Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Wonderful Miss Waghorn ....
















When I was a kid I attended a rural village school, the like of which is – I suspect – now rare, if not extinct. It only had four teachers, the first of whom was Mrs. Matthews, a jolly, earth-mother figure who was just perfect for acclimatising bewildered infants to the educational system. Next-up was Miss  Waghorn. Some pupils faced the looming possibility of progressing into her class with feelings of dread, verging on terror.


Miss Waghorn was a figure who could have stepped straight out of the pages of Dickens. She must then have been in her late fifties. She very tall and very thin. She wore buttoned shoes, long dresses with high collars and long rows of buttons. Lots of buttons. She wore her long grey hair on a tight bun above a severe expression. You didn’t mess with Miss Waghorn. When she glanced up from her register and gave you ‘the look’ over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses it could freeze your blood. It had even been known to cause spontaneous incontinence in more sensitive transgressors. But Mrs. Waghorn had some wonderful qualities.

One was consummate skill in the art of storytelling and reading stories. If the class had managed to get through the week without incurring her wrath, Friday afternoon was story time and she could bring books to life. I can still hear her reading from Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, while the class sat spellbound in their desks. I can also remember what came after each instalment.

If the weather was fine she’d take us all down to the stream at the bottom of the school playing field, with the promise that we might see some of the characters from the book in real life. The whole class (in reality, about 15) would creep forward on their hands and knees. It must have looked strange to the casual passer-by. Usually we’d hear a ‘plop’ and see the trail of bubbles that marked the escape route of a startled water vole. Occasionally, if we were quiet enough, we might catch a glimpse of the animal itself, grazing on the grassy edge of the stream.

You might be wondering what this indulgent outbreak of nostalgia has to do with the photos of the horse chestnut bud, above and below.




Well, Miss Waghorn was a big fan of nature tables. The one in her class grew to become a mini-natural history museum as the year progressed. Skulls and skeletons, fossils, flowers and twigs, tadpoles, bird’s eggs and nests, pinned butterflies - all accumulated as the seasons advanced. In the 1950s collecting from nature wasn’t socially and ecologically unacceptable – ecology hadn’t reached the public consciousness – and its impact would be small compared with the effects of agrochemicals and pollution that were still to come. My contribution to the nature table was a dead bat, which earned me a lot of credit with Miss Waghorn, even though it did pong a bit on hot days.



One of the big events in the nature table calendar came in late February, with the ‘sticky bud’ competition. Everyone had to cut a horse chestnut twig, keep it in a jam jar of water and draw its progress as it opened.  

























It was an exercise in close observation rather than drawing skill and I suspect it was commonplace in rural schools throughout the country at that time. This illustration above comes from Wild Life Through the Year by Richard Morse, first published in 1942 and republished several times until 1959 - the kind of handbook for nature table observational exercises that teachers like Miss Waghorn woud have kept in their desk at the front of the class.

If she had been visited by today’s school inspectors, obsessed with national curriculum, standard attainment tests and league tables, they would probably have been horrified. I don’t suppose that spontaneously taking time out on a sunny afternoon to creep up on water voles – even if there was time left for it after completing a full hazard assessment – fits in well with today’s busy teaching schedule.
Miss Waghorn – and most of the water voles – are long gone, but not the memory of her nature table and the ‘sticky bud’ season. Which is why I like to keep one in a jam jar of water at his time of year.


12 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post, I can really relate to your stories as I had similar experiences in the last five years of the 1940's, that simpler teaching system served me well and my early school days were some of the happiest days of my life.

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  2. Glorious post, took me right back to my infant school and the nature table there.

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  3. Sounds like a nice school, ours had scrapyards on 2 sides.
    Remember Long tail tits nest were a favourite on our junior school nature table in the 70's.

    we'll be having a go at that with the HC twig, thanks Phil.

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  4. The teacher that can motivate and inspire a class is a truly gifted person. We have to hope that each child meets at least one during their schooling. Sometimes, it's only later that you really appreciate their encouragement.

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  5. Hi David, It's only in later life that I've come to recognise how valuable childhood experiences of nature were.

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  6. Hi Toffeeapple, I've never really got out the the 'nature table mentaility'.... all our bookshelves have seashells, pine cones and various other natural artifacts that I've found arranged along theie edges!

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  7. Hi Stevie, yep, it was a delighful school. I was lucky.

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  8. I can think of four inspirational teachers that I encountered throughout my school career, Graeme - which I guess was exceptionally lucky.

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  9. From your description, Phil, I reckon every school should have a Miss Waghorn. What a better place this world would be!

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  10. I wish I knew more about her and her life, Richard.She certainly made a big impression..

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  11. I, too, went to a small four teacher village school and was lucky enough to have a teacher like this. In our case, this was the teacher who taught the upper class (10 and 11 year olds) and she I *loved* when she took us on Nature Walks. She'd point our so many things if interest, and we'd collect flowers and buds to take back for display.

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  12. Hi swanscot, I think it's only in later life that you appreciate the influence that your first teachers can have - if you were lucky enough to get one like this....

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