1990s >> 1996 >> no-1098-february-1996

The Strike

A Short Story

It was Thursday morning and once again Class Two was waiting outside the Domestic Science Centre for Miss Dougal to open the door. Everybody in our class dreaded Thursday mornings. To say that Miss Dougal had “an uncertain temper” would be to put it very mildly indeed. She raged and fumed, waved her arms about, banging saucepans down loudly on well-scrubbed tables, chucking terms of abuse at Class Two, making us responsible (or so it appeared) for every single thing that had ever gone wrong in her life.

We kids were always confused and confounded by Miss Dougal’s behaviour. Some of the ire she so bitterly and scornfully directed at us was lost on our innocent hearts, but we knew . . . we KNEW by her fury that she hated us even if we didn’t know why. Once she was almost nice to me when I took in my father’s christening cup to clean the silver. She closely inspected the name on it and smiled “Shian Menzies Tweedie. How wonderful!” I was bewildered by this, because she told Margaret Rogers (who always had a runny nose and chilblains) that she came from the slums, when we all knew that Margaret lived in a neat little Council house in Rushgreen Avenue and that her Dad was a bus inspector, whereas my Dad, with such a lovely name, was a roadsweeper and had once been a dustman. So with Miss Dougal nothing ever really added up. She didn’t make sense.

Daphne Small remarked to me that the old cow was late opening the door today and someone suggested she’d got run over on the way to school. This encouraged others to come up with some very good ideas as to why Miss Dougal was late. She’d broken her leg, she couldn’t find her knickers, she’d died of pneumonia in the night. It all got very noisy, bawdy, as we doubled over with mirth, knocking into each other, full of good humour so united were we against Miss Dougal. The door opened.

I suppose normally we would have formed a nice, orderly little queue, but the situation had got rather out of hand, We had been enjoying ourselves and it was impossible to change so quickly. Daphne Small was still trying to think up reasons for Miss Dougal’s tardiness and was just telling me “I KNOW, she got struck by lightning” when the domestic science teacher appeared in her white overall, tiny wisps of grey hair escaping from her white cooks hat. She stood arms akimbo, eyes piercing. Wait for it, I thought.

The storm soon came. We were all, or so she would have it, a bunch of kids from the slums. Not one of us had any breeding. Actually not one of us knew what she meant by “breeding” (Daphne whispered to me that she probably meant that we couldn’t have babies). Our parents, she told us, were of the worst kind, living in slum houses, unable to speak decent English. Absolutely, ABSOLUTELY without breeding. And yet we mocked her, HER with her refinement and upbringing. How dare we?

We didn’t dare any longer. We filed in, took our gingham aprons out of our schoolbags and put them on. All the joy had gone out of our day. We sat down at our tables with our arms folded, subdued beyond what was natural.

It was a miserable morning. Poor old Margaret Rogers burnt her pastry and Miss Dougal emptied it into the wastebin roundly abusing Margaret all the while as well as attacking her family background.

It was during playtime that I suggested we went out on strike. “We just won’t turn up for Domestic Science on Thursday,” I said. “She’s out of order talking to us like that. We’ll tell the headmaster.”

The next Thursday morning about ten of us went to our own classroom instead of attending the Cookery Class. Our class teacher was worried and perplexed. She told us we couldn’t just not go to our cookery lesson because we didn’t like the teacher. She pointed out to us that our time at school was a preparation for Life, that we would one day find Life even harder than Miss Dougal’s cookery class. She said that we were after all British and should always show true grit and courage. In any case we were hardly old enough to question adults who, it seemed, were much, much wiser than us.

This little lecture worked for everyone but me and the others were dispensed to Miss Dougal’s Centre for Mental Torture. I was sent to the headmaster.

Mr Brown was a gentle man (an ex-naval commander who sang Eternal Father Strong to Save in ringing tones during Assembly). I had always thought of him as having “insight” so was surprised when he used the same arguments as our class teacher. True British grit, preparation for Life, must not question adults, etc, etc. I was disappointed. Finally he said “Now come, Heather, you’re a sensible girl, go back to Miss Dougal’s class and not another word will be said on the subject.” I said no and I meant no and so Mr Brown then said it would be his duty to write to my father.

A letter to my Dad from the headmaster of my school held no fears for me. Unlike Lizzie Chandler who lived next door to us and had got a good hiding from her Dad for being a “scab” and going back to Miss Dougal’s class. It seemed there was no justice anywhere for children. My Dad went to see the headmaster who sent him to see Miss Dougal. He asked her “What are we going to do about all this, Miss Dougal?” and she’d responded “Well, Mr Tweedie, that all depends on Heather.” That was enough for my Dad. “In that case,” he said, “my daughter will never come back to your class again.”

But of course the school was forced to find a solution to what had happened. Eventually I was put into another Domestic Science class with another Domestic Science teacher called Miss Oldham, the only real snag being that the other pupils were only nine-year-olds. To a thirteen-year-old with boobs and a slightly more sophisticated outlook on life this was torture.

I hadn’t won anything. I wept bitterly, while my Dad assured me that my suffering was nothing compared with that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. But this was no consolation. But then perhaps true British grit and courage were going to come in handy after all.

Miss Oldham’s class was on Tuesday mornings. I got into the queue outside the classroom door, a tall girl, standing with kids that came up to my shoulder. When they giggled I didn’t, but I was a novelty and they were prepared to love me for some reason that I have never understood and I was very popular. I was also popular with Miss Oldham (once again for reasons that I didn’t understand then but have come to understand since; she didn’t like Miss Dougal either).

I remained in Miss Oldham’s class until I was nearly sixteen and due to say goodbye to school forever. Miss Oldham made a little speech saying how sorry they would all be to see me go, what an asset I had been to her class and so on. She then added that her class didn’t have enough saucepans to go round that morning. Would I pop upstairs to Miss Dougal’s and ask if we could borrow a couple?

So I climbed the stairs to Miss Dougal’s class, my heart beating painfully. When I knocked on the door and then entered the room, there she stood, hands on hips, eyes blazing, shouting the odds as always, whilst the kids sat stunned into silence. A kind of hush filled the room as I walked in, cutting Miss Dougal off in mid-sentence. “What do YOU want?” she bellowed. “Some saucepans,” I said with dignity.

These saucepans were like trophies! I took them back to Miss Oldham’s class and she looked at me with a twinkle. “Well done, Heather,” she said, “I hope you said a final goodbye to Miss Dougal.”

Heather Ball

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