There are people in your life who played such an important role in shaping who you are, that it’s necessary to pay tribute to them. Out of everything else that happens to you, their presence and stint in your life stands out like a beacon. Often, they are like a beacon, that person who guides and leads you to a better place. Sadly, I haven’t been able to re-establish contact with my beacon, but it’s not stopping me from trying. I tracked her down once, I don’t see why I can’t do it again.
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Everyone has one. That person outside of your family who came into your life, and simply by being in it, changes it and changes you.
The first day in Mrs. Phyl Rowlinson’s Yr.5 class, at St. Catherine’s school for girls in Sydney, I knew that she would be different from every other teacher I’ve ever had. She did not believe in restricting her students to studies that the curriculum believed we were capable of at our age. On our first day in her class, she taught us Shakespeare. And in the afternoon, as we were leaving, she shook each of our hands at the classroom door and had us recite, “Parting is such sweet sorrow/That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
Shaking hands with each student on their way out had been a ritual for Mrs. R for years. And it was one we kept to every day of the year that we were in her class. She told us this was so she would have some sort of interaction with all of us at least once a day. Reciting Romeo & Juliet was not required after that first day, but some of us did it anyway once in a while, just to see her smile at us.
Mrs. R liked to include in our studies things that she was passionate about. Shakespeare was one – later in the year we performed in groups of three the witches scene in Macbeth – and history was another. At 11-years-old, I was surprised to learn that a fat man from medieval England was able to convince six women to marry him, especially when two of his wives were beheaded on his orders. With the first to step upon the scaffold being wife-number-two, I thought that surely the rest would have had better common sense…even if he was the king. On that day, Mrs. R showed us that history could be interesting! She taught us these things with such zest that those “extra” lessons were the ones we looked forward to the most, and everything else dictated by our syllabus became dull in comparison.
She was not a teacher who taught from behind her desk. Mrs. R, who liked to wear modest blouses or sweaters with long flowing skirts, would pace back and forth in front of the class. Her face would be animated as she talked, and her hands would gesticulate with a fluid circularity both graceful and erratic. She carried her 5’5 frame with the poise that comes from knowing exactly who she was, and being all right with both the virtues and faults she possessed. To add to her eccentricity, her calligraphy was exact yet whimsical — like Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the Bilbo Baggins’ writing in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Mrs. R spoke with perfect pronunciation, pace and timing, and in a mild Australian accent that held a trace of her South African roots, which was represented by the rhythm she gave her words. She encouraged us to learn to be articulate, not so that we’d sound sophisticated, I don’t think, but so that we’d be heard.
Mrs. R, with her fiery love of life and, as we later found out, a tempest of a temper, was a redhead. Mind, she was rarely angry and when she was, it stemmed from disappointment rather than rage.
Half way through the year, Mrs. R was asked to choreograph a 1920s flapper- style dance routine, to be performed before an important Australian official who was going to visit the school. I no longer recall who the guest of honour was, but I remember the many lunch-times and after-school hours Mrs. R dedicated to helping some 100 girls get the dance right. One day, during lunch, most of us were feeling particularly indifferent and simply were not paying attention. Cajoling turned into snapping, which quickly turned into shouting. And then, like water boiling over, Mrs. R came to a standstill amidst us uncaring students and burst into tears. A shameful silence fell around her, as she buried her face in her hands and cried. Her shoulders, for once not pulled back perfectly, shook as she sobbed and her curly auburn bob shook also.
We did not know how to react. To students, teachers are teachers. We forget that at the end of the day, they don’t disappear into thin air; they go home to their families. And if memory serves me correctly, Mrs. R had two young adult sons to go home to. We forget that teachers have emotions. And all of a sudden, this woman who wanted nothing more than to teach us a performance of which we could all be proud, was crying. Not for her, for not being able to teach us the routine, but for us because we could not, or would not, understand its importance. She was putting such effort into making us the stars, and we just didn’t care.
After Mrs. R finished crying, and a murmur of apologies had rippled through us, she carried on. Her lashes were wet, but her gaze was determined once more.
Mrs. R, by believing in each of us, taught us to become a better version of ourselves. For me, she had done more than she was required to. Four afternoons a week, for no extra charge, she stayed behind at school for an hour to improve my English. I do not know why she did it, but I am grateful that she did.
Mrs. R was the person who taught me to be passionate about the things I loved. Thanks need to be given where it’s due, and Mrs. R, with her kind smile, firm encouragements and daily handshakes, is at the top of my list.
Only, how do you thank someone for teaching you it’s not wrong to strive for ambitions others do not believe you are capable of? How do you tell them that by being a short chapter in your life that they managed to affect the rest of the story? How can “thank you” ever be enough for a woman like Mrs. Phyl Rowlinson?
(I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but if anyone has any clue on how to contact Mrs. Phyl Rowlinson, please let me know. It would be much appreciated. Thank you.)