The lesson that Hannah's mummy forgot to teach her

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The Independent Online
HANNAH was five years old. It was her first day at school. She had never been to school before. She felt a bit nervous. Would she remember all the things her mother had taught her before she started going to school?

''Well, Hannah,' said her mother, the day before she went to school for the first time, 'will you remember all the things I have taught you?'

'I think so, mother,' said Hannah.

'Then tell me how you should behave towards your teacher,' said her mother.

'I must spend a few days working out her weak points, and studying her relationship with the head and the other teachers. I must then gradually start playing on her weak points and on the shakier aspects of her relations with the other teachers, until I have got her exactly where I want her.'

'Very good,' said her mother approvingly.

This was not the sort of thing a child normally said before she went to school, but Hannah was not a normal child, or at least she did not have a normal mother. She remembered bitterly how confusing she had found her first year or two at school, and had decided that Hannah would not go through the same misery. Accordingly, she had taken her in hand from the age of two and schooled her in the basic principles of man management, sociology and business studies.

'At the end of your school days you will get A-level marks and grades and heaven knows what,' her mother had told Hannah', 'and no doubt they will be useful to you if you should ever need a job, but what you really need, and what nobody ever gives you, is pre-school education. I am going to give you that. When you go to school for the first time you will have a full set of grades given you by me. By the way, what is the capital of America?'

'If by America you mean the United States,' said Hannah, 'then Washington is undoubtedly the political and administrative capital. But New York is also the business and cultural capital, while claims could be made for New Orleans to be the gastronomic capital and for San Francisco . . .'

'Very good, dear,' said her mother.

Strangers who met Hannah for the first time often felt unnerved by the steady gaze of the child, almost as if she was looking straight through them and seeing their innermost secrets, which was hardly surprising, as this was exactly what she was doing most of the time.

'What did you think of my friend Yvonne?' her mother would say to her, and where another child might say that she either liked or disliked her, Hannah would say: 'Well, I think she needs to get married soon, because a relationship is what she needs most, either that or a much more interesting job . . .'

Hannah's mother had spent most of her schooldays in total awe of her teachers, who seemed to be larger than life and twice as scary. She still remembered the ones who had bullied her, and the ones who had been sarcastic, and the ones who had patronised her, and she didn't want Hannah to go through that sort of hell, so for better or for worse she had brought up Hannah to see adults as they really were.

In her own case, this had not happened until after she had left school, when she had suddenly seen all her old teachers for the insecure, querulous, argumentative and sometimes unhappy people they really were. She did not see why Hannah should have to wait until the end of her schooldays to find this out, and wanted her to have perceptive insight into people now.

'What will you say to your teacher when you arrive at school?' her mother asked.

'I will say, 'Good morning, teacher, I am looking forward to our years of education together, which I very much hope will be a two-way process and that we will learn much from each other',' Hannah replied.

'Why will you say that?'

'To unsettle her.'

'Very good. Now, off to school we go.'

Hannah was, in fact, even more worldly wise than her mother realised. Having been gifted with insight into grown- ups, she realised that her own mother was compensating for an unhappy childhood and trying to win with Hannah the very battles she had lost at school herself. But Hannah was wise enough, even at five, to accept this. So it was a surprise to both of them when Hannah came back from her first day at school crying her heart out.

'What's wrong, darling?' said her mother, aghast.

'Lucy pulled my hair and stole my pencils and called me horrible names,' sobbed Hannah.

Hannah's mother had overlooked one thing. She had forgotten to tell Hannah about the horror of other children.

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