The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 8 September 2019

I nearly called you miss

In one classroom, a girl called me dad. In another, a girl called me miss. Both times, everyone laughed.

“Miss is short for mister,” I explained. Pause.

“No, it’s not!” a boy said suspiciously. An independent mind. The children had to do a written task. I was standing at the front, talking to one of the teaching assistants. I usually call them miss – if they’re women, and they usually are. I looked down at the child beside me. She wasn’t writing. I opened my mouth to speak, something encouraging, but stopped and said: “I nearly called you miss!”

It was the first thing I said to Varahna. She looked up in delight, and her heart was mine.

The assistant told her to concentrate.

“Varahna!” she said several times in a warning tone, and each time, the little girl grinned at me, like sharing a joke. It was a good reason not to concentrate.

On the whiteboard, there was a list of expectations in black pen and the normal teacher’s best handwriting. Just three expectations, very few for a list of this sort, but the board was small to start with, and miss had to use it for teaching. I expect these three were, in her view, the most important.

·         Be resiliant
·         Contribute in class when the need arrises
·         Show independance

In spelling, too. Next, we had a test. Ten words to spell. At the end, Varahna put her hand up. She was grinning again.

“What was number five?”

I wanted to repeat it, but if I did, I'd have to do the same for everyone. We'd never finish. I said I couldn't tell her. I explained why. She still grinned. During break, I corrected the test. Varahna got every word wrong and practically every letter. I’m not exaggerating. It was the worst spelling test I’ve ever seen; so bad, it was touching. When she asked about number five, she must have known that every word was wrong. Be resiliant. That’s Varahna.

I make mistakes too. Once, I called her Varhana, another Bangladeshi name.

“Not Varhana, Varahna!” she replied, as if she’d told me for the hundredth time, but her eyes were laughing.

The last lesson of the day. A class can be naughty. I was getting cross.

“I might not come again.”

There was a soft cry of pain. Céline. I wasn’t looking at her, but I recognised her voice. Some cries are like words. I tried to explain – I do this a lot, even for a teacher – to the whole class, but the words were for Céline. I said I’d always come if I was called, though a lot had to happen before that: their teacher had to be away; the school had to call the agency I worked for, and there were lots of agencies; then the agency had to call me, and agencies had lots of teachers. When I finished, I glanced at Céline. She didn’t seem to feel much better.

At home time, the assistant took the children downstairs, all except Céline and Varahna. They stayed behind when they shouldn’t have, and sat together in the front row. Show independance. I stepped across. Varahna put her arms out, then Céline, and the hugs were done.

“I’ll miss you,” I said as they walked away.

A few weeks later, I returned to the same school for a different class. At lunchtime, a group of Year 4 girls appeared at the door. When the need arrises.

“What’s my name?” one asked.


“Oh, my God!” Pause. Céline pointed to the child next to her. “What’s her name?”

“Does it start with V?”

“I told you!” Céline whispered to Varahna.