Impertinent inquisitors

Image of Susie Boyt

Sometimes, to make my children laugh, I describe the mad antics of the teachers I had at school. At the end of term we were not allowed to leave the classroom, I tell them, until we had all kissed our form mistress on the lips. She wore capacious corduroy pinafores in autumnal shades over William Morris print blouses. She stood at the door and there was just no getting round it. Sometimes, at low moments I suppose, she asked us to sing her, “You are the honey-honeysuckle, I am the bee.” And why not?

Eeeugh! The children shiver deliciously. Sometimes they feel so sorry for me growing up in the past.

The teachers liked to tell us things but they also took great pleasure in extracting from us the more embarrassing details of our lives. In fact, they seemed hell-bent on plaguing us with impertinent questions. Private by nature, with secrets I didn’t want known, this was a strain. Did the head of form somehow have an inkling I had a cousin who not only licked his plates but asked if he might lick ours too? Was she intent on winkling this confession out of me? How did she know?

“Write a story describing your house and everyone who lives there,” we were instructed. It was ever so tempting to paint a scene that would send teacher’s nosy eyes out on long stalks: the mad Transylvanian uncle got-up in opera cloaks; the headless knight who floated over the staircase at night, weeping ghoulishly for his lost love. As it was we had a lodger at this time, a 6ft 4in martial arts expert from Nigeria. Perfectly nice. I hadn’t given him much thought until his description made my teacher raise her brows. I was more impressed by how much he loved noodles.

“List everything you ate yesterday,” we were sometimes asked. What, everything? Was there a piece of paper big enough? After some thought I knew it would be politic to deduct a few biscuits.

Est-ce que ton père a grisonné?” the French teacher enquired of the whole class. Was she after a new husband? I tapped my nose as grandly as I knew how. It was one thing to ask us to reveal our secrets but I had been taught never to reveal anything about others. Did she not know the code?

Even at Girl Guides we were asked to catalogue the good deeds we had done, and most of the girls would begin: “Washed up, dried up, put away ... ” (I cannot think of a single 11-year-old today who could make this boast but maybe that is a good thing.) Occasionally, however, there were revelations from the girls in squishy blue hats and blue tunics that were rather unexpected: “Swept up when my mum went berserk smashing plates again.”

“How about another game of cod, salmon, shrimp?” our pack leader would call out cheerily, moving swiftly on.

This time of year, with Mother’s Day and Easter in the air, schools seem to encourage children to write love letters to their mothers. These are charming, poignant documents to be prized, of course, but perhaps a little too personal for some tastes. I wonder how the teachers would feel if the children wrote letters under their mothers’ close supervision, listing their instructors’ various attributes.

“You never, ever lie to me,” a friend’s eight-year-old son wrote in his performance appraisal of his mum. It was so deep. She tried to imagine scenarios in which she might have been especially frank in her dealings with him. She recalled one or two occasions when she’d been slightly economical with the truth.

“What made you write that?” she asked, more moved than she could possibly convey.

“Oh, Jimmy on my table put it, so we all put it.”

“You let me have pancakes whenever I want,” another friend’s daughter wrote. This is certainly true, in theory, her mother told me. But the funny thing is she doesn’t like pancakes one bit.

“You are the nisest mum in the yooniversaty,” a child I know well wrote of her ma, situating her parent squarely in interplanetary academe.

“If people get angry with you sometimes, it is because they are frustrated with you for being so perfect ... ” “Crikey! Where did that come from?”

Odd, heightened declarations, from the people you care most about, of things that aren’t necessarily true, have a strange kind of currency. Is it something to do with the difference between romance and love?

Perhaps there are tots in the land, serious and reserved souls, who will one day smile at their teachers, shake their heads and murmur with dignity, as Cordelia did, “I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth ... Sorry Miss.”

More columns at

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.