After a lengthy spell teaching in London I moved back to my native Westcountry just before the start of the new millennium. I knew it was going to be a culture shock initially, from a school set in the middle of one of Hackney’s finest housing estates, to a school surrounded by houses with gardens! During my first week in my previous school the Headteacher was chased through the school by an irate parent wielding a knife. My new school, in stark contrast, had a floral settee in the entrance lobby, a flower bed by the front gate and the parents weren’t armed.
For the first month or so it was like being on holiday, lots of walks on the beach, a big (by comparison to our old house) garden to dig in, new lanes, shortcuts and roads to explore. This was followed by a new baby to distract us through the Spring. We celebrated and enjoyed the differences, while at the same time missing the vibrant multi-cultural community we had left behind.
The following winter I was at school late one evening. A meeting had been planned for the governing body. I had held on rather than go home and back and so was there when the governors started to arrive. I made tea and offered a plate of biscuits as we made small talk and waited for the meeting to start.
Most of the Governors at that particular time were elderly ladies, retired teachers, upstanding members of the community, local residents. They turned up with their M&S cardigans and matching skirts with handbags neatly tucked under their chairs – it was what I had always imagined my Grandmothers Women’s Institute meetings to be like.
As I chatted to one of the governors, grey hair and a trace of an accent I politely enquired what the accent was as I could not place it. She told me it was German, but it had faded as her family had moved to the UK straight after the war, when she was a young girl. Naturally this led to me asking about her experiences as a child in such a turbulent and monumental moment in modern history.
I was interested in the response she gave. She talked a little of her impression that everybody wore uniforms, of how she was protected from the reality of what was happening and was largely unaware of events unfolding across Europe. She casually moved on to talk about how she vividly recalled a party her parents had hosted, when Rudolf Hess – Hitler’s Deputy – had attended. She had met him and been sat on his knee when she was introduced.
It gave a new perspective to a set of events that I had previously only read about in books and been told about in History lessons. In a small infant school in Devon I met someone who lived through this period of history, and met a monster – who it turns out was just a person sometimes.