This article is an extract from a forthcoming book, The Long Game: The Lessons We Can Learn From Long-Serving Teachers, which will be published this summer. Constructive comments are welcome; they will help me make it a better book.
Doris Peate was not doing badly for an 87-year-old when I interviewed her in June 2015: she was remarkably alert and energetic, bustling about the staff kitchen. She had been working at Coopers’ Company and Coborn School in one capacity or another – mostly as a “dinner lady” or as a “mid-day” as she terms it -- for over forty years. As she prepares the cups of tea and coffee ready for the staff to arrive for their mid-morning break, she tells me about her life, having said beforehand she would help out with my book. Although technically not a teacher, she is treated as such by many of the staff, some of whom knew her when they were pupils at the school. The Head of Sixth Form, who used to attend the school during the 1990s, told me the students were more than a bit frightened of getting on the wrong side of her, although they knew, at heart, she was very kind. She speaks in an old fashioned Cockney accent, the like of which you don’t hear anymore, but it has been softened by time, using only the occasional dialect phrase such as “theirself”.
She tells me: I was born 1928 in East Ham. My father was a lorry driver, he worked on the airfields when the war came, and my mother didn’t go to work at the time. I didn’t live with my parents but lived with my grandmother until I was twelve, then I moved to Barking to be with my parents. When I was with my grandmother, I went to Napier Road School and after that Vicarage school. I’ve got two sisters who lived with my mother and father in Barking. I was born at my grandmother’s because my mother and father were trying to find somewhere to live elsewhere. They left me with my grandmother while they got theirself settled; by the time they had, my grandmother wanted to keep me! (laughs) She wasn’t working. So I stayed with her until I was twelve but that changed when the war came.
So yes, my grandmother was the closest person to me when I was young; I born there in East Ham, and all my friends were there. From quite an early age, about twelve, I was working. I worked at first in a grocer’s shop. This was during the time of rationing where you got coupons which you exchanged for various things. At the grocer’s shop, I used to have to count the coupons we took from the customers, then take them on the tram to Boleyn to exchange them for sugar. We were more grown up then, I suppose. I worked at the grocer’s from four o’clock every day until about six or seven, after school finished. Health and Safety wouldn’t let you work like that now. I used to get five shillings a week for doing that. As a treat, I used to buy a bottle of lemonade and some ice cream and then take them home to my grandmother’s. She liked the ice cream mixed inside the lemonade. You used to get cubes of ice cream in little wrappings, which you don’t get now, do you?
My grandmother’s husband was out in Iraq; he was an officer in the air force so he was out there. And then the war came. When I was twelve, I went back home because my father wanted me home with all of them because of the war, so then I went to school in Barking to Norbury and Gasgoigne school. I was only home in Barking for three months and I wanted to go back to my grandmother’s. I’d got used to her. It wasn’t because I didn’t like my parents; it was just that all my friends were in East Ham. So I went back. So I used to travel from East Ham to Barking on the tram (laughs at the difference from now) to go to school till I was fourteen. Finally, I went home to my mother. So I went to school there in Barking. And then when I was fourteen, I left school then. And then I went home to my parents then because my grandmother wanted me to go home to my mother. And I went to work in Eastlight, the firm that made all box files and paper; my parents wanted me to work there because it was nearer home. And the war was on, the bombs and all that, so I worked there in Barking. I helped general, whatever was going on, working in the warehouse. I liked school but I only had to go sometimes in the mornings or afternoon because of the war.
There are a number of things that strike me about Doris’s account. First, is her utter lack of bitterness about having grown up with her grandmother until she was twelve while her younger sisters lived with her parents. Second, it is how the war defined her life; again and again in my conversations with her, I was struck by how the war was a marker for her in her life. She moved in with her parents when the war started but then, after three months of feeling “homesick” for East Ham, she moved back because she missed her friends. It’s a measure of how close she felt to her grandmother that she would use her own wages to buy ice cream and lemonade for her; because treats like this were rare, they seemed to have extra value than they do now. Scarcity made sweets like ice cream and lemonade very special. Doris really appreciated her friends; she enjoyed being around them so much in East Ham that she wanted to move away from her parents to be with them. Doris lived, I think, in a more convivial age than ours for children; they were allowed to socialize on their own with their friends in the street and a strong bond was formed with them as a result. If there is a lesson here, it is that we need to give children as many opportunities as possible to form friendships.