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An oleaginous headmistress takes the wind out of my sails

Blog | By Virginia Ironside | May 09, 2017


When I was a child, I don’t think I ever knew what it was like to sit down on public transport. I only had to lower my bottom onto a seat and some old lady would poke me with a stick and say, 'Get up for the gentleman/ lady.' or whatever. It was easier to stand for the entire journey. These days, I still can’t get a seat because they’re all taken up with kids.

 Recently I was in a carriage completely colonised by seven- to eight-year-old children. Standing were men with sticks, women with babies and knackered old ladies like myself. Having read the name of the school on the children’s caps, when I got home I bunged off a furious letter.

 Actually, it wasn’t that furious because I’ve now learned that it’s very easy to get a slap in the face if you lose your cool when complaining. So, even though I privately wished the school to have special measures status slapped on it asap, I couched my letter in ingratiating terms. 

 'What a delightful bunch!' I wrote. 'The pupils looked so happy and interested! But, to my surprise, when I asked one of them if he might kindly give up his seat, he looked at me blankly and the woman who seemed in charge of the group just looked away. I only got a seat when another passenger offered me her own seat instead. Wouldn’t it be a good idea if your children were to give an even better impression by giving up their seats to any adults standing?'

I added some guff about how sorry I was to complain and how I knew how busy they must all be and how I knew how stressful it was taking children on the Underground. 

 After I’d finished, I felt like some character out of Trollope – the oily Mr Slope perhaps? – and was only sorry I couldn’t sign the letter off with the flourish of a quill pen. 

 What I wasn’t expecting was for a similarly silver-tongued letter to come winging back.

 'As you correctly observed, the children were returning from a full day’s trip into London,' wrote the headmistress. 'They are young children and were returning home tired and exhausted after a day’s learning. Some have never been taken on public transport and it was a daunting experience for many of them.  

 'Please be reassured that the reaction of the boy you spoke to was not one of rudeness. He is a young boy whose first language is not English – we have taken a number of Syrian refugees into the school and 92 per cent of our pupils do not speak English as their first language.  Taking into account the noise of the train and then looking up to see a stranger speaking to him would not have enabled him to be quickly responsive to your request. 

 'We really promote good manners here and I was upset that the pupils did not offer you a seat.  I can only apologise for the adult supervisor – we had to “staff" this trip with some parent helpers and not all parents have the same values and expectations as myself and my staff, who would always encourage children to give up their seats to anyone who looks tired or old. From a positive angle – perhaps you have aged well and look spritely and the pupils did not see you as a “needy" passenger!  I sincerely hope that I will still be able to travel by tube when I am 73!

 'Again, I can only apologise that our pupils did not significantly improve your day on Wednesday. Thank you for taking the time to email in to me.  

 'Finally, on a different note, I notice that you are an acclaimed author.  We are having a major focus on reading this year and are holding an aspirations week soon to inspire our children to aim high and be a great success. If you would ever like to come into the school...' etc etc. 

 Oh God – the poor little boy! And the compliment to my looks slathered on like a great lump of butter! And the phrase 'acclaimed author'! I now feel completely awful for making a fuss. Which is just what her letter was intended to make me feel.

 On the basis of her successful communications skills alone, I hope that the school is now rated by Ofsted as Outstanding. 

 Virginia’s latest book is No Thanks! I’m Quite Happy Standing! (Quercus £8.99).