Are You Mrs Winton’s Son?
…you cannot camouflage death with words. Always at the end of the words somebody is dead. Richard Brautigan
It’s so easy to forget that there is so much more to being a teacher than grades and targets and new initiatives. Teachers are people first and foremost, and are granted the rare privilege of being able to help shape young people into the adults they will become.
When we are born, we all have so much potential, and it is given to teachers to unlock that, to shape it, and to form it into something better. There is no finer calling, and we do well to remember that teaching is one of the most demanding, and yet most rewarding, jobs there is. I am one of a long line of teachers in my family. My mother was a primary teacher, her parents were both teachers, her grandfather was a headteacher. My sister is a primary teacher and it’s only my brother who has managed to avoid the family trade… so far!
My mum was a real character. She was one of those legendary teachers who coupled traditional teaching values and ideas with a love of music, Mars bars and tablet. Rarely a week goes by without someone asking me: “Are you Mrs Winton’s son?” Something I am proud to acknowledge, such was the impact she had on so many people’s lives. Of course, hearing so many people say lovely things about my mother reminds me of the immense force for good a teacher can be.
My mum was born in Rosyth in 1937 and named Katharine Marjorie Ellen Smith… but woe-betide anyone who called her anything other than Kate! Her father — who I recently found out was a pupil at the school I now teach at — was rarely at home as he saw War Service in the Royal Artillery seeing action in the Desert Campaign. On being de-mobbed, he became a Chemistry teacher before dying young of a heart attack. My mum, bless her cotton socks, also took a commission in the Territorial Army, though as she readily admitted, this had more to do with having a laugh with her friends and being taught how to drive for free! She sat her driving test in a Bedford RL, and I’ve often thought that had a lot to do with the way she drove for the rest of her life…
I find it fascinating that she qualified as a teacher in 1957… 3 months shy of her 20th birthday! She started her teacher training at the age of 16… something that I think would be impossible to do today. As well as her primary qualification, she was also qualified to teach Music and Needlework. Needlework!?! But music, that was one of the great loves of her life and was part of what lead to her being such a memorable teacher.
Not long after qualifying, mum upped sticks and headed to a teaching job in Hong Kong. I am still amazed that she had the guts to move to the other side of the world to work, but am also profoundly glad she did because she met my father, Willie, who was working as a Purser for P&O, on the trip out. There is an inevitable romance associated to the days of the great liners poughing their trade across the world’s oceans in the days before air travel really took off, though to listen to my mum and dad talking, you’d think it was one eternal Gin and Tonic!
My parents moved back to Scotland and married in 1962. Within a few years I appeared along with my younger sister and brother. Appalled at the thought of looking after her own kids full time, mum took a job teaching other people’s kids at Eastern Primary School in Broughty Ferry. The Ferry was a great place to live, not least because it had a fantastic beach which my mum encouraged us to make maximum use of. She was also making a name for herself at the Eastern. This was my first school, and I recall two things about day one: I was in room 7, and I was really pleased that I didn’t cry…
In 1970, mum moved up to the newly opened Barnhill Primary school. as well as being a new school, it had a wonderful stage which gave mum the opportunity to really shine. Unimpressed by the school’s script for Aladdin, mum decided to pre-empt CfE by writing her own version… and adding a host of songs she really liked rather than the anodyne pap in the original. The resulting panto is legendary. Barnhill Primary’s version of Aladdin received rave reviews in the Evening Telegraph, but also introduced a host of P7 pupils to music and dance and laughter to the extent that the show had to be put on again… and again…
And then we moved to Perth in 1977 and mum moved to Craigie Primary. That year Craigie Primary put on Aladdin. Fast Forward 30 years, and I was getting double glazing upgraded by a local firm. Derek, the Managing Director of the company, looked in to see how the work was getting on, and had been in the house for less than a minute before he asked the question that has followed me through my adult life: “Are you Mrs Winton’s son?… I was the Grand Vizier in Aladdin!” There’s no getting away from the impact my mum had. A successful business man who has raised a firm from small beginnings to a multi-million pound turnover, and one of the best experiences he had at school was playing a part in my mum’s school panto. And of course, he is not alone. I think every bit of work in my mum and dad’s house has been carried out by ex-pupils… often with a discount because they were doing it for Mrs Winton. Plumbers, joiners, hairdressers… all manner of trades have shown my mum kindness because they loved her as a teacher.
“Are you Mrs Winton’s son?” I’ve heard that question so many times, and I’m so proud that I have. I often wonder if my dad knew what he was getting into when he married my mum. When you marry a teacher, you are also marrying into a whole school and community, and for me, it is a constant reminder of the privilege we enjoy as teachers. We are permitted to play a small part in forging the adults we will grow into, and I hear daily what a positive impact my mum played on so many people. I tried to work out how many children my mum must have taught over her career. It’s easily over a thousand. That’s a thousand people who will make a decision that has been in some small way affected by my mum’s influence. That’s a thousand people who could surprise me at any time by asking: “Are you Mrs Winton’s son?”
Learning is important in my life and my family and this is something I learned from my parents. I know my mum was immensely proud last November when she was able to see my brother graduate top of his MSc Class, especially as she had been unable to attend his BSc graduation. That gave her the full set after attending my sister’s graduation and my own.
Early this year, her Alzheimer’s became progressively worse. She was admitted to Murray Royal hospital for a short observation period, then returned home. On the 6th June, she collapsed and was hospitalised then transferred to Murray Royal again. She was transferred to a specialist dementia unit at Blairgowrie Cottage hospital until it was closed because of cuts in funding. She returned to Murray Royal, and over the past few weeks has steadily declined.
12 days ago, we were told that her condition was terminal, however, this was no surprise as we had seen her cognitive abilities disappear frighteningly quickly over the course of the year. I had always believed that dementia meant a slow decline. I was wrong.
I received a phonecall at 7am two days ago letting me know that we might want to come and see mum for the last time. For the past two days, my dad, brother and sister and I have been a permanent fixture at mum’s bedside. We have been immensely and profoundly moved by the kindness and generosity of the staff at Murray Royal. People often say they couldn’t do my job when they find out I am a teacher… but my job is nothing compared to the nurses and doctors in a dementia hospital…
As I quoted at the top of this post, “…you cannot camouflage death with words. Always at the end of the words somebody is dead.”
My mother died today.