important teaching was, doing it with a sense of performance and celebration. Her letter is addressed to my mum is what it says:
Every so often something happens in teaching which helps me remember (when I’m feeling a bit jaded!) why I do it.
There have been several special things that have happened over the years which I remember with a mixture of emotions – sorrow, elation, pride, even. There have also been many poignant moments.
Today’s Special Moment occurred right in the middle of the “Hannukah, Holiday” song. It was the slow bit in the music referring to the miracle of the oil burning for so many nights.
I looked at the stage and the last of the candles of the menorah was being lit. The combination of the lovely music, the candlelight and shadows on Rachel and Susannah’s faces and their wonderful expressions was so beautiful I was spell-bound. I think I continued to wave the baton and lead the song on, because somehow we were “spinning the dreidel”. Then the curtains closed.
That one picture, however, was fixed in my mind. I just wish you could have been there to see it all for yourself. I felt I had to write and tell you about it partly because you missed seeing Rachel do something which must have made her feel nervous yet which she did so calmly and sensible, and partly because I was so moved by it.
Thank you for your contribution to an important part of our school’s Entertainment this year and for providing me – albeit unknowingly! – with a reminder of the joy of teaching in a multi-faith school.
I experienced a moment which awed me, and which I shall cherish for a very, very long time.
My good wishes to you and your family.
The letter is dated Monday 17th December 1990. I was seven, nearly eight, and the younger of two Jewish children in the school. ‘Multi-faith’ was, I’m pretty sure, the context in which I first learnt the word faith. It came into my consciousness synonymously with having a religious identity. Sure, I went to Cheder (Jewish religion school) and enjoyed celebrating the festivals with my family and community, but my everyday experience of Jewish identity was it being all the more special for being a normal part of me, not “special” in the accidentally patronising way that would quite often at high school (and which, alongside my other labels of vegetarian, dyspraxic, American, single-parent family, gave an ample menu) but special in the truer sense, that we were all different and therefore, in an important way, all the same.
One of the things I’m most grateful for is that assemblies like Mrs Stapells’s made it an absolute surprise to me to later learn hymns everyone had sung together were originally written not to “our God” but to “Jesus”. Colours of Day was one of my favourites; more so Autumn Days with its reminder ‘to say a great big thank you’ without specifically naming who to. If a multi-faith class gave me one big idea, that was definitely it. You thanked who youthanked; the important thing was gratitude itself (I’m the Urban Spaceman and Streets of London also made the song-sheets from time to time).
I looked up Coston’s website after finding Mrs Stapells’s letter, and wasn’t surprised to see the multicoloured hands around the slogan at the centre. It’s exactly what I expected, even though I haven’t thought about it at all much in the years between.
I remember walking down a corridor in the secondary school on my last day and being too shy to say goodbye to Mrs Stapels – seeing her surrouded by girls and boys I’d seen in the school play, so apparently comfortable expressing and receiving love and attention. I wish I’d been brave enough to ‘say a great big thank you’ to her as my favourite Coston School hymn, Autumn Days, had encouraged me to do to the world. Still, seeing what she did so well is the reason reason I love teaching now and know how important it is, even or especially on our most jaded days.
Many of the soft toys and Sylvanian families are, of course, staying with me. What else has come with me to stay is coming with me is Mrs Stapells and why teachers like her keep on making a difference long after people like me have left primary school.
I don’t know where you are, Mrs Stapells, if you’re still teaching, or even still alive, let alone if there’s any chance of you reading this. But I hope you would be glad to know I am writing it. Good teachers light candles in slow motion, the warmth and light growing over a longer time than they get to see. If I’ve missed my chance to tell you, I still learnt what you teach and how you teach it are the same thing. And that nothing should be more natural than difference.