The porter re-emerged and gestured towards the door behind him. “Miss Townsend will see you now, Miss Reddings.”
Uplifted by the boy’s giggle, Georgina felt full of enthusiasm and confidence. She wanted to be the best trainee teacher the school had ever seen. As she entered the headmistress’ office, her smile froze. Before her was a sour faced woman with her hair pulled severely back from her face. Wary apprehension replaced Georgina’s short-lived self-confidence.
“Miss Reddings, is it? From the Lincoln Diocesan Teachers’ Training College?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Georgina fell back into the role of dutiful vicar’s daughter.
“Please. Sit down.” Miss Townsend indicated a chair before her massive oak desk. “So, Miss Reddings, you are to be our trainee teacher for the whole of the autumn term. Is that correct?”
“I see from your records that you went to Holy Trinity in Ripon?”
“A very good C of E school. As I recall, they have extremely exacting standards of admission and are far from cheap.”
“Yes, I was very lucky. My father is a vicar and so I had a scholarship.”
“Yes, well.” Miss Townsend clearly wasn’t happy about something. She folded her hands together on her desk. “I’m going to be brutally honest with you, Miss Reddings. I fear that you may not be the best candidate for the position here. This school may once have been a decent school — maybe not Holy Trinity, but we had a very good reputation, nevertheless. However, times have changed. Nowadays we are making a contribution to the war effort by providing refuge to the Old Palace School, which was evacuated from Bromley by Bow at the very start of the war. Their entire staff came here with all the children whose parents didn’t refuse the evacuation scheme. Those children make up the vast majority of the pupils now in residence here.”
“Oh—” Georgina wanted to explain that she understood this, but the look Miss Townsend gave her for daring to interrupt silenced her at once. She resumed her dutiful pose, her feet side-by-side and her hands together on her lap.
“Back in the last century,” Miss Townsend reminisced, looking at the oil painting that hung over the fireplace opposite her desk. “Kirkby Grange was built on the model of the old double monasteries, with a girls’ school and a boys’ school side-by-side and sharing selected facilities such as the church, the assembly hall, the sports fields and stables, but strictly separated by stout walls and strong discipline.” She added the last remark with a conviction that entertained no contradiction on Georgina’s part.
“It was built,” Miss Townsend continued, “for 400 boys and 200 girls, and it was a sought-after and prestigious school. Unfortunately, the post-war era saw a drastic decline in the enrolment of children and in 1931 we were forced to close the boys’ school altogether. The facilities in the boys’ wing were locked up. Meanwhile the girls’ school roll gradually fell to half its previous number. It was, I suppose, inevitable that when the government developed plans to evacuate schools from urban areas subject to bombing to ‘safe’ regions, Kirkby Grange would come to their attention.” She sighed deeply.
Then, pulling herself together, she declared firmly, “Please don’t misunderstand me, Miss Reddings. Providing refuge to children subject to aerial bombing is not only a patriotic but also a Christian duty. Nevertheless, I cannot describe to you the state in which some of these children arrived. Nor the manners some of these city urchins still lack! Fully fifteen percent arrived with lice. Lice! As for the teachers, most of them are Bolshies — outright revolutionaries with no respect for the Church, much less the crown. I hope you can appreciate that although we still have eighty-seven of our own girls here, whom we keep separated from the evacuees, we have more than enough staff for them. Your position, I’m afraid, is as an assistant to the teachers from the Old Palace school, teaching both girls and boys. It is not something I would willingly ask of a well-bred young woman.”
Georgina was at last given a chance to get a word in edgeways. “I honestly don’t mind that, Miss Townsend,” Georgina assured the headmistress. “I requested this assignment because I wanted the opportunity to teach in a co-educational environment. That’s where I hope to spend the rest of my teaching career.”
Miss Townsend raised her eyebrows in apparent astonishment, then shook her head in disapproval. Georgina knew she had said the wrong thing. She clearly wasn’t supposed to be enthusiastic about teaching boys, much less city urchins.
“I question whether a girl with your background and education has the slightest idea of what she is talking about,” Miss Townsend commented acidly. “And I most certainly doubt whether you are capable of handling the pupils from the Old Palace. Most of you young things struggle to handle even children from a proper home environment. These slum brats require a far firmer hand, I can assure you.”
“Yes, ma’am. I understand. I promise I will do my best,” Georgina tried to salvage something of the interview, despite thinking that Miss Townsend was the epitome of everything she hated about British schools: class-conscious, opinionated, and smug.
As if washing her hands of Georgina altogether, Miss Townsend announced in a brisk, almost indifferent tone, “You were told, I assume, that there’s absolutely no housing for you here.”
Georgina nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I was given to understand, that I would be able to find lodgings in the village of Kirkby. That’s why I brought along my bicycle to make sure I can get there and back easily.”
“Well, at least that was prescient of you,” Miss Townsend conceded. “Let me see. I had a list of billets here somewhere.” She searched about her desk, lifting one stack of papers and then another until she found what she was looking for. “Yes, here they are.” She pulled the list towards her and copied some onto a page of her notebook. This she tore out and handed to Georgina. “Start with these three addresses, and I suggest straight away. I will expect you back here at 8:30 tomorrow morning for the weekly staff meeting. You’ll be teaching First Form under Miss Evans from Old Palace.”
Miss Townsend stood, and they shook hands briefly. Georgina found herself outside again, wincing slightly as Miss Townsend bellowed “Carter!” behind her. One of the waiting boys rose and shuffled reluctantly towards the door to the lion’s den wearing a fearful face.
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