June 29, 2012 8:14 pm

The case of the missing maths teacher

Over lunch in the Channel Islands, Mrs Moneypenny and her school friends remember the inspirations of their formative years
Illustration by James Ferguson©James Ferguson

Six take a day trip to Jersey. A group of us who left the same school 38 years ago went to the island last Tuesday for lunch, a few spa treatments and a walk on the beach. We were celebrating a special year: three of us have reached 50 and three are about to. Five of us work, just one of us having married so well that she has been able to devote herself wholly to her children from the moment they were born. (She is, by common agreement, the most beautiful and unlined of all of us, which I am sure is not unrelated.)

Generally, I tend to feel that looking back, as Lot’s wife learnt, is not especially helpful. Regret, in my opinion, is a waste of emotional energy, and even if one’s memories are wonderful, one still tends to long for things to be different now, which they won’t be. (Of course, you could be in that tiny minority of people for whom school memories, your present life and every moment in between are a cause for celebration, in which case I would probably rather not meet you.)

But in Jersey, we six could not help but talk about our former teachers. The one who inspired me the most was the woman who taught us mathematics and economics. She was married and appeared very grown-up to me, but in reality was only 10 years older than we were. She spent her weekends, or so it seemed to me at the time, flying light aircraft in aerobatic routines.

When we left school we bought her a customised T-shirt bearing the words “I would rather be flying”, and had the word “flying” printed upside down.

Despite her exemplary teaching, the distractions of teenage life led me to underachieve in my A-levels and I had to retake two of them. I remember my last communication with this teacher was when I sent her the results, which were far better than the original ones. She wrote back and asked why they were not better still.

I have often thought about writing to this woman and telling her how grateful I was for her inspiration in my formative years, for bringing the capital markets alive by demonstrating the inverse relationship between the rate of interest and the price of bonds and for giving me a brilliant grounding in maths – so important if you run a business. But I knew she had moved to the US not long after we left school, and I didn’t know how to find her.

Arranging the trip to Jersey was the final catalyst for tracking her down. Perhaps she had returned from the US? I went on to the online electoral roll and found that there was only one man with the same surname registered at the same address, who I surmised was her husband. I Googled him and found a university professor whose biography stated that he had moved to the US in 1982. Crucially, he had moved back to the UK after 15 years, and had taught in or near the address on the electoral roll records.

Could his wife be my missing teacher? Would I look like a stalker if I emailed him? I decided to do so anyway and composed a note explaining who I was, what I did for a living, and that I had always wanted to say thank you. If he was married to my teacher, please would he pass on my email to her?

His reply confirmed that I had been successful. And then she emailed me herself. Given my views on not looking back, I was absurdly delighted to hear from her, and read the email aloud to my five school friends as we drank champagne in St Helier.

Unlike my former maths teacher, I don’t have an aerobatic rating and nor do I want one, but I did help fly us to Jersey and back. We came in on a visual approach over the sea in perfect sunshine, and left six hours later. In 2022 I plan to take us all for lunch in Grand Central Station, no doubt on a plane I cannot help to fly. Six go wild in NYC?

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com.

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