I spent a lot of class time in high school bored and frustrated. The particular school I went to was quite dogmatic and it didn’t gel with me. I remember sitting in my religion class once, taught by an ex-nun, and there was a particularly disruptive girl in the class who the teacher couldn’t control. Now this teacher was scary and had the rest of us trained to be mute fairly early on, but not even she could silence this girl. One day she sent her to stand in the hallway, where she continued to yell abuse. The ex-nun looked up and smiled wickedly and said ‘Mrs Hardy will stop that’.
Mrs Hardy taught in the next room and was a sweet, white-haired grandmother, a scholar who looked like she was more suited to working behind the counter of a Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe. I was confused. How was this sweet grandmother going to stop what this battleaxe ex-nun couldn’t?
Suddenly there was a roar from the hallway and the girl fell silent as Mrs Hardy really let loose. When she was done, the whole row of classrooms was completely quiet. I duly took note.
When I got to the senior years of high school, I was lucky to have an influential English teacher, a dedicated Modern History teacher and the formidable Mrs Hardy as my Ancient History teacher. I can’t fully describe how transformative her classes were. Her wealth of knowledge about her specicialist subject was unparalleled by anyone I’d been taught by so far, and I wouldn’t meet anyone like her in this regard until I did Honours at uni.
We would come in each lesson, and she would greet us all from behind her desk, where she sat, legs crossed and swinging, while she sipped from a water bottle, a necessary accessory after treatment for cancer. We would all sit, completely ready to be engaged by her and the lesson would begin. She would begin to speak and we would take notes. She literally dictated these incredible stories to us for two years, and I’m not exaggerating to say that the entire class was transfixed in hearing about all these ancient places and people, the syllabus covered, but added to with asides – tales from her trips, interesting facts about Latin, crude ancient jokes. She’d visited many of the places and tentative plans were made for an overseas school excursion, something that sadly never came to pass.
She’d taught English to Mary for her HSC and I’d often come to class early or leave late and tell her what Mary had been up to in Sydney and at uni.
In the middle of my HSC exams my grandmother passed away really suddenly and everything fell apart for the rest of my exams. I remember she told me not to worry, that everything could and would be sorted out. She was so sure that I’d put in the hard yards and that it would pay off. I came back to sit the 3U Ancient History exam, the last of all the HSC exams that year. My tiny class and I were a mess of nerves and excitement before the exam and Mrs Hardy came down to tell us in her unflappable way not to be stupid and to read everything carefully, for goodness sake.
And when it was over, we were free, and we went out and did all the things you do when you’re that young, including forgetting about your wonderful Ancient History teacher.
A few years ago, I found myself thinking about her a lot. I’d had some life experience under my belt, I’d been taught more by other people, found that I would clash with teachers even when we were both adults, that many are just there to make money, and that there are a few brilliant people, like her, who can change the whole way you look at things. So I emailed my high school, knowing she’d retired and moved away, asking if I could have her address. I didn’t think they’d give it to me and I was shocked when a reply came, with the address and best wishes to pass onto her.
Both Mary and I wrote to her and received fantastic responses all about Newcastle, where she and her husband, Ken had gone to live and about her grand kids, the Ginger Ninjas. At the end was an invitation to swim in her pool when the weather got hot.
Life interrupted again and it wasn’t until this year that we got to see her. Mary and I took Vincent to Newcastle a few months ago, and when she opened the door, she was exactly the same. We spent hours with her and Ken, she insisting we call her Jan and that it was fine for Vincent to destroy anything a baby might want to destroy. We heard all about her kids and their kids. She fed us bowls of soup, placed on laminated pictured of ancient frescoes. We discussed travel, life, Orange and school.
It was such a fantastic afternoon. It was just relaxed and easy. Jan was, and always had been, so free of pretension, always ready to treat you like an adult, a contemporary, if you acted like one. I fully expected to visit her again, take her up on the offer to use the pool, maybe meet a few of the Ginger Ninjas.
Yesterday I was at work when Mary called to say Jan’s son had rung, and that on Tuesday afternoon she had passed away suddenly, possibly from an allergic reaction to some medication she was taking. Mary had seen her only three weeks ago, and she’d been her usual wonderful self.
It hit me much harder than I thought it would, had I imagined it at all. Maybe it’s because her relationship with Ken reminded me a lot of the one my paternal grandparents had. Maybe because it’s been ten years almost to the month that I lost my paternal grandmother and Jan was there and a comfort when that happened.
Mostly though it is because she really illuminated learning for me.
I will miss her greatly, and will be forever thankful that I met her.