Like generations before me beginning a new school year at Sandown Church of England Primary School, I lined up with the eight-year-olds near an inscription in the stone wall: A.D. 1853.
“I’ve seen Miss Wheeler lose her temper,” Jean-Ann whispered. “She goes as red as a beetroot!”
My knees knocked as the autumn wind sent sycamore leaves skittering across the playground. We followed our new teacher inside and hung up our coats and P.E. bags. Then we took our places at desks that smelled of ink and polish in Irene Wheeler’s room, sandwiched between Crabby Jones’ and Joey Brown’s. Ours must have been the only teacher in the school without a nickname.
A lock of gray hair, formerly black, jiggled as she called the thirty-four names on her roll.
“Hazel Longhurst?” Miss Wheeler’s eyes, blue as the knitted twin set she wore, twinkled behind thick glasses. A special smile for me.
“Present,” I answered.
Every day, the heavy wood-and-glass partitions were rolled back for morning assembly, and Miss Wheeler accompanied our hymn singing on the piano. I watched her play, fascinated, because I had just started taking piano lessons. Too shy to speak out in class, I sought private opportunities to show her my piano pieces, drawings, and a guitar made of rubber bands on a box. She always took time to listen and to offer helpful suggestions.
Miss Wheeler patiently steered the class through long division and sentence construction. On lazy Friday afternoons, she sparked my sense of adventure by reading from The Jungle Book and Gulliver’s Travels. She instilled a passion for words by reciting a range of poetry, from Hiawatha to The Owl and the Pussy Cat.
“There’s brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk … so watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by.” So went a verse about contraband. Gleefully Miss Wheeler confessed that her ancestors had been notorious smugglers along the Isle of Wight’s west coast in the 19th century. She gave us glimpses into her personal life, like her first taste of octopus in Spain, and the time her mother had cried in the cupboard because Irene had upset her. We learned that hurting your parents is worse than making them angry.
I remembered Jean-Ann’s warning, but did not believe this sweet lady could ever lose her temper. One drizzly morning, she left our silent reading session to confer with Ginny Cassell in another classroom. The clunk of her heels on the wooden floor ten minutes later was almost drowned out by our hubbub. Half the class was swapping tea cards, the rest engaged in an inkwell-cover-polishing competition.
Miss Wheeler loomed in the doorway with a face redder than the spindle berries on our nature table. All trading ceased, the brass-buffers clutched wads of Duraglit with blackened fingers, and an eerie hush descended. She turned her thundercloud scowl in my direction.
“Bring me those cards in your hand, Hazel Longhurst!”
I obeyed the shrill command and gulped as she placed the entire British wildlife series in her drawer. While she stormed around the room confiscating everything in sight, I snickered behind my New Worlds to Conquer reader. I’d simply been admiring the cards. They belonged to Stephen Williams.
December drew near, and we crocodiled up the hill to the church to practice for the carol service. As our clear voices rang beneath the stone arches—“What can I give Him, poor as I am?”—a question echoed in my mind. What can I give my teacher for Christmas?
On the next dry Saturday I walked with my family along the cliff path to the nearest Woolworth’s, and decided to buy her a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate with sixpence from my own piggy bank. Back home, it looked a little smaller than usual. So I borrowed Daddy’s Bic ballpoint and printed the price on the wrapper, so that it could not be mistaken for a threepenny bar!
For me, Miss Wheeler’s greatest legacy is the repertoire of music she taught. We marched with the men of Harlech, danced at Marie’s wedding, and waited for Johnny to come home from the fair. We drowned with the jolly sailor boys who spied a mermaid on a Friday with a comb and a glass on her hand (sure signs of bad luck), and sped with a bonnie boat carrying the lad who was born to be king, over the sea to Skye. At parties we galloped up and down the parish hall to The Grand Old Duke of York. Fifty years on, another Prince Charles is destined for the throne, and Andrew has become Duke of York. Yet, poignant phrases reverberate down the halls of memory.
On her revolving blackboard, Miss Wheeler drew a body with a thick chalk line across the middle. She explained how the diaphragm could be controlled to produce a not-quite-so-flat note. I joined her choir and learned to sing alto. Spring arrived with soft pussy willow and yellow lamb’s tail catkins. The choir traveled by bus to the Island Music Festival, where Miss Wheeler waved her baton like a magic wand, a stray curl bobbing over her forehead. She beamed with pride at the announcement that we’d secured the First Place trophy for Sandown.
The following week Carol, Judith, and I entered the solo category. Despite our valiant attempts at "Tony Was a Turtle," the cup went to the girl from a posh private school who lifted her frilly frock in a curtsey after her performance. Still, I enjoyed that trip in Miss Wheeler’s Morris Standard. She was one of the few women drivers we knew back then, and a good one.
Summer swept in with garden parties, regattas, exams, and Sports Day. Our four teams or “houses”—bore the names of authors, Priestley (red), Tennyson (yellow), Keats (blue), and Milne (green). Eagerly I watched the sack-race finalists bounce over the sunny field toward the tape, hoping for a Priestley victory. I’d never suspected the teachers of being biased, and so I was mortified to hear Miss Wheeler scream from the sideline, “Tennyson! Tennyson!”
I forgave her at last, and asked her to write in my autograph book. Neatly she copied a poem about the steep path of life and the Guide who will see us through if we trust Him, and she signed it Irene Wheeler. Thrilled at the inclusion of her first name, I also appreciated the poem’s advice.
On my report card she wrote, “Hazel will go far.” My mother quoted these words a decade later, when I left for teacher training college on the mainland. Miss Wheeler died of cancer soon after I embarked on my career. Now that I share her faith, we’re on the same team. I look forward to singing with her in the heavenly choir, and she’ll find out how far I went—to America, by way of Iran!
Even if none of my thousand or so former students picks me as the best teacher they ever had, I hope they will think of me as someone who encouraged them to use their talents. They saw me explode on occasions too, but I wanted above all to be their friend, as Irene Wheeler was mine.