'Miss Manson' (as she is called in an ooh-oooh, me] me] voice at what seem like 20-second intervals throughout the school day) rises at 7.30am, is at the Princess Frederica School in Kensal Rise, Brent, north-west London, by 8.15, has an hour and 15 minutes for lunch and sees the last child off at 3.15pm.
Many days, but not always, there are meetings with parents after class. She is usually away by 4pm, after which, she says, she rarely has the energy to do more than make herself a cup of tea, then go to bed.
What I want to know is how she has the energy to make that cup of tea. One day at her side and I was flattened. Perhaps it is a question of fitness: she is 28, tall, naturally and sharply thin. She seldom smokes, only occasionally sneaking a low tar, low everything cigarette outside the school during lunch hour. Her jet black hair frames a pale face. The exhausted clench of her jaw and lines around her squinting green eyes, which occasionally make her look hard, belie a remarkably gentle nature. It is her voice that betrays her as a softy; peculiarly for someone raised in Surrey, it has a slight northern lilt.
Hers, she says, was a 'typically suburban middle-class upbringing in Guildford'. She studied fashion at Kingston, then took a degree (and, by the sounds of it, acquired an accent) at Lancashire University. She makes most of her own clothes, though the beauty of her job, she says, 'is that I don't have to worry about what I wear'.
I first heard about Miss Manson from a friend, whose child had been acting up in her class. Miss Manson asked her to come in for one of those delicate and difficult 3.15-4pm talks.
My friend expected the worst: her youngest child had been suffering chronic asthma; she was (then) unemployed; her partner worked nights, when the asthma fits were the worst. The six-year-old had secretly convinced himself his younger brother was going to die, and taken to disrupting class with sudden bouts of hysteria.
Miss Manson's solution was to offer to spend her breaks with the child provided he settled down during class. It worked.
When my friend reported her offer, I was taken aback by the sheer tenderness of it. When, months later, quite by accident, I first met Miss Manson, I offered to stage a food day for her class, and pressed a business card into her hand. I somehow doubted she would take me up on it: this sort of gesture is easily made, but in glib, yuppie London there is a tacit understanding that they are, well,
I underestimated teachers. Like fund-raisers, relief organisations and photocopying equipment salesmen, when they nail you, they nail you. They have to. As long as we insist on treating schools as somehow charit-able concerns, teachers will have to possess missionary zeal.
I came away with sackfuls of their concerns, particularly how crucial it is we support Language Support Service for children for whom English is a
second language. It is also vital, they insist, we retain and even expand the endangered Reading Recovery Scheme, introduced to British schools two years ago and already endangered by budget cuts.
But my mission was culinary. So, my Mini loaded with flour, eggs,
baking sheets and various gear, I set off for Brent.
It is difficult to find the entrance to the Princess Frederica School. It is obscured by high wire fences. This was not the original plan of the architect, a certain Mr Mew of Doughty Street, WC2, nor the sight that greeted Princess Frederica, the Hanoverian cousin of Queen Victoria, who officially opened the school on 6 May 1889. When I asked about the wire, Miss Manson said simply, 'Vandalism.'
Inside, however, it is bright, clean, papered with children's paintings and ringing with their voices. Any temptation to tut-tut about the inner-citiness of the barbed wire faded away as, carrying gear for biscuit making
towards her classroom, I suddenly remembered one of my favourite
pastimes as a seven-year-old was breaking into our middle-class suburban school to rearrange the desks.
Moreover, this prison-issue school has made amazing progress in its 105 years. According to an excellent
history supplied by Miss Manson, when Princess Frederica arrived to innaugurate the school, there were as many as 81 children per class. Few could read or write. Many lacked shoes.
The shortage of teachers meant that many older students were drafted in to teach younger ones. Qualified teachers were expected to be able to, for example, write a short essay on punctuality. Women teachers were expected to knit and sew neatly.
None of the above is my strong point, so I decided the morning would be reserved for food discussions; after lunch we would divide the class into three groups, then mix and bake three sorts of biscuits. Little did I know that a professional torturer could not have come up with a more perverse scheme than promising 24 kids biscuits, then making them sit still to discuss anything, never mind work their way through my unlikely list of topics.
The topic that really died a death was: What do you eat at home? One child, however, offered the gem: 'My dad eats beer.' They were antsy and bored as I attempted to explain the changeover from Imperial to metric weights. A thousand little hands grabbed at my expensive little 5, 10 and 20g weights. I grabbed them back, six-year-old style. Mine] Mine] Mine]
I showed them organic and con-
ventional flours, which I had decided to compare in a vague hope of seeding a new generation of environmentalists: suddenly 24 kids were smeared with it, and the baking hadn't even started.
They made an art of advancing, until suddenly it seemed as if half the class was sitting in my lap. Still, I noticed through a tangle of arms and torrent of questions from the front, a row of children in the back were silent.
This was not shyness. They were busy translating the proceedings. For at least five of them, their first language is Hindu or Gujerati. As several bold kids were pinching Instructional Prop D (free-range eggs) to throw at one another, it was dawning on two of the most shy Asian children that the eggs were proscribed by religion. Would there be an egg-free biscuit?
Miss Manson worries about these silent types, immigrant stock or Anglo-Saxon. 'I feel as if I went through school not really being noticed,' she said. 'I remember one teacher didn't like me, and I was shocked that I even made that much impact.'
To judge by food spills on jumpers, smudged hands and smeared faces, she notices them all. This is no mean feat: shrewdly, Miss Manson drafted in two helpers from Year 6 named Kerry and Shunza. We flew from table to table. We gooped it up with Isabella, Shanta,
Afiheama, Pritul, Natalie, Ajani and Chuka were on the peanut butter table. We snuck stray chocolate drops with Ewart, Janine, Donique, Megha, Tojo, Stefan, Claudine and Jonathan on the chocolate chip cookie table; we cracked a bottle of Captain Morgan with Dwaine, Kimberley, Sharlene, Harsha, Adeel, Nabeela, Elijah and Arlynne on the rum raisin table.
Quite how we got 12 batches of
biscuits in and out of a Baby Belling with oversized baking trays, I cannot exactly say. Where there are 24 six-year-olds expecting biscuits, there is a way. I recall the kids catching on as I began shouting orders, restaurant kitchen-style, until lots of little voices joining my big smoky one in screaming the likes of 'Table three is away]'.
Nor can I still quite believe how very good the biscuits were. As we sat down to eat and drink fruit juice, I bought myself a sneaky shot of Captain Morgan. A little girl from the Table Three noticed and instantly shopped me to the class.
Kids, I had learned in a long and hectic day, don't miss much.
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