Monday, 17 January 2011

Tales from Argentina – The Headmistress

Mum died four years ago today.   She was 84 and like most people she was grateful for the good times and endured the hard, and she had plenty of both.   I think of her every day – I don’t need anniversaries – and today particularly I’ve been reviewing my lighter memories of her.  This is one of them.

I hope to recount more stories about her in the future on this blog, and about other subjects too.  Sometimes they’ve been told to me, or I’ve remembered them from younger days; and there will be others which I have found on Spanish language websites under the general heading of what I think of as Tales from Argentina.  So it’s fair to say that I’ll generally be re-telling someone else’s story in my own words, with acknowledgments at the end where applicable.  Not in this case though: this is from my own memory.

My mother was headmistress of the bilingual private school I attended between 1967 and 1971, St Andrews Scots School for Girls, Buenos Aires. As with most bilingual schools in Argentina, the day was divided squarely in half – in the morning all subjects were covered in the Spanish language, leading to a final baccalaureate in a dozen subjects; in the afternoon the studies in English led to O’levels.

To attempt to deliver a truly bilingual education the split in languages was enforced as strictly as possible. Woe betide anyone caught by any of the teachers, or – worse – by the Dragon herself, speaking Spanish in the afternoon. Order marks and conduct marks would be dished out like sweets.

Mum on the right, middle row
Me on the left, front row.
(The only one with non-skinny legs!)
(Sandy has pointed out in a comment that we're the only ones
not smiling... I'd never noticed!!)

Mum occupied this post for some 20 years or so, and unusually for Argentina, being fully qualified in both languages she headed both the morning and afternoon sessions.  When duties allowed she therefore haunted the corridors, keeping an eye on discipline and bringing someone up short for speaking Spanish when they shouldn’t, not having their long hair tied back properly or – gasp – wearing makeup.

Many of the schoolchildren who passed through the gates on her watch told me after her  death how this approach to discipline had helped them retain their knowledge of English; they remembered her ethics and her enforcement of respect towards their teachers and each other, and were at pains to tell me that they had passed these principles on to their own children.  I knew what they meant, and was comforted.

But Mum wasn’t averse to using unusual methods to achieve what she wanted, and on one occasion she used graphology – the study of handwriting. 

This quote from Wikipedia is how graphology is viewed today:

“Graphology has been controversial for more than a century. Although supporters point to the anecdotal evidence of thousands of positive testimonials as a reason to use it for personality evaluation, most empirical studies fail to show the validity claimed by its supporters.”

I don’t doubt that at the very least some characteristics must be detectable - my sister studied graphology at an evening class for a time and submitted samples of my left and right-handed handwriting, which look very different ...  (right hand top, left hand bottom)

...but the teacher saw through this straight away and announced this was the same person who had written it. 

The case in question was different.  The senior school was going through a phase of pilfering; pupils’ more interesting belongings were disappearing from their padlocked lockers in the mornings, and no amount of hectoring by the Head at morning assembly made the slightest difference.  As the irate parents beating a path to the headmistress’s door became a steady trickle, it prompted her to take action. 

Tía Susana was an aunt by marriage, a kindly, very wise old lady who had an unnervingly shrewd way of looking you up and down when you went to visit her.  It was done in a nice way, but was nevertheless a sharp appraisal.  She had studied graphology as a young woman, and had often been called upon to analyse handwriting.  On this occasion she offered to perform the service for free, so a project was set up whereby the 80 or so senior pupils were asked to write a couple of paragraphs about their views on the new dining-room.  They were not told why they were doing this (an important detail, according to Tía Susana) and to preserve anonymity they were given numbers, Mum being the only person who could match them up with the names.

Tía Susana produced a brief thumbnail sketch of a few words about each pupil – all positive - but highlighted on a separate list for Mum’s eyes only those who possibly had a latent instinct which could lead to such misdemeanours as pilfering.  Mum then handed out to each participant the slips of paper with their individual thumbnail sketches, explaining that she had been trying out a new idea.  There was much animated discussion at break-time on how accurate the graphologist had been, and I myself was pleased that she had said I was musical and that I had a well-developed instinct for communicating in the right way with a variety of people…

Of the 80 pupils, Mum was left with a shortlist of 6 names, from which she knew she could eliminate three because they were English–only speakers who did not attend school in the morning.  The remaining three were summoned one by one to her office for a lengthy chat.  She never told me what transpired at these meetings, but one of the three tearfully owned up.  Of wealthy parents, the child felt very left out because they gave her no pocket money, so she preferred to help herself (and no doubt there were other issues in the background we didn’t know about).  She did not know how to pick padlocks, but waited until someone had not put it back on properly.  She would snap the lock securely shut when she had taken what she wanted, so the pupil never knew that she had unwittingly assisted the thief.

A lucky strike?  Maybe this is just the “positive testimonial” referred to by Wikipedia above, or maybe there’s something to graphology.  It still remains to be proven either way.

This picture was with my mothers photographs,
and it says in my handwriting on the back
"This was after the limerick!"


Photo Finish:
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Chiva and Valencia in winter
The log fire at my parents' home

An orange grove at Christmas time

Valencia clock tower - one of many

Toy windmills on the sea front

A shop front - you could buy pictures,
shawls and mantillas

Back to the top:  Click HERE


tessierose said...

I love your posts, you are such a great writer. Your mom sounds like a strong amazing woman. This month is the anniversary of my mother's death as well, she would be 85 if she were alive. She's been dead 34 years, it hardly seams possible. I love remembering funny stories about my parents, maybe I'll do some blogging about those memories too. By the way, your legs were not fat, you look beautiful! Thanks for sharing your story!

Sandy Lee said...

Funny, but when I saw that photo of all the schoolgirls-it was just you and your mom who weren't smiling.

Interesting about graphology. I had never heard of it before.

Our loved ones live on in our memories even after death. It is how they can live forever. So good of you to record these memories. Glad you don't have to "write" it out which might reveal much more.

Joyful said...

Very interesting post. I've often wondered about graphology myself. I love your old photos too. How nice you have a lot of them when you want to reminisce. More importantly, how nice you actually view them and organize them.

Lonicera said...

Tessierose - how very sad for you to have lost your mother so young. Would love to read stories about your family - they're always the best...
Sandy you're right damnit!! Hadn't noticed. With me it was self-consciousness, with Mum it was because she took her role very seriously, she often looked solemn.
Thanks Joyful, I've got more stories in my head which I hope to write down soon.

By the way, I had forgotten to upload some pictures as Photo Finish, which I have now hastily put right.

Thank you for such positive comments...


Reddirt Woman said...

I, too, have always been curious about graphology. It speaks volumes about your mom being willing to go to any lengths to protect and care for her charges and, no doubt, she gave a little extra effort to find and understand her 'pilfering' child and do her job with sympathy for the little girl. I love the family stories and I think you looked great in your school photo. I cracked up when I read what your mom had put on the back of her laughing photo. Sounds as though she had a wicked sense of humor.

Thanks for this post! What a great memory.


Matvi. said...

Though solemn as she might have been at school, your mom surely must have been a very sweet lady, as shown in the first picture.

Zanna said...

Finally getting a chance to catch up with you. Actually before I read your comment about the legs I was thinking that they were the only ones with any shape - funny how we saw ourselves in relation to others - or sometimes quite sad really. And yes I did do my nails - but tickled pink that you remembered my routine!! I speak with a Scottish accent still - recently having had a refresher course!! Zxx

Shaggs said...

Love love loved that story!! I especially love the description of you possessing an "instinct" to speak to different people etc etc you certainly do have that! I love to hear wonderful stories of our passsed over loved ones it always seems to be more fitting than being sad and tearful - sending them love and joy from the wonderful memories of their lives seems so much more an expression of adoration than wallowing in our own selfish loss. And your PHOTOS!!! I just love them! I majored in Photography in a Visual Arts degree and never have I seen a more beautiful photo than the one of the toy windmills I LOVE it! It does things to me on another level thank you for sharing your words and your pictures they are a true joy!

Shaggs said...

Oh funny thing too - my husband is from Argentina and he speaks Spanish etc - I thought the two different types of handwriting you did - left and right handed - the top one looked like an English speakers writing as distinctly opposed to the bottom which looks classically argentinian spanish speakers writing to me!! freaky!

OneStonedCrow said...

Interesting story and great pics Caroline - I wonder, with the introduction of the keyboard and the subsequent decline in hand-writing, if graphology can still be used ... I'm acutely aware that my handwriting has deteriorated since I started using a keyboard ...

Tina said...

What a great post Caroline! I agree that instead of the only non-skinny I thought the only set of legs that were shapely.

You have excellent penmenship with either hand! Mine is horrible! You mother would have probably pulled me in for questioning :) or just to get after me to practice handwriting!

the pics are lovely too!


Lonicera said...

Helen - you're right of course, it would have been interesting to know how she dealt with it after she found the culprit. I vaguely remember that it was a young teenager, and that she would normally have called in the parents and discussed it with them, but in this case I regret I don't know what she did. I think it would have been best sorted out direct with the girl, but it's only my opinion.

Thank you Matvi... she was a teacher pupils always respected and never forgot, and she was wonderful at teaching history (she was just as conversant with British as with Argentine history) and Shakespeare. Strict but kind, and just as capable of standing up on the stage at assembly and by her presence silencing 600 noisy children. Gentle at times, but not sweet though, and when she was angry you could see people diving for cover...

Zanna - I was struck by how similar you and your sister are, right down to the haircut!

Shaggs - what a sweetheart you are, thank you. And what a surprise to learn your husband is from Argentina! There was I thinking he was Italian. Italian descent perhaps. So glad you like the pictures...

Graham you're right about people not writing any more. I love the act of writing, but realise I seldom do so.

Thanks Tina - must see what your handwriting is like some time!!


Lonicera said...

Shaggs - er - presumably you speak Spanish?????????????????

Shaggs said...

Hello again my love! (Hola mi amore???) I thought I had told you about my husband?? He was born in Rosario they're from native Gwananee (sic) heritage so they're true little brown/eskimo/mongolian looking people. My babies were even born with Mongolian stains on their bottoms!! My husband went back and forth as a child and now only a few of his family live in Australia and they also go back and forth all the time - would love too also one day just waiting for the right time I guess. I only know enough Spanish to make people think I can speak it and when they erupt into full blown conversation and not just pleasantries I of course fall apart. People do seem to be very convinced I have some sort of conversational ability because apparently I have a good accent but I'm a bit of a parrot - I just copy what I hear without really understanding. I can kind of follow a conversation but couldnt keep it going and writing it is a whole other story! The spelling seems so foreign to me! I do however know enough foul spanish to get me into trouble with the in laws! Your pics of Argentina are truly beautiful like an aged and faded beauty queen or silver screen actress! You truly do have a gift not just for words but for pictures too. Keep them coming! But for now ciao!

Lonicera said...

Hope you do get to travel to Argentina one day - there's so much to see. I'm not sure Rosario is at the top of my list for excitement (no offence meant, Shaggs' husband...) but go north, west or south and you'll fall in love with it.

I'm really enjoying writing stories (or re-telling them, I'm no Harry Potter writer, sadly) and have lots to put on the blog in the next few weeks.

Thanks Shaggs.


Vagabonde said...

What an interesting tale about graphology. Your mother was a very capable woman with an open mind. I can understand how you miss her. My mother died in December 2002 and it does not feel like such a long time ago – she is so alive in my mind. I like the picture of the old windows. I guess that is Buenos Aires? If I did not know I would think it is Cuba from pictures I have seen.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Vagabonde - the windows were taken in Valencia, Spain. The area around the port of Valencia is very run down, and you can see the beauty of the architecture behind the ugliness of decay, and I do hope they'll resolve that some day.

Michu said...

What a woman your mum was Caroline!! I'd forgotten this story. Perseverant, resourceful, courageous, determined. And che, saw how many people are reading your blog!! Over 6000!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Miss Florence said...

I loved reading this post... By the way, I was a pupil of your mother`s... A little younger than you... You have portrayed her soooo well!! I didn´t know about this story... But it sure tells who your mother was (as we say in Argentina, "la pinta de cuerpo entero!!!!) Thank you! Florence (St. A. graduate, 1978)

Lonicera said...

Florence - I've been trying to remember the pupils younger than me with your name...and the best I can come up with is a surname with 3 or 4 letters, no more... but I can't remember what it is of course... I've had a look at your blogs but there's no hint - though it's lovely to know you're a teacher too! Thank you for reading. In the future I'll have more stories from/about Mum.

Lonicera said...

Graduated 1978 - so it's possible I "taught" you singing with my guitar? You poor thing.

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